But change will only happen if you take action

By Kimberly Burris

As a talent and organizational assessment/coaching consultant, there are two questions I am asked constantly by friends, family, and people I meet at cocktail parties: 1) What can I do to prepare for an upcoming interview, and 2) What can I do about the fact that I am unhappy in my current job?

To be honest, there’s not much I can ever do about the first question. Yes, I can provide some general do’s and don’ts, but so much of an interview is dependent on the person conducting the interview that it’s virtually impossible to prepare for every situation.

As for the second question, I first tell them that they are not alone. So many people are unhappy in their jobs that it seems to be the natural state of things. For example, a recent Gallup poll found that 51 percent of Americans are not engaged at work. Another 16 percent are “actively disengaged,” meaning that they resent their jobs, gripe to co-workers, and drag down office morale.

Loving a job seems so rare these days that when we meet people who are truly passionate about their work, we barrage them with questions to test their claims and/or discover the secret to their workplace happiness. What the inquisition typically uncovers is that the person loves what he or she is doing and has a great employer, which is equally important.

If you don’t have a great employer, it doesn’t matter how much you love the work you are doing. More and more companies are understanding the importance of creating a great culture, empowering employees, and focusing on engagement. But if you are not working for one of these companies, you are wasting your time waiting around for your company to enact the necessary changes to become the workplace you want it to be.

Every situation is different and every person has different pain points. For some, it is the overarching culture of the organization. For others, such as my ex-husband, it is the dynamic between a colleague or supervisor. Like my ex, with whom I remain friends, most people try to “stick it out.” Yet, like my ex, these individuals frequently have the same complaints year after year.

It’s not always the employer. My own circuitous career journey is a testament to this fact. After studying ethics, political science, and economics in college, I ended up in finance, working for the investment bank where I interned the previous summer. The work was challenging, my managers were tough, but fair, and the opportunities for advancement were ample. I definitely strived to do my best work and I am sure that I appeared to be thoroughly engaged. But I was not, and it had nothing to do with the employer, its culture, the perks, or knowing that I was an important and valued part of the organization. I was disengaged simply because I was not passionate about the work I was doing.

Many people get caught up on titles and money, but do not underestimate the power of being passionate about your work. Not only was I unhappy, which sometimes resulted in nighttime bouts of crying, I was also exhausted. Exhausted from the heavy, yet unfulfilling workload, and exhausted from maintaining this happy, hard worker façade with my co-workers, manager, and myself.

Something had to change.

Make no mistake, change is hard. Most people have trouble even recognizing or admitting that a change is needed. For some, the signs are obvious. Crying at the office or at home as a result of job-related stress is not unusual. Nor, is it common only among women. For others, the signs of job unhappiness may be a general malaise when it comes to one’s job. Complaining about a job is not unusual, even in jobs we love. But when you are making the same complaints week after week and month after month, perhaps it is indicative of a larger problem.

Change can also be slow. It took me 10 years to get off the wrong path and onto one that was better suited for my passion. That passion ended up being organizational psychology. But, I couldn’t just jump straight into that field. It required going back to business school and then pursuing a PhD, all while continuing to work.

Even after I found an occupation I was passionate about, the pieces of my career puzzle did not fully come together for a couple more years, until I landed with Green Peak Partners. Not only was the culture very attractive, but the firm’s hyper-focus on connecting and helping companies from senior leaders on down appealed to my need to help individuals and organizations uncover and reach their true potential.

So even for those who have come to the important realization that they are unhappy with their job and/or employer, the biggest obstacle is actually making a change. Of course, it is not the change itself that is so scary. Instead, it’s the fear of failing, change not leading to happiness, or simply not knowing the possible outcome of the change. This fear can be paralyzing and keep us from leaving our safe harbor and sailing into unknown waters for unmapped lands.

But even the most daunting high seas journey does not start with simply pulling up the anchor and casting off blindly into open waters. It starts with a lot of planning and small, manageable steps. And that is exactly what is required in early- to mid-career changes: planning, followed by small steps. But, taking those steps is essential. The only way to get unstuck is to take action.

The first step, for some, is discovering where your passions lie and identifying your fundamental skill sets. This requires digging deeper than the titles and skills outlined on the typical resume. Give some thought as to what you do, day in and day out. How would you break down your daily tasks to their fundamental elements?

For me, it wasn’t enough to say “I am good at solving complex problems.” To understand and, therefore, have the ability to explain my passions and strengths to people who might hire me, I had to go a step further by saying, “I am good at solving complex problems by applying a high level of analysis, thought, and interpersonal sensitivity.”

There are several tools out there that can help identify your core skill sets, such as Gallup’s CliftonStrengths assessment. By utilizing this, one’s opportunities become much broader than  focusing on specific job titles or narrow skill sets based on experience.

After spending some time identifying your strengths, give thought to the things you like to do. What are the things you don’t enjoy in your current job? What are your interests and hobbies outside of work?

Once you identify your strengths and passions, it is far easier to seek jobs that will align with them. And what most people find, is a far broader field of opportunity, because they are no longer isolated by job title, industry, or previous experience. Having a deeper pool of opportunities will help you find the best fit; one that will actually utilize and further exercise your broader skill set, as opposed to a job focused on niche expertise.

When weighing opportunities, be sure to also consider your long-term goals. If career advancement is important to you, certain organizations simply will not be a good fit, no matter how attractive the culture might be. Professional services firms, such as law firms, advertising agencies, accounting firms, etc., tend to have flat organizational charts, so movement tends to be lateral instead of upward.

Most importantly, do not abandon the journey to a better, happier career because it is taking too long. Change is slow. Those self-evaluation muscles required to identify your strengths and passions are often underdeveloped, particularly among early- to mid-career professionals. Most people at these stages in their career are following directions, being reviewed by managers, and given very specific skills to hone.

But like every other skill, self-evaluation is one that needs to be practiced on a regular basis. If for no other reason, the ability to identify and understand your strengths and passions will help you more quickly recognize when you are in a job or with a company that does not align with your core values.

Finding a connection with one’s work and caring about what you do is essential to happiness in your career and your life in general. Be cognizant of the warning signs that it is time for a change. And, most importantly, take action to make that change occur.