No, you don’t always need to get a job as soon as possible

mm Russ Finkelstein

When people talk about their work they most often say that they fell into what they are doing now. If their working life were a car, they hopped in, started driving and made decisions about where to go with limited information, just ending up somewhere.

Now they’re low on gas, and aren’t sure about which way to turn next. I’ve been there in my career too. Eventually, I realized where I wanted to go, but it was as much by luck as judgment.

My time is now consumed by talking to people about their work. It isn’t just assisting in the founding of new entities like Idealist or Talent Philanthropy; or career coaching for companies, fellowship programs or conferences. I’m the guy on cross-country flights and at parties talking to people about what they do, and I am also the guy who says, often: “It sounds like you don’t know what you want.”

It isn’t hard to find conversation partners, because 75% of Americans feel stuck in their jobs and deeply uncertain about how to move on. There is a voice that tells you you’re the only person struggling with feelings of being stuck, and that it’s your fault, because you suck, and that life is hopeless, and you’re really all alone. I know that voice all too well.

First, know that it’s not all your fault. We live in a culture where work is supposed to be awful. The dominant voice in American culture says, essentially, that work is supposed to suck, and you need to suck it up.

I met my partner in his ninth year at an awful job. He would come home from work raging about awful management, and how he had to get out of there. He was told: “you can leave, but everyone who leaves ends up coming back and gets paid less, because they no longer have seniority.” His parents would say: “If you’re getting a salary and insurance, you should stay there.”

The message is often clear: “You are miserable, but lucky to have this job.”

Let’s revisit this “car is stuck” idea. You are in a lousy location, but you do have the ability to move again.

I am talking with you from the passenger seat: You need to take a break and decide on a destination. Nobody else can take the wheel and drive for you. Many opt for cruise control, but detachment isn’t a long-term solution.

We live in a culture where we don’t discuss most things and have a pervasive pressure to appear successful and not discuss workplace dissatisfaction. In fact, most people haven’t even spent the time to consider and capture why they’re lost, or what’s making them unhappy. They tweak their resume, put on a blindfold, and play job roulette, hoping that the next destination will be better.

I believe in you, but I also think that you have work to do. You need to unpack the reasons you’re dissatisfied with your job. Not a quick reason for being unhappy, like a boss or the management. Often, when you really unpack your dissatisfaction, other more crucial elements arise.

It might be that you’re not doing things that matter to you, that you don’t feel anybody is invested in you. Or you might be doing a task that you actually enjoy. Perhaps you’re a writer, for example, or you’re engaged in talking with people on a daily basis, but you’re working on an issue that you really don’t care about.

The first thing to do is to take the time to pinpoint exactly what’s wrong, so that you can take constructive steps to come up with the right coordinates. Seeing what’s so obviously wrong can be the first step to getting to what’s right and knowing more precisely where it is you’re going.

Remember that figuring out your destination requires some initial energy, and this can feel harder given all the energy you’re also expending being unhappy. However, once you get moving on a hopeful path your focus shifts from what makes you unhappy now to solving the mystery of what will be fulfilling next. This can make some uneasy, but I remind people that it’s better to feel anxious about future possibilities than despairing about the present.

No matter how stuck you think you are, remember:

  1. You aren’t the only one struggling.
  2. You deserve better and you can have better.
  3. To improve on your current situation, spend the time to dig in on what’s wrong.
  4. Begin to understand the coordinates for what’s right.

You’re one of many stuck at work. But it’s not that hopeless, truly. And while there’s comfort in being part of a majority, it’s safe to say you’ll be better off leaving the 75% of Americans who feel stuck.

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >