What Do You Do When You Don’t Know What To Do?

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There are large numbers of people who are extremely unhappy with their careers. The reasons for that unhappiness are many:

  1. Boredom due to the repetitiveness of the work.
  2. Low salary with heavy work load.
  3. "Burn Out" due to work pressure.
  4. Too many years at the same job so that it is no longer challenging.
  5. Absence of a career ladder for advancement.
  6. Experiencing the work as below one’s abilities and skills.
  7. Experiencing the work as too difficult and above one’s abilities and skills.
  8. Very short vacation time.
  9. Working in a corporate environment that is unresponsive to worker needs and suggestions.
  10. Working in an authoritarian environment in which there is a lot of hostility.
  11. Low prestige and status for the type of job position.

These are just a few of the factors that cause work and career dissatisfaction.


Despite the fact that so many people are unhappy with their career choices, they remain in their jobs without making any changes. For some, a dim or pessimistic view of life leaves them with the notion that nothing better can be expected in their lives. Then, too, there are people who want job security regardless of how unhappy they are with their circumstances. These are people whose productivity decreases over the years. Poor evaluations and low salary are acceptable trade-offs for the sake of safety and job security. Their approach to job unhappiness is to count the days until each holiday, to each vacation, and to their day of retirement. Of course, there are people who need their present job regardless of how unhappy they may be. These are people with families to feed and clothe, and mortgages to pay. Many people seem unaware that they could have choices and make choices and changes in their career paths. Believing they have no options, they just continue, in a dogged and stubborn way, to go the same job, never understanding that their lives could be better.

There is another type of career person who is unhappy with what they do and who is aware that career change is possible and desirable. Yet, they have no idea of what they would do to make a living if they did not maintain their present status. In fact, these are individuals who never knew what they wanted to do. When asked what their dreams were when they were children, they draw a blank and report that they never had any dreams. When asked how they selected their present work, they provide explanations about how they found the job or how the job found them. However, these people make it clear that there was no motivating force that drove them toward what they are now doing. Perhaps the fact that it pays "good money" was as good a motivator as anything else. For this individual, as for many others, there was a time, years ago, when the economy was different and people were guaranteed a job for the rest of their lives. Today, with a fast changing economy deeply affected by the international situation including the shortage of oil and energy sources, and other nations with competing economies, including the fact that many companies are now moving overseas where labor and manufacturing are less expensive than in the United States, there is no longer any guarantee about working for one company or even in one type of business for the remainder of a person's life.

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Individuals who back into a job without any type of vision or ambition often find themselves in a crisis if the company for which they are working either changes location to a different part of the country or goes out of business altogether. At that point, the individual is left feeling confused and uncertain about what to do. That is when they may seek psychotherapy. If their hope is that therapy will somehow help them find a job, they are sorely disappointed. In the therapeutic office, they have no better idea of what they want to do about work than before they lost their current job. All they know is that they are unhappy with their situation and want to work, but make little effort to find a job because there is nothing they want to do.

How does this happen?

This happens as a result of feelings of depression that predate their company closing or their losing their job. Further discussion in psychotherapy often reveals the fact that parental attitudes toward work during childhood were extremely negative. In these cases, whether the parent was a medical doctor, postal worker or anything between, they hated their jobs and made that abundantly clear when they came home. These attitudes and feelings were absorbed by their children even if they were not aware of it up until they entered therapy. Without a role model to convey a commitment to work and career, these individuals, when they were children, did not entertain ideas about being a fireman, policeman, or anything else. In fact, they dared not imagine themselves following in the foot steps of their parents because of the bitter complaints they heard at home.

In some cases, parents interfered with this childhood day dreaming and role playing if they (the parent) objected to the type of work the child dreamed about. Of course, that type of parental intrusion into a child's fantasy world interferes with the developing creativity and imagination of this budding mind. The child who has this type of experience and grows up without the unfettered opportunity to imagine being a nurse, doctor, sanitation worker or anything else is left without the ability to imagine themselves as defined by any type of career. They may work, but without joy, pleasure or any sense of accomplishment.

In treatment I hear many of these types of individuals complain that their friends have gone far beyond them in their lives. The complaint is not that their friends are making more money than they are, but that they talk about themselves, with pleasure, as being an accountant, a lawyer, a plumber, or any number of other professions or types of work. In other words, their friends have a sense of commitment to something more than just earning some money. They have a commitment that is envied by the person who has no guide to who they are or what they should do.

What is the solution to this dilemma?

This is a difficult question to answer but one of the suggestions I work with in therapy with someone struggling with an identity crisis about their career goal, is to ask them what kind of work they might like to do but without worrying about reality issues. What types of reality issues are referred to here? These are the reality issues their parents used to interfere with their imaginings when they were children.

Among these reality issues are things like:

  • Salary considerations.
  • Further professional education.
  • How to pay for further professional education.
  • Whether or not it is possible to make a living at the imagined type of work.
  • Believing that the profession or type of work is too high in status or too low in status.
  • What other people might think about the career choice.

These are just a few of the issues that plague many people when thinking about careers. What is particularly disturbing is that these types of questions stop people from allowing their imaginations to place them into one type of work or another. The fact is that people are capable of making things happen for themselves if they allow themselves the chance to dream.

A Startling Example of Someone Who Brought Dreams to Reality

Many years ago, when I worked in a hospital psychiatry department as a clinical social worker, I met an elderly psychiatrist who always seemed energetic and enthusiastic - way beyond anything demonstrated by any of the other professionals in the department. Among these other, much younger professionals, were nurses, social workers, secretaries, and, of course, psychiatrists. On one of those rare days when there was a lull in the otherwise rapid pace of the day, I asked him where he got his energy and enthusiasm and if it had anything to do with anticipating retirement, which did not seem like an inappropriate question considering the fact that he was seventy five-years-old.

I was speechless to hear that retirement was not a consideration since he had just completed his psychiatric residency and this was his first paying job as an attending psychiatrist in a hospital. Incredulous but relieved at his good humored response, I asked him how this was possible? He told me in a good natured way that, when he was in his sixities, he and his wife agreed that he should pursue his life long dream of becoming a medical doctor. Rejected from all American medical schools, he went to a school in the Carribean, completed its program, came back to the United States, took the boards, passed, and was then accepted into an American school where he completed his medical training. Undaunted by the fact that most hospitals did not want to hire such an elderly man, he continued to seek employment until he found his present position in a hospital that did not fear the elderly.

This inspiring story is true and underlines the fact that it is never too late if someone has a dream that they refuse to give up, regardless of the odds against its fulfillment.

The message I am conveying is: allow yourself to dream and don't allow others to discourage you, regardless of the odds against realizing your goals. Perhaps it is something you cannot do now but, in the future, there is always hope, that is, if you keep your dreams and refuse to listen to the nay sayers.

Allan N. Schwartz, Ph.D.

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