The two sides of a career coin
Career happiness and satisfaction isn’t the same thing and why listening to your gut is important
This week, as I join the throngs of people who are unemployed, down to their last $10 in the bank & living off some savings, while filing for unemployment and patiently waiting for a response from the state as well as many job applications, I’ve had time to really reflect on my situation and how I got here.
First, let me backtrack to 2009.
As a newly minted college graduate, I was full of hopes, dreams and delusions. I was fortunate enough to have gotten a job right after graduation for a small company in town where I progressed from being an intern to regular employee, only to be laid off several months later due to the Great Recession.
But that was hardly the tip of the iceberg. Following my layoff, I discovered that I wasn’t qualified for unemployment benefits due to the fact that I was a student employee the previous year. Then I did my taxes (first time as a married couple) only to discover that we owed more money than we had in the bank. Thus, within a month I took a job at a local clinic doing administrative work, where I lasted for a year.
What I remember most from this time was the feeling of shame. Shame that I had to take a job that only paid 40 cents above minimum wage, shame that I didn’t have family members to rely on financially, shame that I couldn’t figure out what I wanted to do in life. I remember running into an old classmate of mine and discovering that she was a nurse at the clinic I worked at.
I went home that night crying (the first of many), because there she was — the same age as I, doing what I considered to be an “important” job — working with patients, whereas I, also a college graduate, was filing, answering phones, and bringing files to doctors and cleaning, physically exerting myself every day while under the watchful eye of a fellow coworker who reported every single indiscretion she observed, no matter how small, to my manager.
This particular experience shaped the way I think about careers, jobs, and money for the next decade.
Fast forward to 2018 — I had enough experience in a particular field (accounting) to attract a local engineering firm. At the time, I was working at my alma mater — the university I loved as a student. Despite the excellent benefits, the pay was low.
Thus, when this engineering firm offered me a position rather quickly, and with a salary that was $6 more per hour than I was making, I took it. This was my golden ticket, I thought.
In the eyes of my family, friends and colleagues, I was going somewhere. I felt privileged to be there. I was no longer the girl who felt shame at running into an old friend. I felt like I had made it, somehow.
However, I was surprised to discover during my first three months at the firm that it didn’t feel right to be there. This was not the impostor syndrome that many people have talked about — this was more along the lines of cultural fit.
My instinct told me that I didn’t quite fit in, but I didn’t listen. Instead, I trooped on, thinking that I could make it work, that this was a great opportunity to develop my skills further. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.
Which is how I found myself on the phone with my boss several weeks ago, who informed me that they were letting me go.
It was painful at first, like a stabbing in the heart. Quick, sudden, with no prior warning.
Now that I’ve had time to reflect on my experience with this company, I realized that career happiness and satisfaction isn’t the same thing. The money made me happy, but it didn’t satisfy me personally. Despite the low wages, my experience at the university was, in many ways, a wonderful experience, not only because my personal values aligned with the organization’s but also because of the relationships I cultivated while I was there.
I realized that amidst all the privilege-seeking, I lost sight of what really matters — to think beyond the external factors, such as salary, when considering yourself for a job.
For many years, I struggled with feelings of low self-worth, due to the low wages I was making. But the reality is — an increase in income do not increase feelings of happiness, according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the psychologist best known for his theory on “flow,” stated in his Ted Talk. Flow, he says, occurs when one is so connected with what they’re doing so much that time passes by quickly, and external factors such as money and status do not apply. It’s a state that can only be achieved if one is doing work that energizes them and challenges them.
I have yet to achieve this particular state of flow, but now I am more aware of myself and what I’m passionate about, and the environment that suits me best. It’s a lesson that took me over a decade to learn, and yet it’s the most valuable thus far. Not to say that money doesn’t matter, but rather it is a secondary consideration in an ever-changing, fast-paced world where relationships matter even more.