Work that is not satisfying reflects a basic conflict you have with yourself in your mind. It is not your career that causes the conflict, but the conflict that causes the work dissatisfaction. The causal direction is from the inside to the outside but not usually thought to be in this order. If you do not realize the psychological basis of the dissatisfaction, you may try to correct it by an external change of careers. Not only will you not fix it, but it will reappear in whatever work you chose to do next.
Career dissatisfaction indicates a fundamental conflict that a person has in their self-relationship. You may not think you have a "self-relationship," but you do, either a "good" or "bad" one, just as you have good and bad relationships with other people. Your self-relationship is part of your identity, learned from experiences with others, especially during childhood. Others, even "significant others," often do not know you very well, just as you do not, so when you are young, your identity tends to be superficial.
Consequently when you are grown, who you think you are (your appearance) and who you really are (your essence) usually do not coincide. The difference is between a "socially learned self" and a "naturally true self." Identity tends to be based on who others think you are, or should be, and constitutes a false sense of self. In not knowing who you are, you pick a career that is not right for you, and it shows up as work (and life) dissatisfaction.
Conflicts with work, therefore, are expressions of a hidden (unconscious) conflict with yourself in your mind. When you are younger, you tend to see problems as imposed and solved by external means. Explanations might range from environmental ("a bad job market") to circumstantial ("a bad boss"). People strive to attain as much money, status and power as possible to elevate their position in the material world to overcome these conditions.
When this strategy breaks down, as inevitably it must, since it locates conflict outside the mind, there may be distress that can motivate a search for an alternative career. There is only one problem, and it is the relationship of you with you. Understanding this principle requires patience and insight, techniques that contradict external and superficial viewpoints. Because of the dominance of the physical body during young adulthood, a contemplative attitude toward life ordinarily cannot be adopted before the age of "thirty-something."
The conflict individuals have with work is usually the same conflict they have with family, friends and relatives. Outward details may appear dissimilar, but the underlying conflict is almost always identical. Further, this one basic conflict can also show up in your body as physical symptoms of illness and disease, because physical health and mental health are interdependent. No one who uses external means to choose their career, however, will fail to find external reasons for work dissatisfaction.
"Know thyself" was the motto that Socrates reputedly learned from the Oracle at Delphi in ancient Greece. That you have an inner true self who gives you a meaningful life-purpose becomes comprehensible when you mature. As an adult, you must decide to find this true self, or to live with a false self, on-going work dissatisfaction, and conflict in personal relationships. Reaching the decision to connect inwardly is a turning point in personal development that launches the "quest" or "journey" to self discovery.

Almost everyone is challenged to find their true life-purpose
by the time their days on earth are half numbered.

Career reassessment often comes about in middle adulthood as a result of failures in outward solutions that trigger the classic "psycho-social crisis." At this time, if the personality is not too rigidly set by previous training, there is a possibility of turning inward for answers. Almost everyone is challenged to find their true life-purpose by the time their days on earth are half numbered.
Quest of a Calling
Some people at first are repulsed by the idea of an inward quest. If "you love what you hate," you may also have a deep yearning to start your search. In believing the illusion of a false self, many individuals think that an inward search is impractical or even a strange idea. Being willing to embark on the adventure of self-discovery is the first step to finding meaning in life and work.
Many people are frustrated when a career chosen by external means becomes dissatisfy-ing. Inevitably it must fail, because it was not decided by your true self. Your life-purpose is hindered whenever your mind is projected outwardly and lost into the world. The idea that callings are brought to you by economic opportunities, influential connections, quality of higher education, or even good fortune, are misconceptions : Your calling arises from an inner place, not the market place.
Everyone has a calling given as a birthright, but it is fought against as a result of socially learned self-mistrust that often appears in the form of external obstacles. If your current job bothers you a lot, for instance, you may be so annoyed that an alterative cannot occur to you. Many people choose to ignore the quest of their calling, living in a rational material world, using only their goal-oriented left-brain, or residing in an imaginary emotional world of self-doubt, using only their right-brain.
A meaningful career choice arises from the resource of your own integrated mind and from nowhere else. All the skills and knowledge necessary to enact your life-purpose are directly and fully possessed psychologically. Once your career has been identified from within, it cannot be wrong, discounted by others or pursued half-heartedly. In finding your calling you attain self-fulfillment and prosperity, and make sensible contributions to the economy.
Today prevailing wisdom about career change sees it exclusively as a logical problem of how to adapt your aptitudes and personality to corporate needs. This approach implies that the economy is a rational enterprise, and that you are irrational when you do not conform. The real question, however, is how do you fit with you, and what are you meant to do with your life-work. Traditional approaches to career counseling do not stress the psychological and spiritual foundation outlined in this article.
Below is a hypothetical example of the psychological given-and-take that occurs in changing careers, edited from email consultation by the author on the Internet. Since this is an individual case, you will miss the general principle, the inside determines the outside, if you focus on the specifics. It is a case of burnout, but the work dissatisfaction might originate from boredom, downsizing, incompetent management, or any other cause.
Exemplary Case

Client
OK, this is my situation: an administrative officer for a large Eastern manufacturing corporation. MBA, employed by same employer 17 years, 60 hour work weeks. Age 45, two daughters and a spouse. Burned out and tired of "vision statements," "mission statements," endless strategy meetings always covering the same subject, employee hostilities and work in general.
Tried counseling, taken all the tests, but nothing gives me the passion to make a move and forego an exceptional income. While I want out of the business, I feel too old to start training for a new career. I am to the point of giving notice so I can start exploring opportunities full time, but don't know where to start or what I'd be looking for. I'd appreciate any suggestions you might have.
Consultant
You do sound "burned out!" An alternative will give you some relief which is important because without it, your negative feelings will just continue to grow and interfere with finding a new way. You don't have to give notice to explore alternatives although you can if you want to. You just need space in your mind to begin a search.
My feedback about career changes is not the standard point of view. Work that is not satisfying reflects a conflict within your own mind in your relationship with yourself. It also is the same conflict that reappears in misunderstandings with others, including bosses and intimates. Conflict with work and others is really an unconscious conflict with yourself.
My emphasis then is not on identifying a new career, but on knowing yourself better. As you become willing to do this, the conflict with your job will diminish, and you will know whether to transition or not, because of self-knowledge. If you do not deal with your self-relationship, the same conflict with work will reappear in any new career you pick, just as it will if you change spouses.
Client
I've received this kind of feedback before. Intellectually, I accept this knowledge but acting upon it are two very different things. I've tried prayer and believe meditation is the only path to self-knowledge. However, my lack of discipline, and ability to find excuses not to sit still, are remarkable. Perhaps I'll be able to try again soon.
Consultant
Knowing the reason why you have excuses and lack discipline may help you make a change, or accept the career you have. Why do you think you have this reaction? You've told me little about yourself, and you may think I'm presumptuous, but the feeling beneath your reaction is fear.
With many successful years at one place, no real alternative as yet, and thinking you are "too old to start over," you are afraid to quit your job. But, I am talking about a fear beyond this economic fear. Fear is not an emotion easily or commonly recognized.
You are afraid to take the time to relax, to be patient and to get in touch with your unconscious mind. Most people are afraid that they will discover something about themselves they do not want to know, or that is really wrong. This idea itself is frightful.
I can only reassure you that if you trust your mind you will find it is logical and creative. What you should fear is not trusting yourself which is not logical or creative. The thought that your mind is untrustworthy is scaring you.
If you realize that you are afraid, but that your mind is sound, you can proceed cautiously with career change. I recommend just starting with deep breathing exercises to allow yourself to relax. If you are as high-strung as you sound, you need this to reduce stress anyway.
Sit and deep breathe and put your mind on the sensation of breathing. At first your mind will fly away but just try to keep bringing it back to feeling the sensation. You will improve each time, and be patient with yourself while you learn. There are other relaxation meditations you can practice once you improve.
Client (Several weeks later)
I'm simply not having time to deal with the career issue right now. We've gone into merger discussions pushing my normal 60 hour week to 70 hours. It now appears I'll be called upon for even greater sacrificial duties.
I was surprised when fear was one of the first images that came up while doing an early meditation. Obviously, you know something that I've been unwilling to accept.
The career dilemma certainly hasn't gone away but I'm walking regularly, and meditating when I can (2-3 times a week). I've lost 15 pounds in the first 5 weeks and am feeling better.
I thought the fear was economic only, but I am seeing it is deeper than that. I hope to get back into it after next week and will keep in touch. It surprised me and is much appreciated. Thank you.

Conclusion
This client did not know how to find meaningful work because he did not trust his own mind. His self-mistrust generated fear which was discharged by overwork until ultimately he burned out. The realization that the answer to career change is a function of his own mind can help transcend the fear. To trust yourself and fulfill your potentials in career and life is entirely your own choice to make.
Copyright © 1997

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Email Jon with your questions at jon@careerstar.com