If you are unhappy or dissatisfied with the work you do, you are working by default.
Jobs in the 21st century can be summed up into two distinct camps: work by default, and work on purpose.
Work by default (WBD) is by far the most common, and is characterized by the absence of passion, purpose, and pride in one’s work. Monday mornings (and most workdays) are dreaded, days are counted down until vacation, and hopes and dreams are set aside in favor of the next raise or promotion.
In the other camp, far too empty in this crowded labor market, is work on purpose (WOP). Fulfilling, meaningful work, by definition, is done on purpose, with purpose, and for a purpose one believes in. Not by default. Monday mornings are anticipated (or at least not dreaded), workdays are seen as an opportunity for self-expression, time flies, and hopes and dreams are in unison with the job itself.
I know this to be true because I’ve battled every single day for the last 14 years to find fulfillment and meaning in my work, to no avail. Why is that? Because I never questioned why I worked at the jobs I did. I just knew I had to. The jobs I’ve held were always for two things: money (we all have to pay the bills) and status (how could I turn down the GM position at a brand-new restaurant?). And if you’ve read “Why I Quit a Six-Figure Existence,” you know my stance on this. I can honestly say that I’ve never felt truly happy at any of the jobs I’ve held. But I have never given up searching.
The source of almost all work-related unhappiness is the tendency for people to give up searching. My goal in this essay is not to get you to quit your job and work for yourself (although that is the most direct way), but to provide a pathway and a new way of thinking for those who would like to find work satisfaction through employment, without the stress and uncertainty of striking out on their own.
The First Job
On July 10, 2006, I went to work for the very first time in my life, at a supermarket in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. I was 15, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and ready to push those carts and bag those groceries! At that age, $7.00/hour was an amazing thing! All I had to do was work 18 hours a week, and I would get ONE HUNDRED DOLLARS (after taxes). I was hooked.
We’ve all heard some form of the idea that your first job builds character and work ethic. The great thing about those jobs is that they all suck. These are the types of jobs that teach you the value of hard work, time management, and consistently showing up on time. These types of jobs teach us how to be responsible adults.
The horrible thing about first jobs is that they instill in us a limiting mindset. We are groomed in the punch a clock, trade your time for a predetermined, often arbitrary, amount of money, fall in line or else mentality. Our standards are socially and systematically lowered from an early age. If not checked at the door, this mentality becomes a default mindset, forcing us into long-term career paths we are not meant for, at the expense of our enjoyment, creativity, and our full human potential.
The Problem: The Default Path
As a student at Villanova University, a small private university just outside of Philadelphia, I began to notice something peculiar. I already knew I was a fish out of water: besides the fact that I was a horrible student in my first two years (~2.1 GPA), I wasn’t rich, I didn’t go to prep school, my “education” wasn’t paid for by mommy and daddy, and I didn’t wear pink Vineyard Vines shorts with a matching polo.
What was the one thing, above all, that solidified my fish-out-of-water status? I wasn’t in line for a consulting job in New York or Washington. I began to notice that the overachievers, the best students, the “successful” among us were being herded like sheep into high-paying, cookie-cutter, replaceable jobs. These kids were unconsciously stunting their growth by entering a career that would eventually crush their soul just as the afterglow of graduation subsided. And for what? For the money, and for external approval. All the while, the underachievers like me were left free to roam, to find a path more suitable for them.
Digression: The Gervais Principle Applied
If you are a huge fan of The Office, thank me later. My peculiar experience in college reminds me of a series of articles by Venkatesh Rao called the Gervais Principle, based on the management theory depicted in the show The Office. Rao explains that the overachievers among us (Dwight Schrute) are guaranteed a life of middle-management mediocrity, while the underachievers (Ryan Howard) are put on a fast track to senior management. Sure, The Office is a fictional show, but when you see the Gervais Principle applied in real life, it hits you like a ton of bricks.
Don’t Aim for the Bottleneck
Imagine an eight-lane highway being forced to merge into one toll booth. Or imagine 80,000 fans entering a football stadium through one turnstile. If you ever found yourself in either of those situations, you would be livid! That, plus a few million, is what looking for the highest paying job looks like, especially straight out of college. So why do most people subject themselves to such a depressing set of circumstances when it comes to finding work?
If people could physically see the amount of competition they are up against, they would immediately back away and find a new path. Just like if people could physically see the Coronavirus, they might take it seriously (but that is a discussion for another day). Tangibility plays largely in human psychology. If you see the tiger, you are wired to run. The goal for us in the 21st century is to step outside that evolutionary box and think about finding meaningful work in a different way.
Scrolling through Indeed all day, going to the career center on campus every day, stressing over every word on your resume (which will be thrown into a pile with everyone else’s), and going to forced and buttoned-up “networking” events are among the hallmarks of the WBD path. These are among the most inefficient behaviors, yet the vast majority continue to do them. You might have a 5% chance of finding a job you want in the conventional way. And if you do, your chances of actually doing work that resonates with you are even slimmer.
The hopelessness of this path inevitably leads to people giving up and settling for work by default. When you commit to the WBD path, you commit to a traffic jam full of WBDers waiting in line for mismatched and unfulfilling jobs. You give up the path for your ideal job early on, and instead, default to jobs based on money, position, or necessity. Happiness and meaning are shallow and fleeting on this path.
Examples of WBD are not identified in terms of specific jobs, but rather how specific jobs match up with the people doing them. Being a famous movie star sounds good on paper, but a deeply introverted person might find it miserable. This person might thrive as an inventory specialist instead. The point is, everyone has a job that is tailor-made for them. Most people just give up searching and settle into a default path, leading to chronic unhappiness and stress.
If the last section feels familiar to you, I 110% empathize with you. I’ve experienced every single aspect of that path. But I’ve come to realize the madness and the irrationality behind following the default path, and I’m venturing to do my part to fix it.
I have two strategies for approaching this problem, which we will get to in a minute. For both, I cannot guarantee results. I cannot guarantee less stress (in fact, assume more). I can’t even guarantee that it will bring happiness to you in the near-term. But sometimes things need to get worse before they get better. In order to give meaningful work and job satisfaction a fighting chance, you will need to be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to get there.
I have quit full-time, high-paying jobs without a fully thought-out plan for the next step. But through such risks, I have developed the emotional balance for, and I’ve systematically dismantled many of the evolutionary time-bombs in my mind of uncertainty and the fear that accompanies it. On the surface, it seems irrational to even admit that. But you don’t have to dig too far beneath the surface to find the abundance of rationality in forcing yourself out of bad situations and into better ones.
Musical Chair Theory
The idea of a perfect fit between employee and employer seems lofty and unattainable. But have you ever considered that maybe it is because everyone else has given up the search? Think of it like musical chairs: if everyone is occupying all the other chairs, do you have much of an option? Granted, the chair availability is bound to grow, but not at the rate necessary for such a sea-change. Put simply, there are too many chairs in the economy occupied by the wrong people. When people begin to wake up and realize that they do not have to stay in the same miserable chair, our chance of finding the right one inevitably increases.
Work On Purpose
I’ve narrowed the characteristics of doing meaningful and fulfilling work down to three criteria:
- Work on Purpose: To do work on purpose is to be effortful and conscious of the choices you make. This is what you get when you ask why before you consider taking a job. This means money and approval aren’t your only considerations. Working a job on purpose means that you want to do the work. You look forward to going to work. You chose the work for a reason. You know what you are good at, and you are applying it in the environment you feel most comfortable. Part of the reason you do such work could be for the intangible benefits, such as learning new skills or developing valuable relationships. Not every job is an endgame. This can be summed up as “what can the job bring to the table?”
- Work with Purpose: The work you do is of good quality and consistent. You have a feeling of pride when you finish your work for the day. You do work that resonates with you and energizes you enough to not be the last one in and first one out. You hold yourself to a high standard, and you hold others to that same standard. This can be summed up as “what can I bring to the table?”
- Work for a Purpose You Truly Believe In: You are in it for the long run. You can envision yourself growing with the company, leading within the company, and retiring with the company. This can be summed up as “How do my goals and aspirations align with those of the company?”
If you can nail all three of these in one job, don’t let it go so easily. But if you cannot hit all three (and it may take weeks or months to have an idea), ask yourself if it is worth staying where you are? You wouldn’t have begun such a search if it was.
Let’s Play Red Pill/Blue Pill
Here are my two strategies for the meaningful work problem:
Plan A: Follow these criteria in the search for your next job. Once you’ve found a job that meets such criteria, 2) quit your miserable current job.
Plan B: 1) Quit your miserable job, then 2) follow the three criteria in search for your next line of work.
Simple, right? Either leave your job first, or second. But to overthink it would more than likely result in Plan C, which is to do nothing and continue working unhappily and unfulfilled for the money or for the approval of others.
Our tendency to overthink things is primarily responsible for indecision. In the absence of clarity, we tend to default to what we know. Keep it simple and focus on the right variables. What matters is how much effort and urgency you are willing to put in searching with the right criteria. Success can often come down to asking the right questions, and by reframing your criteria, you will begin to ask new and different questions.
In the End
I cannot, in good conscience, recommend Plan B outright. Although it is what I did four years ago, and it does serve as a forcing function for life change, I realize everyone has a different stomach for risk and uncertainty. I implore you explore Plan A with precision and purpose, and avoid doing nothing at all costs.
If you’ve followed my thought process since the inception of this blog, you might have assumed I hate the idea of working for someone else. While there is some truth to that, I do wholeheartedly believe that if you can find a job that meets the above three criteria, absolutely go for it.
It all comes down to your goals. If you intend on being financially free, build something and sell it. If you value happiness as an overarching goal, find the job that fits snuggly like pieces in a puzzle.
With money, you find freedom in leisure. With meaning, you find freedom in your work.
To sum up, don’t do work just because it pays $60,000 a year. Do work on purpose, with purpose, for a purpose you believe in.
Work on purpose, not by default.
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I can’t help but wonder if you have ever found yourself with no choice but to do work you don’t care about for people who mean nothing to you because the alternative is worse. I wonder if you’ve ever had to work by default because working with purpose just isn’t an option, and the alternative is to lose your home because you can’t pay rent, have your credit wrecked because you can’t pay your debts, get your car repossessed because you can’t make payments, choose between groceries or utilities, or have to pawn your wedding ring because your little boy wants M&Ms can you don’t want to have to say, “No, I can’t buy candy because we’re poor.”
My parents have been through that. I’ve been through some of that. If you haven’t, I’m happy for you because nobody should have to go through that. But if the invisible hand of the market has never grabbed you by the throat and demanded, “work, or die,” then there are millions who envy you your privilege and would love to be in your position.
I’m not one of them because I chose a different bargain. I chose tech as a day job, a way to pay the bills so I could make it as a writer. I chose to work by default so I could afford to work on purpose. I haven’t made it yet, but I’ve gotten a lot farther than many.
That said, I’m glad to see you have your own website and are not using Medium. Good luck and stay safe.
Thank you for your thoughtful response.
To answer your question, yes, I have spent the last 14 years working by default. I’ve been on that side of the fence all of my working life. I never had a lot of money. But there are ways out, and I want to shed light on new ways of thinking about that. My message is simply to not settle with the default option. Yes, use it to pay the bills. But seek better options along the way.
I’ve seen and experienced the effects both chronic unhappiness and stress resulting from work have on a personal life. What you are doing is awesome because you are giving attention to your creative side. Don’t let that fire inside you go out. I’ve seen that happen to too many WBDers.
I just finished reading Robert Caro’s book “Working.” In it, he describes the struggle of making ends meet as a writer. I highly recommend checking that out if you haven’t yet.
I hope this helps.
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