4 Reasons You Can’t Find a Job You Like

mm Russ Finkelstein

Pssst. I don’t know if you heard the big career secret, but most Americans are unhappy at work. In fact, 75 percent of us would prefer to be in other jobs.

When I’m first meeting with a coaching client I ask them to share more about the path that led to the job they have now and then what eventually made them decide to reach out to me. Invariably the answer to that first question is “I fell into this” and to the second, “I don’t know how to determine what I do next.”

Very often in that scenario, people want to find something else. But often, they jump straight into looking for other jobs, and do very little of the essential work to figure out the root cause of their unhappiness in the first place. They figure that anything else will be better and I have seen far too many instances where someone has traded down. And, their desire to not be a job hopper or the exhaustion that comes with the search, meant additional pressure not to leave that next position quickly.

Falling in is passive and without intention. Think about those terms – passive and without intention. Are these attributes that connote success? You know that you have to put in effort to find the right work.

Now maybe what you are telling me is that you’re doing the work and coming up empty. If that is so, here are some important things to consider, when you’re asking yourself, “Why aren’t I finding any jobs that interest me?”

  1. Do you know what you want?

Meet Loretta. She’s been looking steadily for months to pivot out of her sales job. She’s been in her job for a few years and knows it is no longer satisfying to her, if in fact it ever was. She spends time each day reviewing job postings, and yet nothing quite seems to capture her attention.

  • Her mind races from opportunity to opportunity. Nothing is quite right.
  • She hasn’t organized her thoughts and put them down in written form.
  • She hasn’t prioritized what she wants.

Her criteria tend to change a lot from day to day. One day she wants a lot of prestige. The next day she wants to make a difference on social issues and doesn’t care about public recognition.

Get back, Loretta!  

She’s unhappy at work and like most people, has a vague list in her mind of dozens of things she’d want next. In coaching land I would usually spend time going over wants and needs. The problem when you have an inexact set of priorities is that at best you hamper the ability of others to help you and at worst you annoy them because they give you advice on Tuesday and then you return on Sunday with a new set of priorities. So your conversations with them about what you might like to do end up being scattered and it impedes their ability to make useful connections and offer strategic advice.

Now, often as you get older, too, you will get more realistic about the order of your priorities in part because you have a set of demands beyond you that need to be met (i.e. children, mortgage), and also, more professional experience that upon careful reflection you will realize can direct the choices that you make. However, it can also make you fearful to have stated criteria beyond just getting a paycheck. Remember the rule, much like dating: The person who will go out with anybody is all too often not wanted by anyone. You have to know what you want and own your value.

The one thing I’ll guarantee about Loretta is that she won’t find the thing she wants to do if she doesn’t get out and start having conversations and being more intentional about her search. She needs to put more effort into gaining clarity, and less into just looking at opportunities, at this point.

  1. Have you set up realistic expectations?

I want you to meet JoJo. JoJo is currently working as an Operations Manager for an investment firm. After the birth of his two children, ages three and four, he’s reengaged with his love for art. He studied it in college, and has been taking the kids to art classes and museums on the weekends. He has an epiphany. He wants a position where he can offer art therapy to children, and is willing to take a pay cut to $150k a year.

  • He has a vague notion of his ideal.
  • He hasn’t done the work to figure out realistic parameters.
  • What he wants doesn’t exist and he needs to pivot or waste time.

Some people are unrealistic about the specific qualifications required to work in a given field. Others are in the wrong geographic area to pursue the kind of work they’re interested in.

When someone is being unrealistic, I will often say that to my knowledge their criteria may result in zero or very few opportunities and that they need to engage others to see if there are indeed more openings. I also encourage them to break down and rank the component parts of what they want. If their salary requirements are really set in the region where JoJo is looking, then it’s important to consider whether given his skill set, connections and lifestyle needs, an entrepreneurial start-up in the art therapy space might eventually deliver that kind of salary, over the longer term. But this is not a move JoJo can make overnight. And it might involve a lot more risk than he wants to take.

If no one is seeking to hire in an area that intrigues you, that is something you could have predicted by doing a bit of research and having a few conversations. You are better off not wasting six months being frustrated seeking the rarest of positions, and instead, increasing your pool of possibilities.

You might also want to look at why you need to earn $150k. Can you move? Do you live in the Bay Area, for example? Have you thought about moving somewhere cheaper? Portland, Oregon is quite nice, if you can stand the rain and the peer pressure to wear skinny jeans. Sorry, I mean, if JoJo can stand the rain. We’re talking about JoJo. Not you, or me. Obvs.

The point is, if you’re being unrealistic, look at where and why. I also encourage people not to do this kind of work on their own. You need to do it with someone who can challenge how realistic you’re being — trusted friend or professional colleagues can do. Choose someone where you can have an honest conversation, you respect their perspective and the relationship doesn’t have too much baggage so you hear their words and not your past.

  1. Are you looking in the wrong places, in the wrong ways?

You simply must make the acquaintance of Molly. She spends her time trolling a small number of websites and refreshing frequently to apply to new listings as soon as they show up. She is a bit like someone spending all of their time in front of a slot machine in that she has found a simple, low percentage activity to dedicate all of her time to.

  • Molly spends loads of her time online reviewing job posting sites.
  • Molly looks at the most general level, not at specialty job sites where the kinds of opportunities she wants might exist.
  • Molly only looks online.
  • Molly doesn’t really talk to people about her job search.

Looking at jobs online is a rabbit hole kind of activity, and it’s unlikely to yield the kind of fruit we’re looking for. Rather, I see you getting lemons, very sour lemons, mostly. A fair amount of opportunities are listed online, but sometimes the posting by the employer is perfunctory and you decrease your odds significantly if you only look there.

The truth is Molly, I mean, you, can’t spend time online only. The thing about applying endlessly online is it is easy in some respects, chiefly there is no human contact, you can feel like you did something and there is a vague notion that it could lead somewhere. However, you know or you should know that every time you apply that the odds are not in your favor. You need to reach beyond your screen, beyond your immediate network and beyond your comfort zone for potential opportunities. It takes work.

  1. Are you ready to look for work?

Meet Desmond. He has been in the same job for seven years, and the last few have been really rough, and taken a toll.

Life goes on, but his job has remained the same and grinded him into a very tired and unhappy pulp.

  • Desmond is exhausted.
  • He isn’t in a place where he has the capacity to think or look for work.
  • He needs some time or a plan to recover.

Sometimes, what you need to do is to give yourself the space you need, emotionally, where you’re ready to look. You need a vacation! Maybe you need to speak with a therapist or see a doctor? Perhaps it is time to revisit with your hobbies. All too often what we do is feel exhausted and beat ourselves up for being exhausted.

Sometimes the best thing you can do is give yourself some time and permission to take it easy for a while as you recalibrate. It may be that you have the resources to resign your job and take some short-term, lower-stress work to get out of a situation that isn’t working. When your brain is fried from overwork, it gets difficult to focus on what matters. So, instead of changing everything up, book a trip. Lie on a beach. And be ready to do some clarity-seeking on your return.

There is nothing earth-shaking in this revelation, but looking for work can be really stressful. This is why I urge people to try to do it when they’re at their best. Of course, work can often be a cause of stress in the first place, so it’s easy to get burned out in that vicious cycle of being stressed, and needing a different job, and being stressed about it. I don’t mean to be flippant, either. Life is hard. Just know that you’re not alone and that plenty of other people have been in the same boat as you are.

I adhere to my foundational belief that the search for a job and the search for a romantic partner are very similar. If you had a friend coming out of an emotionally destructive relationship, all of these tips would apply. Something wonderful is ahead for you, just remember to proceed carefully because I don’t want you coming back to read the same piece in a year.  

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 >