I'm so fed up and I don't know what to do next. All my friends seem to have exciting, rewarding jobs, and they're doing really cool things all the time. i'm so bored by my job, but I don't know what to do next and I'm completely stuck. I've been working in the same office for 4 years, and I seem to be trapped doing endless admin. I'm always looking at job listings but nothing chimes with me, and if it did I'm not sure that I could get it with the experience I have. I'm 29 and I'm so scared that I'll be stuck with an average, unremarkable career once I've turned 30. Help!
I think that we constantly underestimate the effect work has on our wellbeing. It’s a perfect storm of practical and emotional issues. Almost all of us need to work in order to feed ourselves, shelter ourselves and entertain ourselves too. It could be a transactional, practical relationship - you supply labour and you are paid for it, which allows you to have the life you want.
However, we’re given messages - some subtle and stealthy, some loud and unignorable - that we should be deriving some sort of emotional nourishment and fulfilment from our work too. Women are slated for being too ambitious, but if we’re not ambitious, no-one knows what to do with us. We feel pressured to pursue a career that’s bigger, better paid and more impressive than anyone we know, but we don’t stop to ask why, or whether that’s what we want. Or what we want.
For what it’s worth, I got fired from my first ‘proper’ job. I rushed into it because I was frightened of waiting for what I wanted. I’d decided that there was no point trying to be a writer, which is what I’d dreamed about.
The stakes were high, competition was great and I thought I had a better chance of security - which is what I thought I needed - if I compromised. I’m so glad I was wrong. Sometimes I wonder whether there’s another universe where I somehow kept that job and muddled through for years, before writing a message like yours.
You don’t need a career that fulfils you, but you’re entitled to one if you want it. Also, you do need a fulfilling life. Is it possible to reengineer the way you feel about work, so that you can see it as a means to maintaining a life that makes you happy? I appreciate that’s a big thing to ask.
Even if you can make peace with having a job that you don’t love, there’s so much pressure to perform and to demonstrate visible signs of success that it’s difficult not to constantly compare yourself with the people who do love their work - or at least, claim to.
I want to tell you to quit the thing that’s making you unhappy, and follow your dreams! But I appreciate that nothing is quite that simple. Firstly, it sounds like you’re not sure what your dreams are, and you need to discover this before you plan an exit strategy. Is there anything at all you like about your current job, even if it’s only in theory?
Start by thinking of three things you like, and three things you hate - it can be about the work itself, the hours, the office, the people - anything that gives you a sort of framework for establishing what you might like to do next, and what you need to avoid.
Then, look at the website of your nearest college or university, and make a wish list of all the courses that appeal to you. You don’t even have to pick one - just use the list as a prompt and see if any subjects jump out and make you feel inspired and energised. Right now, you need to learn how to dream again.
Don’t worry about being practical or restrict yourself to what feels possible. Think about the job you’d pick if you won the lottery and were in a position to pay someone to let you do it. You won’t be able to start this career straight away, but you can begin to prepare and make plans. I think that as soon as you’re excited about your future, you won’t feel so stuck.
If it’s possible, I’d advise you to leave your current workplace and look for something new, even if the work itself is similar to what you already do. You’re going to find it hard to move forward if you’re spending most of your waking hours sitting in the building that’s been making you miserable for years.
Perhaps you could speak to recruitment agencies which specialise in temporary or contract placements - and that way, you’d have an income but also the sense of detachment that you need to move forward. Personally, I’ve been much more motivated to pursue my side projects when I’ve been doing a day job I don’t love when I know that the day job is going to end in a couple of months. Side projects are key - they will give you the space to pursue your passions at a pace that makes sense for you.
Jenny Blake’s book Pivot contains some brilliant career advice, and it hinges on the theory that our careers are constantly in flux, everything changes so rapidly that it’s normal to have three or four very different jobs in a lifetime, and you don’t need a five year plan.
You just need to know the one thing you’re going to do next. Perhaps 20 years ago, the job you were doing when you turned 30 set the tone for your professional life, but now it’s normal to change roles significantly from year to year. Broadly, the workplace is as flexible as you want it to be.
You need to start by thinking about your happiness. Being unhappy at work eats into the rest of your life, but happiness is different from success. Plenty of people have career trajectories that look spectacular on paper, but they’re desperately unhappy.
I’m willing to bet that if any of your friends are bragging about their work lives, they know how to seem successful, but they’re probably not happy either. I hope you find a career which matches your intellect and makes you feel proud, but please remember that it doesn’t matter what you do, as long as you make happiness your focus.
Wishing you lots of love and luck