July 15, 2011
Why we stay: Unhappy in your job? Focus on what would happen if you changed
By Andrea Kay / The Associated Press
Bob was 50 and miserable, working as a doctor in his own practice but unwilling to call it quits.
He just couldn’t get his mother out of his head. “She told me I should be a doctor when I was 10,” he says.
Forty years later, when Bob told her he was thinking of doing something else, she said: “It’s a good job. Why would you give that up, especially these days? You should hold on to what you’ve got.”
Why do people hold on to what they have at all costs when it’s not what they want, especially when it makes them irritable and sick?
Setting aside the idea that we may be trying to meet others’ expectations, the obvious answer is that we don’t like change. Put another way, we’d rather stick with what’s familiar.
When a New York subway worker’s employer was celebrating 100 years of service in 2004, he said in a radio interview that he’s more comfortable walking the tracks than the streets of New York. Why? “Because I know the environment. I know the pitfalls,” he said.
That’s how humans operate. We like to know what’s around the corner.
Bob’s work defined much of who he was. In part, he had become a doctor because it was prestigious and “a big deal to make money,” he says. “And now, here I am successful and making money.”
Writer Tom Wolfe has a theory about this. It has to do with status.
“Social behavior is almost always determined by status consciousness -- an instinct to preserve your place in the social pecking order,” he wrote in The New York Times Magazine a few years ago.
Status details, as he calls them, include “where a person thinks he belongs and, more important, where he wants to stay.”
“People aren’t so much interested in scaling the social ladder as in clinging to their own, hard-earned rung,” Wolfe wrote.
Bob has clung to his rung while creating a life of despair and anxiety. He can’t decide what to choose, torn between maintaining his status and following his heart.
Other times, people fall into the “these days” trap, as in “These days, you should be glad for what you’ve got and hold on to it.” Have you said that yourself?
If all of this sounds way too familiar, maybe you should examine what you hold on to and whether you have the stomach to change. To start, here are five questions to ponder:
- What are you holding on to? Is it the familiarity of something? If so, what? Is it a feeling of something, fitting in?
- What do you gain from it? Is it social status? Money? Comfort in knowing what to expect each day? Acceptance from others?
- What is keeping you from getting or doing other aspirations? As long as you keep doing this work, what else don’t you get to do or have?
- What will you lose if you give it up? Respect? Money? An identity? A particular group of friends?
- Is what you lose worth more than the new career satisfaction you want?
The next time you hear yourself or someone else ask, “Why would you give that up?” think about a better question to ponder: “What will I gain if I do?”
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