What are the Barriers to Career Satisfaction?

In America, the “be who you want to be” mantra lives deep within our cultural DNA. There is immense power in this attitude which leads to more than enough options for a fulfilling career.

Unfortunately, from high-school all the way to college, those who strive for career advancement, get confronted with allegedly helpful tools like career assessments or articles explaining how to become a (insert job title here)

Google’s Preferred Template

These articles are only marginally helpful, if at all. And sadly, because Google tends to rank these articles higher in their search results, they are widely circulated. 

Here’s the approximate template that Google seems to like for articles related to career development in a specific field. 


“How to be a _____.” – by ‘some career expert or organization’

Article Content:

Step 1: Go to school for a Bachelor’s degree.

Step 2: Look for a job in a related field.

Step 3: Gain apprenticeships or internships.

Step 4: Go to school some more.

Step 5: (This is where they run out of ideas). 

*Side note: Within the article there will typically be at least 5 advertisements for online college programs related to the topic.

Be a _____ or Bust

How many people have you seen who want to become licensed in a particular profession only to become unhappy when they get there? Ever met a disgruntled accountant, human resources, or medical professional who wants to change careers? Based on the hundreds of conversations I have had with individuals about this very topic, I can conclude that this is common. 

Yet the attitude prevails, “if I just become a _____, I will be happy forever.”

The world can be a confusing place when we are constantly trained to put the end before the means in this way.

Barriers to Happiness and Success

“Perfection is the enemy of progress.” Winston Churchill

Sadly, Americans are often conditioned to view success as a plateau that one reaches, rather than a constant and worthwhile progression toward an incrementally better version of ‘you.’ This plateau is often associated with a job title and thought of as a status symbol.

According to data from Pew Research Center, reality suggests that career satisfaction is more elusive for the American labor force. Occupational dissatisfaction has been observed in a near majority of Americans, with 49% of Americans reporting dissatisfaction with their jobs.

Occupational dissatisfaction has been observed in a near majority of Americans, with 49% of Americans reporting dissatisfaction with their jobs.

In a society with nearly complete freedom to choose an occupation, this number may seem higher than expected.

Why is this? Well, let’s explore a few possibilities.

Potential Sources of Dissatisfaction

Culprit 1: Self-Help Gurus

“There is a vast difference between positive thinking and existential courage.” – Barbara Ehrenreich 

A man once provided some unexpectedly wise advice to me at a conference I attended in college. During his lecture, he provided advice on how to know whether to trust politicians. 

His advice was to ask yourself the following question when you hear a politician speak.

“How does (the person) benefit if I believe what they say?” He posed the question in his thick southern accent from the stage like a true cynic. I loved him for saying this.

Most people know that the self-help industry is not filled with selfless cherubs who detach themselves from their self-interests for the sake of their noble pursuits. On the contrary, many personal development “gurus” try to make you feel a certain way so they can position what they sell as a solution to problems which may or may not exist. 

Sometimes marketers go straight for someone’s self-esteem. Think of weight loss or fashion marketers. Or, a self-help guru may shame emotionally vulnerable people for their life choices in hopes that they’ll buy something that promises a “better life.”

There is a fine line between skepticism and cynicism but anyone who promulgates their views in public ought to be subject to this question. It is a data point which is necessary to consider because sometimes, self-help advice can cause us to believe things about ourselves that are not helpful or they can distract us from true progress.

Choose who you listen to wisely and consider how they stand to gain if you believe them. This was unexpectedly useful advice.

Culprit 2: Higher Education 

“There’s no other product in the world …that charges over $100,000 that gets 90 plus points of gross margin… not our meds, not Ferrari, not Apple gets these sorts of extraordinary margins for a product that largely hasn’t changed in 5 decades.” – Scott Galloway

Companies and industries must protect their interests. None are exempt from this rule because companies must either maintain or grow their market share. There are employees to send checks to and if something goes dramatically wrong, a world of pain is never far away. 

The higher education industry has been subject to increasingly intense and well-deserved scrutiny and if justice prevails, this is only the beginning of the reckoning that will be unleashed by parents, alumni, and governing bodies. Although largely well-intentioned, colleges have routinely protected their own interests at the (literal) expense of their customers.

It is not just the rising college tuition costs, although these increases are ridiculous. From 1998-2020, tuition at American colleges has increased 188% higher than inflation. Colleges have also engaged in dubious behavior including cozy relationships between student loan lenders and college administrators, credit card schemes marketed directly to students, grade inflation, covering up dangerous sexual and criminal behavior, and many other efforts to shield themselves from bad publicity.

Advocates for higher education have insisted that they provide an important social good. And that is true, or at least it WAS true.

The industry still has prospective students, policy makers, and parents convinced that attaining any degree is “a gateway to the middle class.” Many college administrators claim to care about eliminating systemic racism and income inequality, yet Harvard University is sitting on an $53.2 billion endowment and along with many other selective colleges, they continue to reward legacy applicants in their admission processes.

Where is the money going? Well, it’s not going to education. In Richard Vedder’s book “Going Broke by Degree,” he reveals that only 21 cents out of every tuition dollar is used to provide in-classroom instruction. Think of the savings that would be possible if colleges were not in a constant ‘arms race’ to market themselves using non-academic perks to enroll and retain students.

When enrollment and retention replace academic excellence and learning as priorities, colleges no longer provide the same social good that they used to.

Like the man at the conference said about politicians, a critical thinker would be wise to ask a variation of his question as it relates to colleges.

‘How does a college benefit if I believe that a degree will be a significant part of the solution to all of my career-related problems?’

A college degree used to be an indication of work-readiness.

But increasingly, post-secondary education is becoming an expensive distraction from the development of real-world work skills that truly make an impact on workers, employers, and the social fabric of our society.

Culprit 3: Friends and Family

“Being kind to someone you dislike doesn’t mean you’re fake. It means you don’t allow other people to control how you show up in the world.” – Barb Schmidt

Many people are insecure. In fact, one might say that most people are this way and it can be a burden on progress. People often boost their self-esteem at the expense of others. The ‘schoolyard bully’ may be the best example of this but a similar dynamic exists within many human interactions – although to a lesser extent.

People must protect their egos, especially when they are fragile.

Even those who try to consider your best interests in good-faith can lead us astray. We must reward those who we choose to associate with because they have earned our trust by treating them with generosity, attentiveness, and care. On the other hand, we must be selective about who we choose to accept criticism from.

As a child, my mother instilled an important lesson in me when I would come home from school upset.

“He called me a ‘fat slob’ and said I smell bad.” I would proclaim.

“Well, do you?” My mom replied.

“No.” I said.

From here, the lesson spoke for itself. If it’s not true, why would it bother me if someone else says it? As we all grow older, we recognize that this is usually nothing more than a cynical attempt to get under your skin. Plus, this is almost never done by someone who has your best interest at heart. If you start hearing insulting things from people you trust, maybe it is time to trust them less.

I never had to deal with this but many people have parents who expect their children to attend college, launch a successful career in a lucrative field, or to live in a certain location. If the child never breaks free from these shackles, over time, this can lead to dissatisfaction when one day it becomes clear that a given path or lifestyle is not actually desired. 

There are many people out there who have made decisions to please others rather than to please themselves. Sadly there are also some who let the words of cowardly bullies alter their otherwise confident demeanor.

The more you know your strengths and professional interests and the more harsh criticism is recognized for what it is – the better the chance of career fulfillment.

Culprit 4: Expectations

“I’ve learned my lesson well. You see, you can’t please everyone, so you’ve got to please yourself.” – Ricky Nelson, “Garden Party”

Society bestows its own expectations upon us. As we’ve discussed these can come from experts, industries, or individuals in our immediate social circles. Expectations are capable of fueling dissatisfaction so they must be adjusted intelligently.

When dissatisfaction sets in, career alternatives may gain an inflated aura but we must remain grounded. Managing internal expectations of the self in a dynamic way is where the power lies. 

Take Control:

In the hundreds of conversations I have had with individuals who seek to advance their careers, I have noticed a theme. Quiet desperation. Most people get in their own way with unfounded theories and thoughts their destiny, how the system works, or the reasons why they are not succeeding. They also, sadly, tend to gravitate toward feelings of negativity or insecurity.

No matter how profound your ambitions, limitations relating to what can be accomplished exist. Declaring, “I want to be a _____,” only accomplishes so much. Yes, it provides some clarity which may feel nice, but this often comes at the expense of opportunities that may be represent a better lifestyle fit. 

If you do not remain open to careers you did not know about, how will you ever find out about them?

Lifestyle is an often overlooked aspect of career planning. Ask yourself:

What is important to you?

How much money do you need to make?

Do you have a spouse who is working who can provide health insurance?

What are you good at (like, really good at)?

What kind of work will physically and mentally exhaust you?

Career experts tend to encourage these questions and they often get answered, but decisions are still made with incomplete information and are too rigidly followed.

A better approach is to consider your lifestyle interests and pick the best job available as the various options within your career path unfold. Reject the idea that you need to put the end before the means. 

Long-term planning should not be viewed as infallible. It should be viewed more as an idea because a pre-ordained, lofty, career goal is rarely the answer to career fulfillment and satisfaction.

Many of the individuals I have worked with have normal jobs or live with a working spouse but their dreams of quiet desperation consume their thoughts. Sometimes they look down on themselves or even stress because they want to convert these dreams into reality. Yet they will admit they have no idea where to get started. 

Now ask yourself, does this type of self-abuse make any rational sense?

Often, they are captivated by a burning desire to make money “doing what they love.” But, the cost-benefit analysis is often consciously ignored while the subconscious obsesses about baseless feelings.

Why not find the best possible opportunity that supplements you and your family’s unique interests? Consider it all and do so consciously.

Do you live to work or work to live?

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