Does Your Job Suck (the life out of you)?

Updated: Aug 21

Has this ever happened to you? You are super excited about seeing friends, going to a concert, going on a trip, going out dancing, etc. but when the day comes around you end up deciding not to go. Your job has been dragging on you and because of it, you decide instead to stay home and watch tv or just go to bed early. If this sounds familiar, keep reading because it might be time to make some changes.


There's this story you've probably heard about a professor who wants to give a lesson about priorities. She puts a mason jar on the table and puts eight or nine large rocks inside that fill the jar to the brim. She asks the class a simple question, "Is it full?"


The class mostly agrees that the jar is full. At that point, she looks at them curiously and pulls out a bag of gravel which she proceeds to pour into the jar to fill the space around the rocks. The class realizes they've been had. She asks again, "Is it full?"


Well yes, the point has been made that there was space to fill around the rocks that they missed but they mostly agree that it's now full. So she pulls out a bag of sand and pours it into the jar. It takes some shaking and tapping but she manages to fill in all of the nooks and crannies around the gravel. The class laughs at this, realizing they've been tricked again.

The professor looks at them and says, "Thanks for letting me have some fun with you but this demonstration isn't about jars and rocks. It's about your life. The jar represents the space you have which is made up of the amount of time in the day and, frankly, the emotional energy you have to give. Those things are finite. The large rocks represent the biggest priorities in life. The gravel represents your lower priorities and the sand are those things that you squeeze in where you can because they're just for kicks. The point I'm making is that the rocks have to come first. Because we all fill our lives with something. But if the gravel or the sand came first, there would be no room for the rocks. And we'd be missing out on the big important things. Would you agree that this jar is filled in a way that is satisfying to you?"


 

Many of us would do college completely differently (or not at all) if we had the choice to go back. But just like you shouldn't spend $10,000 to replace the engine on a $2,000 1994 Hyundai Sonata, you shouldn't torture yourself at a job you hate because you're desperate to not feel like college was a waste.

 

As the students begin nodding with their agreement, the professor reaches under her desk again and pulls out a can of beer. She cracks it open and the students begin laughing as they begin to realize they've been tricked one more time. She begins pouring the beer into the jar which soaks into the sand and compresses it, making even more space. She continues, "And please don't think I've forgotten what it's like to be in college. I'm not trying to force some boring and neatly prioritized life upon you. The most important thing I'd like you to know is that if you can figure out how to live your life in this way, there will always be space for a few beers with the squad."


If you buy into the point of this story like I do, it doesn't make sense that you wouldn't have the emotional energy left for the things you enjoy after a long day at work. Work is a big rock and there's supposed to be space and energy. The professor said so. What gives? The answer is that maybe work isn't your priority. To use the jar metaphor, work is kind of like the pebbles or maybe even the sand to a lot of us. We need to pay bills and contribute to society and all of that, but it's not where we get our fulfillment. Maybe we really care the most about that concert we missed or the people in our lives or our families or being outside. And that would totally be ok, except we've been trained to force it to be our priority and a lot of us are suffering because of it. To put it another way, you're filling your jar with your sandy pebbly job and when you're done there isn't room for the actual important stuff.


How the hell did this happen? Well, back when you were around five years old you began training for your big adult life. You got up one day, got dressed, and went to your very first day of school. Over the next decade or two you were trained into a routine - but more importantly - a system of priorities. Most of us were trained into a core belief that school comes first. It's the first thing you do in the day. You don't schedule friend hangs on school nights. After school, and ONLY after school, you're allowed to do a sport or a club or whatever. And if you still have energy after that you can play or watch tv or something.


I get that we weren't all raised like this - plenty of you were smoking weed behind a dumpster after school or had parents that thought that this whole model was bullshit (or just didn't care). Even if your experience was different, I imagine most would agree that the culture we live in is working hard to make the school-first structure the norm. So it follows that when we grow up, work comes first. You work 9-5 (or 7-midnight if you work in healthcare or tech) and that is your priority. It's so much of a priority that if you want to go to the doctor or if you aren't feeling well, or want to go do something fun, you actually have to ask permission from another adult to not be there. After that, you can go do your hobbies and if you're not exhausted on the weekends you can go do the things you care about or get drunk or play video games or take care of your mental health or practice spirituality etc.


If you've really drunk the kool-aid, you will see these activities not as important for their own sake, but rather a way to recharge so you can get up and face another week on Monday morning. The truly lucky ones among us get an extra bonus: some kind of workaholic boss that calls you on your off hours because they have so deeply bought into the idea that work should be the priority that they assume you're sitting around waiting for more work to do like they are.


OK I'm not trying to talk to you like you're five. You obviously understand this. But I'm laying it out in simple terms for a reason: This is a social convention. It's a STRONG one in the United States but it is a convention. And conventions can be changed. COVID was and still is a nightmare but showed us something really important: even during the pandemic, our jobs expected us to keep our schedules, maintain our productivity, and make them the priority. Teachers, doctors, and nurses got it the worst and I honestly don't understand how you people haven't completely self-destructed (thank you, seriously, for all that you do - I know thanks will never be enough).


"But boss, my kid can't go to school anymore and I need to take care of her. She's my big rock now." Too bad. Work comes first.


"But boss, my grandpa is literally dying and I am beside myself. He is my big rock now." You may have 5 days of bereavement. That is if you work full time. You may not use those days until after he dies and we'll need an obituary. Also, enjoy the hell of HR red tape trying to actually get these benefits enacted.


"But boss, I cannot maintain this level of work. I am emotionally depleted and everything feels like it's caving in. Also, I can't keep covering for the 12 people that quit last month. I need a break." That's why you have vacation time. Go talk to the EAP therapist and get yourself right so you can come back to work and stop complaining about this stuff.


This didn't happen to everyone. But this or something like it happened to a lot of us. If your job truly is the big rock in your life, which is to say that it fills you with meaning and you have a career filled with purpose, this stuff sucked but you trudged on. On the flip side, if you're in a situation where you can't spend your energy on the things you care about because this stupid secondary thing is demanding all of your energy, you've probably hit some kind of breaking point.


Here's what I'm getting at: When I hear employers pretending to be confused about why 4.4 million people quit their jobs in September of 2021 alone, I can't do anything but laugh. What did they expect? And to anyone out there who believes people are leaving because unemployment is a better payout or that those who quit or just off fucking around and playing - you aren't paying attention. The people leaving are lucky if they're receiving unemployment but most have left out of a necessity to prioritize the neglected parts of their lives. Not only that, this shift is so important that they're willing to take a big financial hit to do it. AND they're still working. The majority of people who have left their jobs and not gotten a new one have started a business because it's the only way they've been able to find balance.


9 times out of 10 when a new client comes to coaching they want to work on their career. Almost every time, the career is not the issue. However, career is the lever we've learned to pull when things are feeling off in our lives. We're taught that it's the most important thing, remember? I've talked to people in the last few months who, in their hearts want to prioritize their families or their art or their social connection or simply work on being more authentic versions of themselves but they can't stop talking about work. Why? Because we cannot get it out of our heads that work is the most important if not the only thing. I am so excited that people are opening their eyes and realizing that it doesn't have to be this way.


If this resonates for you, I'd like to offer some advice about what you can do to bring your WHOLE LIFE back into balance - not just the part that deals with career and money. 1) Don't get sucked into the educational sunk cost fallacy.


I think sending a whole generation off to college was a noble but completely failed experiment. I've benefitted from it greatly so I won't rag on it but I know a lot of people are in a lot of debt and working in a field they've learned to hate but don't think they can leave. I also know that hurts. It's ok if you aren't doing anything related to what you went to college for. Don't forget that you went to college so you could find meaning in your work. Whether you're working in your chosen field or not, your job does not deserve "big rock" status if it doesn't fulfill some kind of purpose (money isn't purpose, people).

Many of us would do college completely differently (or not at all) if we had the choice to go back. But just like you shouldn't spend $10,000 to replace the engine on a $2,000 1994 Hyundai Sonata, you shouldn't torture yourself at a job you hate because you're desperate to not feel like college was a waste.


2) Ask yourself what you actually care about.


In my first coaching session with new clients we do a visualization where I help them find 30 seconds of their lives that they would live all over again if they had the chance. We get connected to it and I give them a list of 10-15 values (the important things in life that make us feel alive). Almost every time, their minds are blown, in part because I seem to really get who they are after a short time, but mostly because they are shocked that they didn't readily know this about themselves. PLEASE learn your values. They are the most important starting point for designing a meaningful life and letting go of pointless garbage.


3) Treat money as a means to an end and nothing more.


I'll write more about money later. I don't think it's real. In fact, I know it's not real. It's a numerical system of value that we have decided is worth some amount of goods and services. It's a great tool but that's it. Some of us have allowed it to become a placeholder for some nebulous concept called "success" as if our lives are a big game of pinball and the goal is to get the most points.

Success to me is the number of values that are alive in the way I live my life day to day. You can disagree but if you want to have a meaningful life, I promise money can't be your big rock. It's a means for paying rent, feeding your kids, going to concerts and eating taco bell every once in a while (and a few other things) and should be treated as such - especially given the amount we spend on things that actually take us away from our best selves in the name of convenience (ie - taco bell).


4) Take committed action to prioritize your big rocks.


I've got a buddy who just talked his boss into dropping him down to four days per week instead of five. Watching him light up about how he's going to spend his extra day gave me joy I cannot explain. It's a small change but it cleared out 20% of the gravel that was clogging up his will to live. And it's not like he hates his job. He just has other things that he cares about more. I'm not advising you to throw your life off a cliff here - you do not have to quit your job to prioritize the big rocks - but it's important to ask yourself a question that he had to wrestle with: what's worth giving up 20% of my income for? If you have an answer, the work is to make the space and then commit to filling it with the stuff that you learned about in the values exercise. There are a lot of ways to do this. Quitting to take a break is one, finding a different job is another, lowering your hours is yet another, and some can just stay at their job and dial back their give-a-shits/ reprioritize mental health over climbing the ladder. That choice is yours. The important thing here is that you have a choice. Always.



Someone told me once that burnout isn't about being tired, it's about the realization that the things you do for 40 -80 hours a week don't matter. That struck me at my core. Because if your job burns you out AND it's your number one priority, you're left with no emotional energy to get your meaning back outside of work and dig out of the hole. I wish you meaning in your work but I offer you the perspective that meaning doesn't require a paycheck. You can do something that doesn't fulfill you, get the money you need, and be fulfilled in other ways. But it requires you to ditch your programming and allow your job to not be the most important thing. The paradox here is that if you can manage to deprioritize a meaningless job, you'll be happier at it and be better at it. But this is only if you can prioritize something that matters to you, in which case that energy will carry over.


There are so many paths to a meaningful and important life and if your job isn't providing it, please do something about it. At the very least, find a way to give those bastards less of yourself so you can reconnect to what you're actually doing on this planet. I promise it will make a difference.


Give me your thoughts. What kind of life would you be willing to trade 20% of your income for? Think I’ve for it wrong and want to offer a counterpoint? Post it in the comments.

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