A good story below about happiness and careers in the ABC. I left teaching at university because it was boring but I took the skills I acquired to go in to new roles and start up new businesses. Happiness trumped money for me.
After a year of teaching philosophy and ethics at an Australian university, Jeremy (not his real name), 44, could stand it no longer. The money was woeful, job security non-existent and the bureaucracy stifling.
The problem, Jeremy says, was that having a PhD — in actual philosophy, no less — made him less employable and prone to prolonged financial difficulty.
“So I decided to use my expertise in rational decision-making to make the rational decision that a career in academia was a bad move, and a career in insurance was a good move,” Jeremy says.
It’s been nearly six years since Jeremy began working in insurance as a business development manager.
“I never really thought I’d work in insurance. No-one really grows up thinking they will,” he says. “Insurance is so boring that no one wants to do it unless they have to, and as a result, it’s filled with leftovers from other careers.”
Despite being able to “navigate bureaucracy”, Jeremy believes there’s little scope for progression in an industry he says values “chatty, friendly talk and sales” over the ability to analyse, construct complex arguments and inquire.
“I need more from my job — there’s not a lot to it once you get good at it, and the only way up is to just sell to more expensive brokers, shake more hands and meet richer people,” Jeremy says.
Jeremy is one of many workers who, despite being very good at their jobs and reaping the rewards that come with that expertise (monetary, status, security or other), don’t actually enjoy what they do.
Society tells us to do what we love. And if we love what we do, surely we will become good at it. But that seems to ignore a significant group of today’s modern workforce: experts who do not enjoy their field of expertise.
“It’s pretty common actually,” says Dr Zoe Krupka, lecturer, psychotherapist, writer and supervisor whose work has taken her into various fields of psychology.
“People are often torn between things they genuinely enjoy, and, at least on the surface level, the perks they get for just doing something really well.”
Dr Krupka says that many skills we are good at, such as being good communicators, being able to manage difficult teams, projects and people, are skills learnt in childhood, often in adverse circumstances.
“You have people who, as kids, had parents who worked all the time and they had to take over the care of their younger siblings, or, on the extreme end, children who grew up in violent households who’ve been practicing diffusing conflict for years,” she says.
When they enter the workforce, these survival skills can inadvertently come to the fore. Professor Chris Jackson from the University of Sydney’s Business School offers another explanation for why we can be good at something, while also hating it.
“Sometimes people wake up after a long time of doing something, and they wonder, ‘I only have one life, is this what I want to do with it’?” he says. “You’re allowed to change your mind about a job you once liked but no longer do — that doesn’t mean the expertise is gone with it.”
The rumination and questions of meaning as we grow older are also echoed in research, with one 2017 survey about happiness at work finding that job satisfaction peters off considerably as people get older (usually after 35).
“People get stuck in a rut, and until they have some sort of shock, they can often stay in jobs they don’t like or find stressful for decades,” Professor Jackson says.
“That said, there is value in finding the positive in things you don’t like: everything in life is a package, and not every part is all good or bad.”
For Jeremy, it’s the activities outside work that help keep him intellectually stimulated, such as joining an emergency service and taking on various challenges, like learning programming and volunteering.
“It’s easier to choose between doing what you love and security for people who never had money issues,” he says. “Insurance has given me the freedom to no longer fear I won’t be able to pay my bills. And at least studying philosophy has taught me that things can be both interesting and boring at the same time, which really helps.”
Caroline Zielinski is a freelance journalist based in Melbourne. She writes on health, science, social affairs and issues related to women.