We’ve all heard the story of the exceptionally successful person who walks away from the thing they are uniquely talented at. It usually resonates when it’s something that’s aspirational to everyone else. The community is shocked when the small business owner of a highly profitable institution just shuts it down. There is dismay when the famous artist walks away from a coveted creative job like movie star or other media personality. Maybe the individual is the creative director at a revered video game studio. It could be anything from the elected official in a high office to a highly successful business professional like a CEO or senior VP of a large organization. Those are the high-level and well-known examples but it could just as well be an individual at a stable and hard to acquire job like full-time English professor at a community college. These stories, in many cases, have their genesis with the person holding the coveted position becoming bored with their career. They get so bored that they decide to walk away.
Catalyst / Requirements
Being bored in your career enough to want to simply walk away from it is not very common. There are some elements that need to exist with a person who is walking away to actually be able to do it.
A primary requirement is some level of stability. I can’t begin to explain why this is so important. Most people live an existence where they can lose everything at a moment’s notice. The potential for loss comes from our debt ridden and regular payment structured culture. Credit is not vilified as the evil it is, it’s considered something to aspire to for individuals and a reasonable and expected practice by business. Leveraging assets with debt is a regular practice in boardrooms across the world. I can sort of see this as being the best use case in business with tremendous capital investment needs and longer term payouts like nuclear power plant construction and large wireline telecom buildouts. Both have ROI’s measured in decades and monopoly customer bases. But that’s big business, for the average joe or Joeanne debt is not good but it is a fact of reality. This modern economic environment for the individual requires stability, yet stability in a career doesn’t exist for the majority of people.
Typically there is a continual threat of a potential downsizing, reorganizations or some other initiative that can potentially impact someone’s position. If these types of things come fast and furious then career transitions happen, sometimes wanted, sometimes not asked for, but they do come. It’s hard to be bored in your career if everything is always in flux. If the flux results in intense instability, then you can be in the career version of fight or flight mode. You may be continually exhausted with your job if this is the case, but not bored. Boredom comes when your not worried about these things.
Stability can come from no debt, a stable income from a spouse who is happy staying in their job, or just a big blob of money in the bank. There are people who have enough to live on for the rest of their lives. Another type of stability may come from having a gatekeeper credential and know you can always return to your thing, be it teaching, or medical, longhaul logistics or some other position that has a continual supply / demand imbalance in favor of the credential holder.
A Certain type of personality
Another requirement for the existence of career boredom is the right personality. You can’t be the type of person who is happy with your 9-5 job in perpetuity. This is the kind of individual who is more basic in their needs and thinking. They are the ones who find the same old jokes funny every time. They don’t generally have an inquisitive nature. They are happy with the status quo in everything from the bread they choose at the supermarket to the shows they watch on TV. They are the ones still watching network television or are life long members of the same political ideology based upon trite catchphrases. Democrats are socialists! Republicans are only for the rich!
To get bored you have to be the person who has that adventurous bent, that hint of creativity. There may be a spark of competitiveness in your personality. These are the people who are called to be challenged. It’s not to say that they can’t be happy in a challenging job, but over time they have learned how to meet most, if not all, the challenges, and then there is the call to move onto something different.
So if you are stable in your life, and you have the type of personality that is aligned to looking for more, what are the switches that cause you to become so bored in your worklife that you want to swallow the transaction cost and make the change? There are a few.
The first is goal attainment. For many people, they achieve their goal, they climbed the proverbial mountain. It could be argued that there is always another mountain to conquer within the same career. Continuing the analogy, let’s think in terms of literal mountains. The process of climbing is pretty simple once you have mastered it. The gully’s, crags, and footholds are pretty similar from mountain to mountain. What if you have climbed a bunch of them and have climbed your own version of everest? You’ve done it… you can call yourself a mountain climber. There is no higher mountain. Obviously this doesn’t have to be as drastic as mountain climbing. It could be a lawyer who walks away from a job at a successful practice after making partner and winning cases or being a rainmaker for several years.
The second is that they’ve gotten enough of a sample and don’t need the full monty. They don’t want or are not interested in the next step because of the time and costs. My own personal experience with this was with my education. I had achieved what I thought was impossible, a perfect 4.0 in a Master’s of Science program. I worked my rear end off for years in pursuit of that goal. I thought I wanted to continue so I enrolled in a PhD program. Then it hit me, the costs, time, and continuation didn’t seem worth it to me. What was different when it came to the PhD was that I knew I could do it. The work was fairly easy from an intellectual perspective. The problem wasn’t the skill attainment or the expansions of my thought process, it was the tuition and time commitment. The reward wasn’t worth the effort, at least not in the face of other rewards that seemed greater. I’m getting just as much out of my writing as I did in my education, and my wife may complain about how much time i spend with it but it’s less than when I was in school and it costs practically nothing compared to the tens of thousands of dollars the PhD program would cost. I’m not actually against a PhD. If my Wife magically fell into a hyper stable job that paid 120K a year, I’d at least trial balloon the idea of a multi year sabbatical from my career to pursue a doctorate full time. She’s shoot down the idea in a New York minute, but the point is when evaluating the current investment reward mix, the PhD isn’t a good fit. If the risk reward mix changed, if I had the time and the money readily available, then the idea of pursuing a PhD may become interesting again if only as just a fun thing to do.
Going back to the small business owner I was working with. They knew exactly where they could take the business, but the next step wasn’t appealing. The expansion required borrowing a ton of money, something that was not even remotely desirable for a business owner who prides themselves on running a cash only business. The expansion also would have required working 24/7 for extended periods without having a day off. There could be years without any sort of substantial profit. Typically all small business go through this type of investment consideration and many choose not to attempt to grow further. Most owners simply don’t want the headaches of managing staff and diminishing returns. Many times I have heard former small to midsize business owners make some variant of a statement similar to “I make more money when it’s just me and my helper than when I was running three crews”. Putting this together it means that if you don’t want to make the investment to get to the next level, then you stay at the level you are at. If you’re staying where you’re at the odds of encountering new and interesting dynamics are slim to none. So at some point the whole thing starts to get boring.
Futility. I see this quite often in social services. There are always ideas about how to change everything for the better. How to eliminate poverty or how to empower people out of abuse. These great ideas can keep someone energized for years trying new and different things. Eventually though they realize there is something there that keeps them from making any progress. There is a reason why there always has been, and always will be poor people. Some individuals simply are not wired to be effective in life. My favorite example of this is a charity by somebody I respect whose goal is to stop teenage girls from making bad decisions. It’s a fantastic idea that would potentially change lives for the better. I say this next part both as an observer of the human condition and as a father of two daughters. No charity in the world can stop a large percentage of teenage girls from making horrible decisions. Imagine if this was your job, working for that charity, and year after year, you work with kids that tug on your heart strings. Eventually you realize that every kid has a sob story, the cycles are the same, and everything you try is futile for the majority of people you try it with. Yes, there are some wins, but on the whole you’ll know right away if it’ll work or not work, so you wind up just going through the process. Is it any wonder that you would become bored?
Personality. “They ain’t never leaving”
There are personalities that can actually cause career boredom. There are some organizations where there exists positions with built in stability. Tenured college professor or some other government manager in a legislated or required position are examples of this. There are some hyper-stable jobs in the private sector but these are rare because of the nature of modern business. The challenge with these situations is that the person holding the position can be like a dam in a river, they control the flow of the organization. If everything funnels through that person, and they have the personality where they want to see nothing different, then you’ll never get any satisfaction that comes from growth and change. Nothing ever changes, and “they ain’t never leaving”. Even if your in a dynamic industry or even an old industry with new ideas, you’ll never get to exercise them. Waiting it out isn’t an option, so your forced to do the same thing, over and over. Even if your good at what you do you will still become bored and wistful. The grass will start to look greener anywhere than where you are, because you will always run into the dam.
There are a few options when it comes to dealing with career boredom. Option one is to make a game of it. You could become the “Wally” of your organization. Wally, an Iconic character from the Dilbert comic strip never does any work, the entire reason for his existence is to game the system. To get paid but to do nothing, or as little as possible to keep getting paid. In Wally’s case, he has to show up but does little else. His unwavering dedication and creativity designed for the goal of doing nothing and getting paid for it is a core element of the character. This is a great option if your stable in your job, you need stability, but a move will make you unstable in your income. The game of doing nothing, yet looking like your highly productive will inject enough creativity to stave off career boredom, at least a little bit. It’s a strategy that’s good to keep the income a’flowin.
Option two is to simply find something else to do. This requires job transition, usually to a new career. Job transitions are tough as moving away from a job, especially moving away from a career, guarantees that you lose benefits and you lose seniority. If you’re stable in your income or lifestyle then it doesn’t matter that much. In a small way you wind up like the big movie stars I cited earlier who walk away from Hollywood forever.
The third option is to simply sink yourself into distractions. They could be distractions at work, like committees, special projects, or reading and researching lots of industry news. The reality is that distractions can also be things unrelated to work that you can get away with at work. You could facebook or chat like mad. I’m finding this is something many people are doing more and more with the preponderance of cell phones. You could run your own side business. In the end the regular job tasks become something you have to do like taking out the trash but the real Joy of your day would be the side interests that you can get away with during your work day. Warning: In most cases if you do this too much you may get too complacent. You’ll eventually be let go or make a big mistake that can cause other issues. But that might not matter too much to you if you’re that bored with the regular day job.
The best advice I can give you is awareness and focus. If your bored, realize it and take action. “Idle hands are the devil’s playground” is the old parenting line but it’s the same with idle thoughts. Anxiety, temporary work distractions, etc all lead to negative experiences like depression. Depression always leads to really foolish decision making.
Going back to the start of this article, if you are intelligent and bored with what you’re doing, if you have some sort of safety net where you don’t have to keep the job, then go. It may shock a few people, especially if you’re leaving a cush position, but you’ll be energized and happy again.
There’s another bonus to leaving. There aren’t many things that are guaranteed in today’s work and life environment, but their is one that’s virtually certain. It’s a pretty safe bet that whatever you move too, if it’s new to you, it absolutely won’t be boring!
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