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The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it)

ratrace.jpgMost people complaining that “work sucks” do so because they picked the wrong career.  Instead of following their dreams, they followed a reliable (or convenient) market path. 

When we reach adulthood, popular opinion encourages us to discard the fantasies of youth and pick one of the prefabricated career paths available at the local university or trade school. 

But popular opinion is wrong. Following your dreams is the surest way to happiness, and I’m going to spend the rest of this article telling you why.  

Maslow and Herzberg 

In the middle part of the 1900′s, two psychologists published theories that greatly influenced the way I think about career satisfaction: Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg. In my opinion, their most important discovery is that any sustainable and advancing career path will eventually lead to one ultimate question: Are you happy with your work in and of itself?

I want to direct your attention now to a diagram that will help you visualize the hopeless treadmill of any career not based on personal fulfillment. The left side of the picture below illustrates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (published in his 1943 paper A Theory of Human Motivation), and the right side is an overlay of Herzberg’s Motivational Maintenance Model, which applied Maslow’s earlier theory toward the world of work.

maslow3.GIF

The basic concept is that the needs at the top of the hierarchy only come into focus once the lower needs have been met.

On the left side of the pyramid, you can see that a starving man will be completely and utterly fixated on satisfying his physiological need for food.  That’s all he’s worried about — not safety, not social status, not love, not anything except finding his next meal.  Only once he has become comfortable with his ability to feed himself will he begin worrying about less immediate matters.

Now look at the right side of the pyramid, where Herzberg contends that salary and the quality of life outside work are the most basic job concerns.  Job hunters chase after money the way a starving man chases after his next meal.  In fact, many people are so preoccupied with salary when they choose their career that they neglect to consider whether the career will ever satisfy higher needs. 

And what’s waiting at the top of the pyramid? That’s right — the work itself. So if you’re working in a career that will never inspire you, you might as well stop climbing the ladder of success, since whatever need you feel in your gut right now will simply be replaced by a new need as you advance. That’s the point: If your work does not inspire you, it will never satisfy you.   

At the beginning of your miscast career, you might worry about your paycheck. Later, you might complain about your boss. But there will always be a new complaint right around the corner because you’ve placed your ladder against the wrong wall; you’re climbing in the wrong direction.

Before we go any further, it’s important to note that the Maslow and Herzberg models are not universally accepted; arguments abound, and alternatives exist. Many find the models to be too linear and suggest that there is no single, clear-cut progression of needs. In my opinion, the fuzziest, least certain part of the model (especially as it applies to career advancement) is the middle, wherein a person might find himself concerned with many of the hierarchical layers simultaneously or switching back and forth between them. But the model is still an excellent vehicle for understanding the path of enlightenment.

Whether or not you agree with Maslow and Herzberg, it’s easy to see that basic needs must be met before higher needs can be satiated (or even fully considered) and that the inward journey of self-actualization increases in importance as one achieves greater levels of success in terms of external factors, such as money, relationships, and respect.

My Personal Journey to the Top

The Maslow and Herzberg models resonate with me because they mirror my own work experiences:    

  • Level 1 (Money):Money may not have been the only consideration that led me to major in computers, but it was the biggest.  Throw in the fact that I wasn’t sure what to do with my life and had always been good with computers, and the big dollars of an information technology degree became even more appealing.  
  • Level 2 (Job Security):Once my first programming job satisfied my income needs, my biggest concern became proving my competence so I could keep the good thing I had.  I wasn’t trying to be a rock star — I was just trying to prove I deserved to be there. 
  • Level 3 (Relationships):After a few months, earning the respect of peers and supervisors became critical.  I worked feverishly to establish a sterling reputation with my boss and took on several high profile efforts to garner the respect of teammates.     
  • Level 4 (Advancement/Recognition):For the next 5 years, my primary focus was advancement and recognition.  I put all my energy into climbing the company ladder, earning big raises (not because I needed the money, but because salary increases were evidence of progress), and gaining higher profile positions.
  • Level 5 (Work Itself):And after 6 years with my company, I looked around and found myself balanced just below the summit of Maslow’s pyramid.  I was making good money, had earned social status and respect, and had advanced as far as I cared to.  And after all that work, it finally hit me: the work itself was not fulfilling; sometimes enjoyable, yes, but not self-actualizing.

Now I’m not saying that my job was terrible; it was not. I was very good at it. My co-workers and business partners respected me. And I was well compensated. And on some days, these simple satisfactions were enough. But on other days, I’d remember my love for writing, communication, and helping people; my desire to make the world a better place through the unique application of my gifts. And despite the fact that I knew I would probably continue to work in software development for some time (after all, I have bills to pay, just like you), my heart longed for something more.

The call of self-actualization at the top of Maslow’s pyramid is hard to ignore; that call is the primary reason I started this blog.

Consider the Top of the Pyramid Before You Start Climbing

Doesn’t it make sense to know you’ll be happy at the top of the pyramid before you start climbing? Of course, it goes without saying that it is very difficult to know ahead of time what will make you happy because we see darkly through the looking glass. But I contend that it’s better to peer darkly through the glass than to ignore it.

Whether you’re a college freshman trying to pick a major, a mid-life professional planning his next move, or a guy looking for new challenges, you find yourself at a crossroads.  You can follow your dreams — choose a job you truly believe in — or follow a proven market path through an unfulfilling career.  

As you stand here at the crossroads, remember Maslow’s pyramid.  Beyond a certain point, advancement will cease to provide meaning unless you love the work itself.   

If you need help finding the right career, read 4 Steps to a Fulfilling Life Mission.  If you don’t find inspiration there, look elsewhere — most importantly, look inside yourself.  Do you have a dream?  Is there any way to turn your dream into a business opportunity? 

Take a good look at this fork in the road before you decide which way to turn.  Your dreams lie to the right, a practical job to the left.  Veer right, my friend.  Following your dreams is the only way you’ll ever love what you do.

JohnPlace

50 Responses to “The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it)”

  • [...] true job satisfaction, and I just finished writing an article on my blog to prove the point: The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) I also thought you guys might like to talk about your theories regarding the common misconception [...]

  • John Jackson says:

    Good article. Schools and parents tell you to go to work, and get a high paying job. Because they were afraid, to pursue there own dreams. That is what they think is right. If you do what you love to do how can that be wrong. “SO DO IT”

  • JohnPlace says:

    Excellent thoughts, John Jackson. And since this is your first post here, welcome to my blog.

  • John,

    Excellent post! One thing that this model can’t possibly take into consideration is that the true nature of the top of the pyramid can’t be known unless you climb to the top. I think a lot of people stay perched on that point because the reality of what the work is at that place isn’t what it looks like from the ground (to possibly overextend the metaphor). To be truly happy at work, you can’t let the work you put into climbing the pyramid keep you from jumping off if it’s not fufilling. THAT’s when a job truly sucks – all the needs except the fufilling work part are in place!

  • [...] My new favorite blog, johnplaceonline.com, has another great post (found as I explore it) that shows how the work of Maslow relates to career. It’s a really insightful read – The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it). [...]

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your keen observations, Kevin.

    I agree with you that a complete understanding of the top of the pyramid is impossible from the bottom (in fact, that was one of Maslow’s main points).

    We see through the looking glass darkly.

    But I believe people have a much greater chance of finding fulfilling work if they at least *try* to peer through the looking glass, darkly or not.

    If we choose a career that does not motivate us simply because it pays the bills, we have completely disregarded the top of the pyramid — and if we find happiness, it will be an accident, a statistical abberation.

    So the moral of the story? Pick a career that holds promise of fulfillment.

    And as you say, be prepared to change directions if it turns out to be something other than what you expected.

    Very good exchange, Kevin! :)

  • chabuhi says:

    “…on the wrong mountain.”

    Could not describe my situation more perfectly. Great article – thanks!

  • Doug says:

    In what way was your work not fulfilling?

  • JohnPlace says:

    Doug: I felt a less-than-optimal connection between my internal motivations and daily activities.

    The tough questions waiting at the top of Maslow’s pyramid involve self-actualization, self-identity. In other words, a melding of who you are with what you do. As I said, my job wasn’t bad; it just didn’t provide opportunities for self-actualization in the uppermost tier.

    Lots of people are content to stop climbing in such a situation.

  • Alex says:

    I agree with the first two rungs on the ladder, but not with the rest. It became very obvious that I wasn’t motivated or inspired by my work very quickly at both of my prior software development jobs (after a week at one job and 5 months at another). Perhaps you were blessed with something really fun to work on, but in most cases I don’t see how you’d have to wait 5 years to know that your work isn’t fulfilling. I think your case was a special one, though it illustrates the hierarchy you outlined very well.

  • Alex says:

    I understand you’re making a statement about an entire career path, not just a job, so my previous comment is a bit off-point. However, I must argue that perhaps being with one employer isn’t sufficient to determine that the whole field isn’t appropriate for you.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Alex, the question at the core of all this is: What do you want to create with your life?

    I spent several years being distracted by the needs at the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid. Put more simply, it’s awfully easy to ignore questions of self-actualization when you’re struggling to pay the rent, or to fit in at work, or to earn the respect of peers… so easy to put those higher needs on the back burner.

    If there truly was no way to know a career path’s suitability until you’d reached the pyramid’s peak, we’d have to resign ourselves to the elevator ride… In which case this article would be largely useless.

    But I wrote this (and my other “dream job” articles) in the hopes that someone might actually ask themselves tough questions, search themselves, for the answers at the top before they get there.

    I also don’t think my case is a special one. Maslow’s hierarchy is *not* universal; I understand. And every career path is special in its own way. But I’ve seen the pattern played out in so many lives that I’m quite sure it’s not an aberration, accepting, of course, minor variations as part of the larger pattern. And even in cases where the hierarchy misses the point completely, there are valuable lessons to be learned.

    And Alex, here I think it’s important to distinguish between the job (which is a package deal that comes with an entire environment, an environment that pegs many of Maslow’s tiers) and the “work” (which refers to the thing you’re building, at a high level of asbstraction). If a person is unhappy with his boss, or peers, administrative regulations, or workload, he may be able to fix his problem by finding a new job in the same career. However, if a person feels no desire whatsoever to “build” the type of thing that his career focuses on building, he’s unlikely to find some great, hidden reserve of passion with a simple job change. Even now, I can imagine potential counter-arguments to my point of view, and those are all fine and well: in the end, we all have to make our own decisions.

  • Alex says:

    I see what you mean. I guess I just can’t image not wanting to create software at all :) For me, the satisfaction I get from this occupation depends largely on the job. I love writing software on my own or in a very small team, but don’t enjoy working on huge buggy systems with lots of developers as much.

    Have you found something you want to do yet?

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Alex. Yes, the “job” has a tremendous impact on our happiness, even for people in miscast careers, and particularly for those whose careers are well-suited.

    To answer your question: Yes, I know precisely what I want to do. I want to write. And I want to help people overcome obstacles in their lives. What I’d really like to do is turn this blog into a money making enterprise (which I’m working on), but if that doesn’t work, there are alternatives. I’ll definitely keep the blog posted on my progress in the coming months.

    Also, I’m so glad you’ve found a career that you’re well matched for, Alex. That’s a great accomplishment.

    –John

  • Doug says:

    John,

    The reason I asked is that I felt much like you say you did in college. I was starting to hate software and computers, and starting to love other things. I stuck with Computer Science and finished the degree, primarily for the career prospects, but wasn’t very enthusiastic.

    I actually did muck around with a few other things for awhile, and while some them were rewarding they did not pay well, and I got an IT job. What I discovered was that I had some degree of power to alter my own attitude towards the work I was doing. I could will myself to enjoy the work, by being optimistic, being confident and taking pride in what I was doing and finding ways to do it better or solve new problems. I found that dissatisfaction with work generally happened for a variety of oddball reasons. Maybe I was distracted by other things–like girlfriends or travelling or video games. Maybe I had gleaned a pessimistic attitude from the people around me, or maybe I just hadn’t gotten enough sleep lately.

    I enjoyed your article, and I completely agree with the idea that the promise of a rewards in a classical career path are bogus. However every time that I have done something that I knew for sure wasn’t right for me, I could explain exactly why. When I couldn’t explain why except to say “I don’t care, it’s not fulfilling” then something else was going on.

    I worked at a bank about 9 years ago. It was not mentally stimulating, I rarely learned new things, and I was surrounded by a completely impassionate moneymaking engine governed by strict rules. It had a strict organizational heirarchy, and strict rules about attire and behavior. I probably wouldn’t have been able to enumate with exquisite clarity every reason why banking wasn’t for me, but I would have been able to give you a pretty decent explanation.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Doug,

    Maybe I wasn’t clear in the article, but the questions at the top of the pyramid are all about whether the work itself is personally fulfilling. Not the job, but the work itself. Not the amount of work or the boss or the structure of the work, but the work itself. Not the dress code or the office politics or the money making machine or the lack of learning, but the work itself. Yes, all those other questions matter (and believe me when I say I’ve been quite capable of enumerating them when necessary), but they are from further down the pyramid.

    On some level, Maslow’s pyramid is related to the Protestant concept of a life calling, a concept that’s been around longer than I have and will be around long after I’m gone.

    The answers found at the top of the pyramid are more ambiguous because that’s the nature of the pyramid: it increases in abstractness as you climb. I suppose I could get more specific than simply stating that “I’m not called to write software applications,” but to do so would require a long, drawn-out conversation involving loads of my own personal psychology, and it would bore most everyone (including me) to tears. Trust me when I say I’ve reheated that old hash quite enough.

    I am glad you’ve found a career that you’re happy with, and I wish you the best.

    Good luck to you, Doug. Take care.

  • Doug says:

    Thank you for responding to my comments.

    The post was linked from news.ycombinator.com.

  • [...] The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) looks at the work of Abraham Maslow and Frederick Herzberg and how it applies to your job. [...]

  • [...] The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) Most people haven’t seen Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It’s interesting. [...]

  • [...] The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) – [JohnPlace] digg_url = ‘http://www.lifehack.org/articles/money/where-your-priorities-lie-at-work.html'; ( function() { var ds=typeof digg_skin==’string’?digg_skin:”; var h=80; var w=52; if(ds==’compact’) { h=18; w=120; } var u=typeof digg_url==’string’?digg_url:(typeof DIGG_URL==’string’?DIGG_URL:window.location.href); document.write(“”); } )() Author: Craig Childs Posted: Monday, September 3rd, 2007 at 1:52 pm Tags: career Bookmark or Share this with a friend! [...]

  • kc says:

    So what happens if you find a job that satisfies level 5 of the pyramid but fails to take care of #1-4?

  • JohnPlace says:

    KC: Chances are, you’ll find the deprivation so unpleasant that it will negate any hope of self actualization. In other words, it’s awfully hard to be concerned about questions of identity when facing questions of survival; therefore, ignoring the lower levels is not advisable.

    The trick is to be aware of the highest levels before you start climbing, not to disregard the lower levels.

  • I was at the very same crossroads described within the article (a must-read, really!) a few years back – I was in engineering because that’s what everyone (read: parents and other peers) said was a ‘stable career that paid well’. The job did pay well, but I just wasn’t happy inside. My dream was to pursue an MFA in animation and teach at the college level.

    Risking everything, I followed my dream. It was a tough decision, but the right one. Now, 5 years later, I’m teaching animation, web-design, and media arts courses, and freelance as a cartoonist / illustrator in my spare time. My work hours are great, and I have a nice balance between work and family life.

    Follow your dreams – life’s too short for regret.

  • JohnPlace says:

    Thanks for your thoughts, Krishna. I applaud your willingness to chase your dreams and am so happy you’ve found a career that you’re happy with. I am sure others will find your experience enlightening as well.

  • [...] while doing some on-the-side reading about careers, I ran across this blog post, which speaks shouts to me. The 5 stages he describes are an eerie mirror of my time at the [...]

  • [...] [WORKHACKS] The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) (johnplaceonline.com, 63 saves, 18 inbound links, diggs) [...]

  • [...] you feel your job sucks? John Place has an article explaining why and how you can fix it, using Maslow’s hierarchy of [...]

  • [...] that you send me every week. And as you certainly know from my recent decision to re-enter the rat-race (described here, and here) while I pursue my dreams on the side, it’s a conflict that [...]

  • [...] The job I’m leaving isn’t a bad one, it’s just not for me anymore. Figuring out why System X crashed or replacing the memory in Hardware Z is Boring (note the capital B). I love solving problems and creating things, hence why I’m drawn to programming, but the job I was in wasn’t so much about solving problems or creating solutions. It was more about babysitting systems, people, and processes. And as a job gets more rudimentary and repetitive, your willingness and ability to learn and grow go into the shitter. One can only create interesting problems to solve for so long before they, too, become Boring. It was coming to this realization that was giving me the problem. I used to like what I did here, why don’t I now? Because I simply don’t like the work. [...]

  • [...] The #1 Reason Your Job Sucks (and How to Fix it) [...]

  • [...] about the top while you’re still at the bottom: Several months ago, I wrote an article explaining Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. That article focused on job satisfaction, but Maslow’s teachings can be applied to other areas [...]

  • [...] The 1 Reason Your Job Sucks and How To Fix It When we reach adulthood, popular opinion encourages us to discard the fantasies of youth and pick one of the prefabricated career paths available at the local university or trade school. [...]

  • gravyfury says:

    I think the biggest problem is what do we want? I know we want what we can’t have. And when we get it we don’t want it. I know not getting what you want is usually a stroke of good luck. And none of life will make sense looking forward only back. I read an artical recently that has changed my life. Not in the possitive direction unfortunatly. It proves without a doubt how self centered people are and I am constantly swimming upstream when I try to help people in any facet. Here is the artical if you want to read it. But I warn you… You may loose hope in humanity.
    http://www.pointlesswasteoftime.com/monkeysphere.html

  • [...] because they do not directly contribute to the bottom line necessities. Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs for individuals, there is a hierarchy of needs for businesses as well. Source: [...]

  • I think Workrant.com is a great way to blow off some steam without getting fired. Unless, of course, your boss catches you on the site…In that case, it’s a hell of way to go out!

    http://job.ology.com/2009/02/25/workrantcom-rant-about-work-at-work/

    -Jared J. H. Catapano (ology.com)

  • Job Sucks says:

    You think your life and job suck. Read this guy’s blog. http://myjobsucksbigtime.blogspot.com/

  • Job Sucks says:

    You think your job sucks. Check out this guy’s blog http://myjobsucksbigtime.blogspot.com

  • Sunil says:

    Really good article! I am at the wrong peak I suppose, just like you, I was a programmer, and I loved the job, but now situations forced me to become a manager, and it sucks. I am not getting chance to do what I love to do.

  • Pete says:

    Great post! Finding a job you like and don’t find unbearable is really difficult. Not to mention trying to balance it with everything else in life. Thanks for the post.

    I recently came across this blog that I thought added some insight and levity into the issue and was enjoyable: http://burisonthecouch.wordpress.com/2010/06/25/family-member-dating/

    I’d love to see more like it. Thanks!

  • Paul says:

    I have to ask one question and I don’t necessarily disagree with what you say but, if you haven’t climbed this pyramid to the top, would you have really known what it was that you really wanted?

    You said it yourself, someone at the bottom or middle of the pyramid will have a different focus based on their immediate needs.

  • majorshadow says:

    Song “Sweetest Lemonade” hear @ URL: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JYcHW1kuP-k

    A song about the bad boss, improving your life, never settling for less

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  • tough relaity says:

    If you are working you aren’t really happy. You’ve been brainwashed to be a wage-slave since the day you were born.

    You are a slave Neo.

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