As a teenager, I worked at a summer camp teaching groups of 6- and 7-year-olds to kayak in the rocky waters of South Florida. Between boats speeding by, kayaks tipping over and kids getting lost paddling off on their own, I spent most days frantically shouting at the top of my lungs trying to ensure no child died.
I remember thinking, “One day, things will be different.” I assumed I would eventually work a job in a sleek office with deep purpose, solving problems by coming up with innovative ideas that make the world a better place.
Fast forward a decade, and although I now have a respectable job title and work in an office downtown, I still find myself grinding each day, hustling to complete urgent tasks that feel a lot like rounding up kids in runaway kayaks.
If we’re honest with ourselves, most of us are not doing exactly what we had once hoped. And even if we believe in the over-arching mission of our vocations, the monotony of daily tasks and difficulty of progress often leads to a pernicious feeling that can drown our energy and stifle our passions: frustration.
There are numerous reasons for this, and although entire books and sermon series have been written to address it, these are what I see as three of the top reasons we feel disappointed with our jobs.
You’ve made your career your identity
When we meet someone new, we inevitably ask, “What do you do?” In this way, our society conflates what people do with who they are. This false connection has longstanding roots, since throughout much of history jobs have been ascribed at birth based on your parents’ jobs. The children of blacksmiths become blacksmiths, for example. This lack of choice continues in parts of the developing world where many people do not have the luxury to pursue careers of their choosing but instead labor to simply put food on the table.
Of course, we sometimes have to take what some would consider menial jobs (waiting tables, working cash registers, etc.), but the majority of us millennials have the luxury to pursue careers for personal fulfillment or external significance. The danger in this is that we obsess over the value of our work and extrapolate it to our value as individuals. We feel a pressure to get the best job with the most impact. We confuse our jobs with our identities and feel invaluable when our jobs don’t elicit immediate meaning, status or transformation.
A friend recently told me he was experiencing an existential crisis because he works in construction management and does not see the value in building corporate high-rises that will only be torn down and rebuilt in half a century. We should certainly understand and believe in the purpose of our jobs, but even if we cannot see eternal worth within them, we should separate our careers from our identities. Our work does not determine the value of our existence; the love and presence of God within us does. It is no longer we who live, but Christ within us (Galatians 2:20).
You might be in the ‘wrong’ job
Even if you have a healthy understanding of your identity and separate your personal value from the pitfalls of your workplace, you’re destined to hit a wall everyday if your job does not align with your skills and abilities. In this way, you may actually be in the “wrong” job, meaning your position may not be helping you, your employer or the clients you serve. Think of Ben Stein, the economics teacher in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—if you’ve been teaching for years but your students’ eyes still glaze over every time you speak, you may not want to spend the rest of your career in education.
In other circumstances, you may have actually outgrown your position and need a change to utilize your full potential. Although conventional wisdom says young adults today skip around jobs more than they should, data contradicts this. A report based on U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by the organization Young Invincibles found that millennials stay with their employers longer than previous generations, and the report recommends increased job mobility for opportunity and wage growth.
If you feel relentlessly stifled with little chance for development and improvement, it might be time for a change.
Work will always be work
As much as we want to hope for the wistful career waiting for us on the horizon, we all have to face a harsh reality—work is hard. The word labor actually has Latin roots meaning toil. And as God said to Adam in Genesis 3, “Cursed is the ground because of you, through painful toil you will eat food from it.” Some projects will fail, workplace conflicts will eventually arise and most of us will endure seasons when we have more to do than time to do it.
No matter how passionately we chase our dreams, we’re all guaranteed to struggle through thorns and thistles that inevitably lead to some level of exhaustion and frustration. This tension does not have to lead to Kanye on Ellen type rants, however.
Instead, these challenges should point us to rest in God. The writer of Hebrews called readers to spiritually rest within the peace of God in the midst of life’s chaos, “for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works.”
I once met a garment worker who operated the same rusted machine for 12 hours every day in a baking-hot warehouse, yet he had more joy than most of my office-working friends. I’ve also interacted with NGO world-changers who walk in continual frustration and turn to various vices for fulfillment. If we rely on the circumstances of our jobs to dictate our contentment, we will always be disappointed.
But if we rest in God while working with excellence and integrity, we can trust that in small ways our actions ripple into eternity. In this way, we can trust that what we do is not in vain. Who knows, we might one day find ourselves having fun in stress-free jobs we love.