So many of my clients come to me prompted by their intense dissatisfaction with their jobs, which is certainly not surprising. Dissatisfaction with the status quo is what leads people to seek change in any area of human endeavor, and that’s a good thing. But dissatisfaction, if left undisciplined, can be damaging both short and long-term (I’ll address the idea of “undisciplined dissatisfaction” in a moment). Short-term, of course, dissatisfaction is in and of itself unpleasant. How much better it would be to find fulfillment and enjoyment in one’s work. Longer term, dissatisfaction can lead to poor decision-making that will have consequences for many years to come.
The phenomenon I’m referring to is analogous to what can happen in a romantic breakup or a divorce: often the qualities of the partner that were most disliked lead people to seek the exact opposite in their next relationship. A girlfriend’s vivaciousness that was originally seen as enlivening comes to be seen as vapid, and the search begins for someone who is serious and “deep.” A husband whose devotion to his mother was first experienced by his spouse as demonstrating admirable qualities comes to be seen as weak and immature, a “momma’s boy,” so the next guy’s independence and self-reliance are really attractive. The problem is that, after a time, those opposite qualities can swing too far in the other direction, leading to dissatisfaction because there isn’t a trace of the originally appealing characteristics.
The same thing can happen with work – dissatisfaction with certain aspects of one’s job that were originally appealing can become so intense that the polar opposite aspects are sought. Any trace of the original dimensions of the job that were inviting (e.g. getting to travel for work, being responsible for completing a wide variety of tasks, a super high energy environment) are avoided. When this happens the pendulum has swung too far.
Now to the concept of “disciplined dissatisfaction.” I often write about the tendency of the mind to notice evidence supporting its already-formed point-of-view rather than evidence contradicting it, and in fact to focus on such evidence. I see this phenomenon at work with my clients in jobs they intensely dislike. They are so distressed by their work situation that they almost can’t help but notice new pieces of evidence that crop up to support their dislike. “Disciplined dissatisfaction” acknowledges that there are more than sufficient reasons to hate the situation one is in, but steps outside of that paradigm in the interests of improving the work experience for the moment. It accepts that the current situation is untenable, but decides to take contrary action and begin to pay attention to overlooked or minimized job activities that are not so bad. Not to encourage inaction, or to rebut the need to move on, but simply to enhance mood in the present.
Examples? Let’s say you have a boss who is a real snake, who micromanages you, a perfectionist, quick to criticize, and takes credit for ideas that are not hers. A real dream boss. I hear about such bosses several times a week from clients. Is there anything to learn from this boss? Might she be demonstrating political skills that you don’t have? Attention to detail that you could benefit from?
Or is the nature of your work tedious?: document review in a law firm, the need to attend to reams of minute in software programming, creating report after report for management at the World Bank. You will need to make an active, concerted effort to notice positive aspects of your work. Or to create positive meaning from tasks you had hitherto viewed as mechanical or superfluous. Easy to say, much harder to do. One method that often reveals hidden, positive aspects of a job is to actively contemplate the contribution your efforts are making to a larger whole: the documents you are reviewing at the law firm might help comprise a brief that would advance a legitimate grievance; the minute you’re dealing with in programming might contribute to an important DOD project, the World Bank reports could facilitate granting assistance that would benefit countless thousands. Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the three bricklayers. The first, asked why he was doing it, said “to support my family.” The second: “to earn enough money for a down payment on a house.” The third responded “I’m helping to build a cathedral.”
With this more holistic perspective you can perhaps take greater interest and pride in the work you’re doing to support something that will ultimately benefit others. And to the degree you can implement this shift in perspective, you may well begin to notice other positive elements of your job. It takes real effort to shift your point-of-view, even temporarily, but isn’t it worth at least giving it a try? You might find your current employment situation more bearable, and avoid an overreaction that could lead you to the wrong next gig.