When you don’t like your job

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OAm7gRXFiRoIt’s common theme these days, a point of conversation among people in every age group, from ‘just out of college’ to those near retirement.  “I hate my job”, or “I can’t wait to do something different”, or “I’m counting the days…”  It’s a subject worthy of book, because the reality is that there’s a time to stay, and a time to leave, and that the real challenge is knowing what time it is.  Leave prematurely, and you’ll fan the flames of discontent that should instead be quenched, creating a raging fire that will scorch your soul.  Stay too long, out of fear or lack of initiative, and your soul is also at risk – of atrophy.  So, what time is it; time to stay or time to go? Here are some principles to consider when feeling stuck in the maze of job dissatisfaction:

It’s called work for a reason. That there was work given to Adam, even before the fall in Genesis 3, shows us that work is intended by God to be life giving and part of who we are.  That there’s a curse attached to it in Genesis 3 means that work, in a fallen world, will have thorns and hence blood; not just rose petals.

I’m not sure many of us believe that.  In our positions of global privilege, with the luxury of choice, an increasing mantra that I hear is, “I want to make a difference”, which is code for, “I want a job that is energizing, frees my butt from a desk, and my waist from a tool belt, and enables me to tap into my creativity and things that energize me.

My response:  “and you want someone to pick up your garbage, because public health makes a difference.  You want someone to write your code, because you seem to enjoy using your computer, which also makes a difference.  You want someone to pick your fruit and coffee beans, deliver your food, work at Costco so you can buy stuff cheap, make sure people are paying their taxes so we don’t degenerate into anarchy – just not you.”

It’s vital that we recognize the dangerous roots of this thinking:

Dualism–  Industrialization has surely created numerous challenges on the meaningful employment front.  Having said that, it’s also true that we Christians have gotten this mighty wrong, no matter how much we say we haven’t.  We still believe that it’s a higher calling to be a pastor, or to work for New Horizons, or to start a non-profit, than it is to do people’s taxes, or pick up people’s garbage, or put new roofs on houses.  I’m not sure why the hierarchy exists, but to the extent we’ve not pushed back against this by honoring service jobs, manufacturing, and white collar business as ‘equally holy’, we’ve run the risk of diminishing people’s sense of calling and identity, implying that someday they too might “make a difference”, when they’re able to work for a non-profit, or a church.  Shame on us.  It’s all holy… every square inch.

Freedom – We live in the land of multiple choice.  As one writer says:  “In America we’ve long celebrated the right of an individual to shape his or her own life.  It is part of our DNA”   Even a cursory reading of the Bible, reveals that though such freedom might be the American way, it is decidedly not God’s way.  Paul calls himself a “prisoner of the Lord” and by that he means that his life has been directed down some paths “not of his own choosing”.  He didn’t choose to minister to Gentiles, or prefer it.  He didn’t choose to be imprisoned, or prefer it.  Peter?  The same.  Jeremiah?  The same.  Moses?  The same.

Our rich heritage of endless freedom and choice runs the risk of creating a paralysis when we find ourselves in even metaphorical prisons, never mind literal ones.  We’re certain that our ‘real life’ is yet ahead of us, because this thing on my plate just now isn’t something I’d ever have chosen.  God’s answer, at least in my life has often been:  “I know you wouldn’t choose it – but broccoli is good for you”.  J.I. Packer declares that the freedom Jesus brings isn’t the freedom of endless choice; it’s freedom from the tyranny of pleasing ourselves.  If you attend the church I lead, come this Sunday and watch King George VI embrace the crown as King of England, and you’ll know what I mean.

Comparison – The grass does, almost always, look greener.  I love the tiny cars in Europe, wear an Austrian hat, and have even pondered wool knickers for climbing – all retro European.  My friend who lives in the Alps?  He listens to John Denver and Vince Gill, likes cowboy hats and Land Rovers.  We’re both infatuated with the “other” culture.  The same piece of our nature often looks at someone else’s job and is convinced theirs must be easier, or at the very least, more meaningful.  I know people look at my job that way at times.  But yesterday started at 6AM and and ended at 10:30, pure work, right through lunch.  Today will be roughly the same, and tomorrow.  I’ve been around enough to know that whatever it is that’s glittering on the other side of the fence won’t make me happier – the happiness thing starts now, here, or it doesn’t start at all.

I’ve worked cleaning up a sports arena, in a warehouse, in a steel factory, on a construction site as basically a donkey, as a draftsman, as a musician in orchestras, and in churches ranging in size from a house church to 3000. I’ve led – and I’ve followed.  Here’s my conclusion:  There’s green grass everywhere – and weeds.

Jim Elliot said, “Wherever you are, be all there.” That’s some of the best advice I’ve ever read, and most of the people I love from history learned to apply it in situations they would never have chosen, finding the priceless gold of contentment and fruitfulness as a result.

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  • I love this, Richard. I happen to be in a career I love now, which is a gift of grace and comprised of several streams of work & income incorporating my unique blend of passion and gifting. But this has come after YEARS of working various jobs, which have included barista, receptionist, admin assistant, PR assistant, marketing assistant, dance teacher, choir director, house cleaner, babysitter, church secretary, office temp and more.

    If we are miserable in a job we don’t like, chances are we’ll be miserable in whatever job we have. Aside from genuinely cruel or horrible circumstances, misery is often a state of mind. I was in a job for two years with a boss who was bipolar. When he was in a “good” place, he was great to me. But when he was in a “bad” place, it was awful, and I was his scapegoat. He ripped me in front of the entire department for things I did not do. He would throw things on my desk and speak to me without looking at me (such a dehumanizing act!) And there were days when I was miserable – even in tears (privately) from the embarrassment and injustice of it. But when I left, many people remarked at how positive I was, and how I was a “bright spot” in the office. I’m not saying that to toot my own horn, but rather to say, we make a choice. If we understand that our job is a place for God to test us, for us to implement the graces of God we are taught to embody in scripture, if we pray for those who persecute us and make our workplace a scene for prayer (privately) and being an ambassador of love and excellence, we can be vessels of mercy and grace. That job was my last in a totally secular corporate world, and it was one of the richest seasons of personal ministry and grace in my life. I had a Muslim co-worker going through a divorce, and she and became very close during that time, spending our lunch breaks talking and even sometimes praying together for her situation. Few people in the office had religious leanings, and she was grateful for a friend who understood that divorce was a big deal.

    Shortly before I left that job, my boss and I had a confrontation. I had had it “up to here” and my patience had worn thin, and I said something to him I immediately wished I had not said. He was shocked – he had grown accustomed to not hearing me talk “that way,” and he said so at the time. “That’s not you,” he said. “That’s me, but that’s not you.” I was cut to the quick. I wrote him a card the next day with an apology, and that changed the course of our working relationship. He was not used to being treated with humility and kindness. Normally in that office, the confrontation would have changed the relationship for the worse, and it would have escalated. The day I resigned to take another job, everyone was supportive, yet sorry to see me go. They gave me a nice reception and send off, which was not normal for people in my position there.

    Few people know how much I didn’t like that job on some days. Most people only saw me working hard, with a smile on my face, and being an agent of grace in that office. It was an important lesson for me, and one that I have tried to pass along to my younger friends and those I mentor.

    I love my career now, where I work from home, travel a lot, and am largely my own “boss,” working as a contractor and part of a team of people, but mostly on my own. I love the rhythm of work I have now – not an “8-5” scenario at all, but rewarding and creative and “me.” My husband and I were talking recently about what would happen if I suddenly lost my clients and had to go back to a corporate job. It would not be my choice, but I would do it in a heartbeat if I needed a job. I know that I can be “happy” anywhere.

    Just wanted to share my story. Well done, Richard!


  • Marco

    Interesting, but I feel you left the other part out. I agree with your points, and the reasons for our cultural discontentment in a land of too many opportunities, but there are times to move on. The post makes me think that the tug to move on is nothing more than a discontent fabrication of our sinful nature. In my own experience, it’s often in hindsight that we can reflect truthfully about what our motivations were. Aren’t there legitimate reasons for moving forward?

    In my own experience, I left what I loved doing because we (my wife and I) knew it was the right time. I naively believed that our obedience would be rewarded with opportunity. What is ironic about it, is that despite the fact that nothing went the way we believed it was going to go, we are still both convinced that having remained would have been an act of defiance and disobedience.

    Maybe it’s easier to look back and know that it was “God’s will” when I left a place that I loved, but the same internal conflict would have occurred had I hated my job. The only problem is that I would have been more worried that my motivations were sinful and based in an ungrateful heart.

  • Richard Dahlstrom

    THANKS for the comment Marco, and I agree w/ you 100%. I didn’t address the ‘right time to move’ in this post, only because I try to limit posts to 1000 words 🙂

    Your comment makes the perfect addition… and completion

  • Another closely-related idea: What about people without jobs? What about how we’re always defining ourselves and essentially our self-worth by our jobs? These are also questions a lot of people are struggling with right now, and I feel the answers are the same as in this post: learn to be content in every situation.

  • jeb

    Richard, i think you are right to point out the American culture. From the beginning we have had a view that the good life is just over the horizon…and so we came west chashing fur, gold, etc… Wallace Stegner’s novel ‘Big Rock Candy Mountain’ captures this well. It would seve us well to be done with this illusion regarding green grass somewhere else. None the less, I wonder what kinds of jobs other people find themselves in and i can’t help but think that many have no idea of the poor working conditions and low compensation that the large bulk of employment offers. And i think it right that a person should want to move on from those contexts. Most jobs do not put a person above the poverty line which means one is living in random difficult spaces (such as a vehicle). The hours are everchanging and odd (such as 3AM). Not only does this hinder having a stable routine but it just results in fatigue. While at work one must endure, sexual harrasment, verbal/mental/emotional manipulation and abuse all the while doing meanial work that is often also either dehumanizing or counter to one’s values and belief systems as a christian. Bethany Church encourages members to find out their giftings and serve their community using those. If a person does not find this outlet within the context of their employment, then i suggest that there are many situations that this is impossible to do so in and that it is normal and right that a person should be looking for some other life. The reallity is that we should be hesitant to put up with our economic culture.
    You might find the chapter titled ‘Buddist Economics’ in E.F.Schumacher’s book ‘Small is Beautiful’ an interesting read.

  • Coincidentally enough, I resigned from my job yesterday and this popped into my google reader right before I pulled the trigger.

    Thanks for the wisdom.

  • Steve Clark

    I found this short video of Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs” of some interest in this discussion. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3h_pp8CHEQ0

  • Bo

    Great insight, here. As someone who has been without a job for nine months – not to mention in pursuit of employment in the ministry in keeping with what I believe is a deeply ingrained calling on my life – it is hard to imagine discontent with a job, though I have indeed experienced just such a thing in past circumstances. These days, the “never know what you’ve got…” cliche rings true in my ears. It is hard not to fall victim to a different kind of comparison – one of employment anywhere vs. nowhere.

    Thanks for this.

  • Open you Bible and you find God at work in Genesis 1!

    Then God gave Adam the job of “Gardener” with two responsibilities, with a benefit package, with profit-sharing, with an expansion plan (additional help), a long-range vision (expand to the whole earth), and all that before we get out of the second chapter of Genesis.

    Throughout the Bible the sheer volume of verses about work—shows work is very important to God.

    Blessings to you.
    ~ BloggerBob

  • I hate my job…but I never let it show and I do my best to be encouraging and cheerful to others.

    Sometimes, I don’t cover it up very well. But it (my job) makes the prospect of dying seem not so bad. 😀

  • Megan

    You bring up an excellent point. Perhaps another question would be “what about unpaid work?” Does work have to translate into a pay check to be valuable? What about full time “home makers”, volunteers, retired folks who still “do stuff” (garden, sew, maintain their home, care for grand kids. . . .)?
    Is it possible that part of the discontent with jobs is really about measuring our worth with our wallets? Do we hate our job but stay because the pay is good? Do we hate a job because the pay is bad (but otherwise might love it)? Are we embarrassed by our job because its not “prestigious”? And unemployed isn’t the same thing as not working. It just means you’re not getting paid.
    I digress. But you brought up a great point.