Why Your Career Might Not Be The Problem


I have been coaching for over 13 years now, and I’ve been working one to one with individuals wanting to change an aspect of their life for around 20 years. I’ve also read A LOT of personal development books, and I’ve had various bouts of therapy and counselling across my adult life, too.

Whilst I don’t pretend to know it all, from these experiences, over the last couple of years, I have started to see a handful of clear patterns emerging when it comes to understanding what us humans do to make ourselves suffer more than we need to.

Sometimes, I have Introductory Sessions with individuals, and it becomes apparent that, actually, it might not be their career that’s the problem after all. When we have embedded thought patterns, beliefs, and expectations that are unhelpful (but difficult to spot from the inside), often, we take these with us wherever we go, which means that, whatever we change externally (e.g. our careers), we still don’t feel any happier. Yet, we wonder why, and continue to keep changing things on the outside, in the hope that we will eventually feel happier on the inside. Not always the case, unfortunately.

In this article, I’ve outlined five of the main habits that seem (to me, anyway) to get in the way of our own happiness. If you can spot any of them in you, then it might be worth asking whether changing career is really going to solve some of the problems that you’re currently facing. It may be wise to turn the focus inwards first, and work on the below to begin with. If your career continues to present issues, then, yes, it may well be your career that's the problem.

1. You look externally for things to make you happy.

Does the following sound familiar? “I’ll be happy when…[I get a new job, a bigger house, a new partner, get married, have children, more money, nicer clothes, etc]” We all do it, to a degree. We can be suffering inside (for a multitude of reasons), yet we look to change things externally in the hope that we somehow feel better internally. Sometimes we do temporarily, but, before we know it, the novelty of the change or shiny new item has worn off, and the difficult feelings start to return. What do we then do? We repeat the cycle in search of that hit of happiness once again.

The solution? Ask yourself deeper questions about where your unhappiness is really stemming from. For most of my clients, changing their career really is the answer, but it’s worth just taking a moment to double check if you’re looking for it to solve deeper internal issues it doesn’t necessarily relate to.

2. You think life should be easy, and question everything when it’s not.

Sometimes I catch myself dreaming of a career change. Over the years, I’ve started to notice that these thoughts come when I’m finding my work hard for some reason. It might be the loneliness of being self-employed, finding a client challenging to work with, or my bank account slowly depleting because it’s a quiet month. Whatever it is, when life is feeling hard, I end up wanting to jack it all in. I’ve since learnt from therapy that my coping style when I’m finding things tough is to want to run a mile and just escape from whatever situation I believe is the issue. However, what I’ve realised is that there really isn’t much point running away from a hard situation, thinking life will be easier elsewhere, because another set of challenges and tough situations will no doubt pop up somewhere else. Before you know it, you’re running all over the place in search of a so-called easy life (which simply doesn't exist), trying to avoid life’s challenges along the way.

The solution? This can be feel harsh, but try to accept that life generally is hard. It’s full of highs and lows - that’s what makes up the experience of being human. We can’t assume that if we change a situation, life will somehow suddenly become a breeze. I’ve met clients, who actually really enjoy their work, contemplating a complete career change, because their current role is incredibly stressful. In this instance, completely changing their career may not be the answer. Perhaps stress management coaching, or burnout therapy may help, along with a change of organisation where the workload is a little less demanding, if their current employer won’t change anything where they are. We don’t always need to throw the baby out with the bath water.

3. You think you have to matter in order to be important.

I hear a fair few clients contemplating a complete career change because, ultimately, they don’t feel seen, appreciated, or recognised in what they do by colleagues or bosses. They don’t feel they matter. They don’t feel important. This is a tough one to unpick. I firmly believe we all matter, we are all valuable, and we are all worthy of existing, whatever those around us think. But, we can get caught up in trying to prove we matter to others. We want things to change so we can feel more important. We want to be somebody. This doesn’t always lead to happiness though, because, often this need is deep rooted in low self-esteem. We secretly believe we don’t matter, that we’re unworthy, and just not good enough. If only we could prove we’re good enough, all our problems would be solved…right?!

The solution? It can be quite freeing to remember that we all exist on a tiny planet in the middle of absolutely nowhere. In a way, no one really matters, and, at the same time, we all matter - the plants, the animals, everything magically exists and matters, yet with no seemingly major purpose or reason. In the grand scheme of things, our life span is just a tiny fraction of time in relation to the world’s billion year timeline. Therefore, of course, it’s highly advisable to make the most out of the short time you have on this planet, but don’t let your ego tell you that you must prove yourself and make yourself matter more than you need to. You already matter, simply by existing.

You don't need to change career just to prove your worth to yourself, or anyone else. It’s OK if your life doesn’t change the world. It’s OK if none notices the work you do (as long as you do, and it matters to you in someway). It’s OK if you’re a small cog in a big machine (as long as that big machine does something you yourself value and believe in). We are all 'small cogs’ really, if you think about it. You don’t have to be seen in order to feel valuable, and to matter in your own mind. Don’t let your ego or anyone else tell you otherwise.

4. Your whole identity is wrapped up in your career choice.

Tied to the above, and the need to matter, our egos also make us think that everything we do and say, and what other people think, says something truthful about us. We tie up our identities with everything we do and say, and label other people in the same way, too.

However, our identities are really just stories and narratives we attach to in order to try and make sense of the unpredictable and chaotic world we live in. Our brains love labels and to categorise people and experiences as a way of protecting us and preparing us, should we encounter someone or something similar in the future. These predictions are not always correct though, and a lot of these mental processes are based on stereotypes and assumptions. And, yet, we buy into some professions holding more status than others. We write some careers off because we think people will look down on us. We think by having one type of career, we’re somehow better than someone else who gets paid less. We do the same with material items, too - designer handbags, clothes, expensive cars, big houses - we think these things make us more important or somehow ‘better’ than other people. It all seems a bit illogical and ridiculous when you really think about it. Nothing is really that personal or subjective.

The solution? Remember that just because someone does something, or says something, it does not define who you are. It does not define the whole person. You can be one thing one day, and do something else the next day, and you’re still the same person underneath. What you do career wise doesn’t really change that. What other people do career wise doesn’t define them either. We need to like who we are away from what we do as a job, if there’s any chance of being happy.

5. You think you have no choice.

So often, we tell ourselves stories about our situation. We get stuck in a victim mode of thinking, where we feel we don’t have any options or choices. We relinquish the control we actually have to make decisions and change things if we want to. It takes courage to face the consequences and ramifications of such choices though. That’s the bit we tend to avoid. Going back to the point made earlier about our assumption that life should be easy, this is why you feel stuck. The decisions you have in front of you, those that give you the choice to change, are not easy ones. But the key is to realise that they are there, and you are making an active decision to stay where you are - and that’s OK, but it doesn’t mean you’re stuck and have no choice. You are making a choice - to stay where you are. And that might mean your career per se isn't the problem; it's just the way you're viewing your options and general situation.

The solution? Give yourself back the agency you actually have. Remind yourself that you can make decisions, that you have options, and that you do have choices. Back yourself to cope, manage, and deal with the consequences of some of the decisions and actions you need to take. Plan ahead, if needs be, to ensure that you can manage the outcomes where you need to. You are not stuck where you are. You do have choices when it comes to your career.

Alice Stapleton

About Alice

Alice coaches those who want to change career but don’t know what they want to do instead. She offers Career Coaching designed to help graduates, early to mid-level career-changers, and parents returning to work gain a clear vision of what career is right for them, and how to achieve it. She is also an accredited Coach Supervisor, and host of The Career Change Diaries podcast.