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During my work as a coach, I’ve had a common conversation with job hunters. “Well, I decided to go for this position. I am qualified, and the pay is fantastic,” they often tell me. But then they add, “I don’t see myself working at the organization—something just doesn’t feel right. What should I do?” Or I engage in a dialogue with a Ph.D. holder who says, “Here is the job ad I am applying for, but I don’t have any skills. Could you please help?”

And then when I ask about each person’s relevant skills, knowledge, professional network or excitement around this opportunity, I hear, “Nope,” “Not really” and “I don’t know.” I nod with understanding and sigh.

While these two scenarios are distinct, they share something in common: ambivalence toward future employment. Simply put, both individuals choose to pursue jobs they are indifferent about.

Unfortunately, such a path could be costly. For that reason, I’d like to explore the consequences of choosing it and propose a few solutions for when you find yourself laboriously detailing your CV for a job you honestly don’t care about.

First, let’s look at why a stellar employee would leave their current position. On one side, sometimes the reasons involve various external circumstances. such as contract termination, immigration issues, family-related problems and the like. Regrettably, we can’t do much about such issues other than to accept the reality and work with what we have. Yet another category of causes for an “I need to get out of here” attitude include things like:

  • Dissatisfaction with one’s current role and responsibilities;
  • Rocky relationships with management and leadership; and
  • Lack of growth potential in the organization.

Those latter circumstances are often stressful, but they offer job security and sufficient time to seek a new and better offer. Nevertheless, many people opt to jump ship at the first opportunity, frequently ending up in virtually the same situation they are running away from: another postdoc, another science project, another mean boss leading a fragmented team.

At this point, you might be wondering what is so bad about having well-paid, stable employment at the relatively small expense of your personal discomfort. I can cite two negative consequences:

  • Regret. When we apply for a job, especially in times of distress, we tend to disregard the importance of intrinsic motivation, a driving force behind working for the sake of enjoyment and interest. By concentrating more on external motivators such as money, status or moving away from a toxic environment, we forget that intrinsic motivation will help us to get up in the morning when the work gets hard. When internal motivation dwindles, performance and engagement do, as well. Until one day, we wake up with a profound feeling of regret and rumination over how everything would have been different, if only we … Once regret enters our lives, life satisfaction, well-being and even health suffer. Doesn’t sound good, does it?
  • Languishing. Believe it or not, an innocent act of taking a “meh” temporary job can be dangerous because of the sunk-cost fallacy (a mistake in thinking), which keeps us working on something because we have already invested time/effort/money. Remember that boring book you trudged through because you were halfway finished? How about stuffing down an extra dessert to get your $20 worth at a buffet restaurant? The same could happen in the workplace, where “temporary” employment devolves into a dreadful slog filled with apathy, stagnation and lack of meaning. Languishing at its best! As you count down years towards retirement, alternatives become impractical—so you think—because you’ve already invested so much into this career. The result? Unhappiness, low self-esteem and another jab to your life satisfaction.

Considering the long-term downsides of “I don’t like the job, yet I will apply for it,” what can you do to avoid, or at least limit, the damage? Assuming that you are not under the pressure of external circumstances and have a little bit of wiggle room for the job search, here are a few strategies to try.

Explore ambivalence to increase self-awareness. Having mixed feelings about a position can reveal a value conflict, such as working in the oil industry versus at a nonprofit that combats climate change or at an organization that stresses teamwork instead of independence. It may also expose certain limiting attitudes you have that impede your decision making—for example, that you’re not good enough or will fail. Investigating ambivalence with kindness and compassion will help you to optimize the job-search criteria and understand what would be possible if you had a job based on your interests, strengths and values. Not sure where to start? Ask yourself, “What does ambivalence tell me right now?”

Summon “future you” to see a bigger picture. When we are laser-focused on a specific position at a particular time, we might fail to assess the impact of a decision on our overall lives. A good way to counteract the tunnel vision is to broaden your decision framework by envisioning yourself in 10 to 20 years. And I mean really envisioning and having a conversation with the happily retired future you about the prospects and the course of action you are about to take. Every time you chat with yourself, pay close attention to any thoughts, feelings and body sensations that arise. They are self-awareness data that will bring you one step closer to a fulfilling career.

Exercise your patience muscles. It is tempting to jump into action and apply for dozens of jobs. Yes, that strategy will grant illusory control over your future, curb anxiety and numb the fear of the unknown. But simultaneously, it will exhaust your internal and external resources without fruitful outcomes. Instead, try to embrace patience by reminding yourself of how much you will benefit from having a job that aligns with who you are instead of being stuck in a position of financial bondage fueled by regret and languishing. I know it is hard to restrain yourself from habitual business, so I invite you to challenge your thinking by asking, “What would happen if I do nothing right now?” And then marvel at the answer.

During my work as a coach, I see many different scenarios unfold as my academic and nonacademic clients persevere in realizing their dreams. The process is not easy. At times, they struggle and despair; at times, they accept the limitations and overcome ambivalence and uncertainty. In the end, their commitment pays off, and they transition to new positions with confidence and calm. When you muddle through tough spots in your professional journey, keep in mind that each decision bears the consequences, and you already have everything you need to honor your truth and to design a rewarding career where you can grow, flourish and have fun.

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