You’re bored at work. But maybe it’s not that bad.
The work can be interesting. Sometimes it is. Other times it isn’t. Some days go by fast. Others don’t. Regardless, they all seem to run together.
You like the people you work with. Or at least, you don’t mind them – with the obvious exception of the guy next door clipping his fingernails. The vast majority are okay to be around. But this doesn’t really help.
Your boss isn’t a jerk. He’s an okay guy. He’s trying his best even if that best isn’t always quite good enough.
All in all, there’s no real problems. There’s no glaring issue. It’s an okay job and you should be happy to be there.
But you’re not. You’re still bored. And you can’t help asking yourself – Is this really it? Is this what I want to do? Is this all I have to offer?
But here’s the good news. That boredom is actually a good thing. The only danger lies in not listening to it.
Let’s All Take It Easy on the Whole Passion Obsession.
“Telling someone to ‘follow their passion’ is not just an act of innocent optimism, but potentially the foundation for a career riddled with confusion and angst.” – Cal Newport, So Good They Can’t Ignore You
At this point, the typical advice would tell you to follow your passion. You’re miserable because you’re not following your passion. That grumpy cashier at the supermarket – yeah, his problem is that he just doesn’t have the courage to follow his passion.
It’s amazing how many people there are whose passion seems to be lecturing other people on finding their passion. Like that group who preaches we should all live every moment like it’s our last. Which, apparently, just goes to show you that some people would spend their last moments giving the rest of us worthless advice.
If you google “How to Find Your Passion,” you’ll be inundated with life hacks, step-by-step guidance, and quick, easy actions to uncover the secret of a wonderful, fulfilling career. Page after page of articles, blogs, and books all promising the same thing – find your passion and live a great life.
Yet as a general rule, when there are thousands of different people spouting off advice on a topic, it usually means that these “simple, easy solutions,” are anything but. And while they all may claim to have the answer, few of them actually do.
If everyone’s career engagement problems could be solved that easily, there’d only need to be one book on the topic. And everyone would be smiling ear-to-ear from 9-5 each day. Yet in a recent Gallup poll, 85% of employees define themselves as either “not engaged” or “actively disengaged” at work. So there’s still a disconnect.
Do you think this vast majority just hasn’t realized that they need to follow their passion? Could they have all missed the feel-good blogs, books, speeches, articles, podcasts, and obituaries?
Maybe. But it seems unlikely. So maybe the solution to workplace boredom and disengagement is neither inspirational quotes nor telling people to just quit their jobs and do whatever makes them happy.
It’s not that people shouldn’t follow their passion. If you’re passionate about piano tuning and you can make a living doing it, the more power to you.
And there are a lot of people fortunate enough to be thrilled about going into work each day. Yet a few successful examples does not mean it’ll work for everyone. A better strategy is to widen the aperture to see what works for the greater majority of people.
And if there’s one thing that’s true for the vast majority of people – it’s that we’re constantly changing.
You’re Not Finished
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” – Lao Tzu
How many of us honestly know what we’re passionate about? I like my job. I like the people that I work with. But am I passionate about it?
Maybe. Sometimes. From 8-11am each weekday and most of Wednesday afternoon? I don’t know.
Few jobs are nonstop excitement. Nearly all of them have paperwork and bureaucracy that frustrates the best of us.
My son’s passionate about animals. He’s decided at the age of six that he’s going to be a zookeeper. And while he may be happy working with animals each day, I doubt he’ll be passionate about dealing with the visitors that somehow lose their keys in the lemur cage.
Maybe so many people are disengaged at work because people feel that each day should be chock full of passion without really knowing what that means.
But more importantly, maybe it’s because our interests and preferences (and even our passions) change throughout our lives.
Psychologist Daniel Gilbert refers to this as the “end of history illusion.” While we’re quick to recognize the amount that we’ve changed in the past (remember that old hairstyle?), we don’t believe we’ll change much going forward.
Gilbert and his colleagues demonstrated this on a study of more than 19,000 adults. Consistently, people identified that their core ideas of success and priorities transformed over the past ten years. And preferences for hobbies, vacations, and even friends changed dramatically as well.
Yet when people were asked to predict how much they’d change going forward, they assumed everything would more or less remain stable. As Gilbert described it,
“Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”
The person you are today is but one snapshot in time, just like all those other past versions of yourself. Your interests, preferences, and passions will be different because you will be different. And while that may seem contrary to current thinking, it is consistent with history.
So while typical advice preaches the need to find and lock down your passion, it’s worth recognizing that this is a moving target. Not only are many of us unsure of what our passion is today, we have no idea of how it will change in the future. All of which leads to the typical boredom and disengagement that plagues most companies.
Boredom Is Just a Signal
“Extreme boredom provides its own antidote.” – Francois Duc De La Rochefoucauld
We tend to think of disengaged workers as bad at their jobs. It’s easy to classify this group as unmotivated and apathetic. Yet more often than not, being bored at work isn’t a sign of incompetence.
Few people are bored when they start their jobs. They rarely become disengaged on the first day. When things are new and challenging, most people are fully engaged in learning and delivering high quality work.
Yet at some point between then and now, they traded in that initial excitement for apathy. For the majority of people this isn’t a step change. While major disappointments and moments of anger prompt people to take drastic action, it’s the slow, gradual decline that leads to disengagement.
Because just as our interests change over time, so do our capabilities. As you become more proficient at your job, you built skills and abilities that make that job easier. What was once challenging and interesting soon became relatively easy and straightforward.
The problem is that while our interests and capabilities change, our workplace challenges rarely increase at the same rate. And as a result, it becomes much easier to mentally check out. If your work isn’t capturing the full span of your mental attention, it’s reasonable for your mind to wander off in search of something that will.
In this way, boredom isn’t a bad thing. You’ve learned your job and become adept at handling it. You begin to miss that dopamine rush that comes with learning new things and overcoming new challenges. Boredom is just your mind’s way of telling you that you’re ready to move onto something new.
The danger lies in not listening to that signal. The danger lies in accepting it. As Naval Ravikant put it,
“In any situation in life, you only have three options. You always have three options. You can change it, you can accept it, or you can leave it. What is not a good option is to sit around wishing you would change it but not changing it, wishing you would leave it but not leaving it, and not accepting it. It’s that struggle, that aversion, that is responsible for most of our misery.”
Most people’s words say that they’re going to change it or leave it. Yet their actions scream that they’ve accepted it. They keep doing the same thing, becoming more miserable by the day, and complaining to anyone who’ll listen.
They either do nothing and are surprised when things don’t magically get better or they spend their time looking for that one perfect solution, disgruntled when they can’t seem to locate their career needle in the proverbial haystack.
The alternative – and the best chance of success – is to broaden our options and look for more universal solution. And to do this, we should look for the general qualities that make a fulfilling career.
What Makes a Fulfilling Career?
“The secret to happy workplaces isn’t spending more money. It’s about creating the conditions that allow employees to do their best work.” – Ron Friedman, The Best Place to Work
A few years ago, my company started an initiative to improve retention. They rolled out retention bonuses – cash incentives to sign up for a promise to stay for the next couple of years.
It was a disaster. People who planned to leave still left. Others who were already going to stay took the money and stayed. In the end, retention didn’t improve and the company just paid out a bunch of money to no effect.
Because people weren’t leaving for financial reasons. They were leaving based on poor match quality.
When we think about a job, it’s easy to tie it’s worth to the salary and other benefits. But once these areas reach the level that they’re not causing an issue, they have little effect on our daily activities.
Don’t get me wrong. I wouldn’t turn down a large raise or a bonus that’s thrown my way. But this quickly normalizes and loses its benefit on our day-to-day actions.
More important is what economists define as match quality – the degree of fit between the work someone does and who they are. It measures how much our work aligns to both our interests and abilities, which tends to show itself in three main ways:
- The ability to do work that’s important to you – and has a positive impact on others.
- The ability to do work that you can do well, or has the opportunity for you to grow into it.
- The ability to do work with people that you respect and feel connected to.
Peter Thiel put it perfectly in Zero to One, advising companies to avoid fighting the perk war and provide people with “the opportunity to do irreplaceable work on a unique problem alongside great people.”
Similarly, Larry Page advised us to, “Make sure everybody in the company has great opportunities, has a meaningful impact, and is contributing to the good of society.”
Notice that neither Peter nor Larry mentioned trying to match the work to someone’s pre-existing passion. Instead, these qualities are much more broad. They’re independent of a specific field and customizable based on someone’s interests and abilities. All of which provides many more options for a fulfilling career.
If you’re bored at work or upset with your job, it’s likely due to the fact that one of these areas is falling short. Figuring out which one is often the difference between finding a new challenge, finding a new job, or finding a new career. And being willing to take action to change it.
Let Regret Be Your Guide
“Regrets, I’ve had a few. But then again, too few to mention.” – Frank Sinatra
After my company abandoned the doomed retention bonus program, we eventually found something that did work: providing people with more opportunities for development and growth assignments.
Where salary incentives failed, people responded to opportunities for lateral transfers and changing assignments that prioritized match quality.
Our interests will change over time. Our capabilities will grow and improve. Yet often we don’t understand the limits of these areas until we’ve gained some experience with them.
I thought I was interested in learning to meditate. Turns out…no, I am not.
Which is why programs that prioritize match quality are so important. They give people the opportunity to pursue a new interest and try a new challenge to see how it fits. And most importantly, they give people an opportunity to minimize their potential regret.
We often underestimate just how much we are motivated by the potential for regret. We constantly worry about making the wrong choice and regretting all of the options we left behind. Most of these regrets tend to be the things we didn’t do, the choices we never pursued. As Chester Barnard described it, “To try and fail is at least to learn; to fail to try is to suffer the inestimable loss of what might have been.”
But we can use this potential for regret in a positive manner. Before Jeff Bezos started Amazon, he had a well-paid investment position and starting an online bookstore was going to be a big risk. In weighing his options, Bezos let his potential regret frame the decision,
“The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called—which only a nerd would call—a ‘regret minimization framework.’ So I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, ‘Okay, now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets I have.’ I knew that when I was 80 I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret trying to participate in this thing called the Internet that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed I wouldn’t regret that, but I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried. I knew that that would haunt me every day, and so, when I thought about it that way it was an incredibly easy decision.”
Just as award-winning poet/weightlifter Jerzy Gregorek advises asking ourselves in difficult moments, “What is a hard choice and what is an easy choice?” focusing on eventual regret adds perspective on which choice is in our long-term best interest.
The majority of people don’t know all of their passions today. And very few will be able to predict where those passions will be in five years. But we all know what interests us right now. We know what we consider to be meaningful at this point. And we can all start to recognize which work we’ll find to be challenging today.
You have everything you need to pursue a new challenge and stop being bored at work. When you look back on your career, which path will you end up regretting? Which is the hard choice?
Or would you prefer to continue being bored and disengaged?