Many people don’t like their jobs.
On the one hand, this is a pity, as we are not fully leveraging people’s potential, or giving them an opportunity to thrive and flourish.
On the other hand, (unpopular opinion) there’s no reason to be overly dramatic about this.
First, for most of our evolutionary history, work was just that: work. We rarely did it because we enjoyed it.
Second, the correlation between engagement (the current name for job satisfaction) and performance is just 0.3, indicating the two overlap by 9%. In other words, 91% of the variability in performance is not dependent on engagement. Hence, many high-performing employees are not particularly satisfied with their jobs, and many people who really love their jobs are not high-performing employees.
Third, the degree to which people enjoy their jobs is more dependent on their personality and their job performance than the typical variables we worry about in engagement surveys: Do you have a best friend at work? Can you bring your dog to the office? Do you trust your boss? (Though this is probably the best single question to predict turnover after: “Do you hate your job?”).
That said, we can all do more to increase our affinity to our work, and there’s no question that, all other things being equal, it is usually more beneficial to enjoy than to dislike your job. This is why systematic scientific evidence suggests that people who are more career satisfied tend to be (yes, we are talking probability rather than determinism) more productive, loyal, ethical, and less antisocial, corrupt, stressed, or ill at work.
So what can you to enjoy your work more, other than be born with the right personality, or sufficiently lucky (e.g., money, privilege, country, income, race, gender, and even IQ) to have access to better careers? Here are the factors you can control, and you should rationally aspire to influence, in order to be more satisfied with your job and career.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have a fulfilling career, as this requires good health, education, networks, and opportunities, all of which are partly determined at birth. And yet, most people have at least some alternatives. Among educated young professionals in developing or industrialized economies (since you are reading this, chances are this includes you), there have never been as many options as today.
Making rational, informed career decisions, optimizing for the things that actually matter to you, will significantly boost your future job satisfaction (and performance). This means avoiding common mistakes, like prioritizing short-term income over long-term career development, or titles and status over purpose. What you do is not as important as why you do it, and where you work is not as impactful as who you work with.
Start by defining what you actually want, then take your time identifying job opportunities that fit with that. Be open to try new things, but unsentimental and rational if they don’t work out. Every job you do is a glorious feedback opportunity to enhance your self-knowledge and awareness about what you like and dislike, what you are good at and not. Learn from your mistakes. Failing fast is the best way to succeed in the long-term.
Embrace job crafting
Research tells us that there’s a great deal of flexibility with regards to how we approach work, so that even people with the same job may end up acting in dramatically different ways, purely based on how they mould or craft it. One critical aspect to this task is to eliminate unnecessary pains, such as spending 80% of your time on 20% of the tasks that have very little utility. As the famous management guru Peter Drucker once noted, “Nothing is less productive than to make more efficient what should not be done at all.” Contrary to what people think, productivity is not about working more, but achieving more with less (it is output divided by input).
Whatever you do, you always have some autonomy and control to do it better, and eliminating irrelevant tasks, as well as prioritizing where you focus your energy, will not just make you better, but also happier in your job. Many of the problems work presents are self-inflicted in the sense that you don’t choose to address them, and let them escalate by neglect. The point of not liking something, as Maya Angelou noted, is to change it. If you have a plan for making your job better, you may be able to persuade your boss to try things differently. After all, your boss is interested in the same outcome.
Don’t waste your time with inept bosses
Although people can change, they usually don’t. This applies not just to you but also to your boss. In the event that you have managed to develop better habits, and approach work in a more effective and self-satisfying way, well done. However, if this still doesn’t satisfy your boss, and you have wasted a great deal of time waiting for them to get better, it is probably time to stop.
Research estimates that the basis of managerial incompetence is at least 50%, and even the best employees underperform when they are poorly managed. Rather than continue waiting for your boss to get coached, or suddenly wake up with a personality transplant, consider looking for a better one.
Approach this like you would a bad romantic relationship: If you gave it a shot, and it still doesn’t work, move on, and find someone else. There are probably more compatible (and competent) bosses out there who would love to manage you. And if nothing works, then perhaps you can conclude that you are not a good fit for traditional employment, so consider self-employment or entrepreneurship as career alternatives.
Let go when you have to
We often encourage people to be resilient, but there’s clearly a downside: Enduring adversity to the point that you end up stuck in unrewarding or unpleasant circumstances. False hope syndrome is real, and due to our natural tendency to be overly optimistic, we often stagnate and stall in jobs that are really a waste of time. Life’s too short. There are no prizes for being a hero by enduring a dismal, boring, or alienating job when you actually have better options.
Lower your expectations
Dissatisfaction is generally a function of the mismatch between expectations and outcomes. Unmet expectations lead to disappointment. There are two main ways to address this: You can either try harder or lower your expectations. For example, if your career goal is to be the next Elon Musk, and anything less than that won’t satisfy you, you better make that goal an obsession. High aspirations without an exceptional work ethic result in delusional entitlement. And even if you do make it your lifelong obsession to become the next Elon Musk, you may want to remember that your chances of succeeding are extremely slim (perhaps 0.000001%, though this is an intuitive calculation).
Likewise, if we all want interesting and fulfilling careers that pay well, provide prestigious job titles, and lots of freedom and flexibility to do interesting work, unleash our curiosity, and work with smart, friendly, and interesting colleagues, in cultures that are fully apolitical and aligned with our values, then quite a few of us will end up disappointed. Welcome to the real world. This isn’t a cynical take on the world of jobs, but an attempt to describe reality.
Although it’s not certain Aristotle wrote this, he apparently penned some version of “Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work.” He’s also believed to have said, “All paid jobs absorb and degrade the mind.” If true, to him, both statements were not contradictory. He came from an affluent family, and could devote his life to being a philosopher (the Ancient Greek equivalent of being a soccer player or a TikTok influencer).
For the rest of us, the reality of work will rarely be as good as the first quote, but also not as bad as the second. Statistically speaking, most of us should aspire to jobs that are okay or average, without either taking this for granted, or not trying to make them a little better. If you succeed, enjoy it. If you fail, remember there is much more life than work, including, well, life itself.