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How to find your most fulfilling job, according to a psychologist

How to find your most fulfilling job, according to a psychologist
How to find your most fulfilling job, according to a psychologist

According to a Gallup report, Americans are unhappier at work than they have been in years. Sixty percent of respondents said they were emotionally distant at work and 19 percent said they were unhappy.

If you’re one of these people, you’ve probably spent a lot of time thinking about the reasons why you don’t like your job. Maybe you complain about your boss who controls everything down to the smallest detail. Maybe you think your tasks are super boring and tedious.

But there may actually be something deeper behind it, says Dr. Tessa West, a professor of psychology at New York University, where she is a leading expert in the science of social relationships.

In her new book Work therapy: Finding a job that suits youDr. West will help you uncover the real reason for your dissatisfaction and show you how to find a new job where you’ll thrive, whether it’s a different role, a different company, or a whole new industry. She’s studied thousands of people who have recently changed jobs or made a career change, and shares her insights in this interview.

Melody Wilding: What inspired you to write “Job Therapy”? What’s the story behind it?

Tess West: I really started thinking about writing Job Therapy when I was teaching a course on close relationships at NYU. We focused a lot on relationship disillusionment—the breakup phase, the end of love, on-off relationships, and navigating the dating scene.

I suddenly noticed a lot of parallels between what people with relationship problems go through and what people who come to me with workplace problems go through. They sound similar. It’s like going on a first date that feels like a job interview, with the same missteps and concerns about misleading profiles or not asking difficult questions.

These psychological processes have come up repeatedly in both of my roles – as a teacher of close relationships and as a workplace counselor studying interpersonal interactions. I wanted to bring these insights and experiences from both fields into occupational therapy. It’s about uncovering the emotional complexity that is often overlooked in the workplace – like feeling stuck or unsuccessful, similar to feeling in a difficult personal relationship.

For example, someone once asked me how to predict workplace behaviors like first-day ghosting. I explained that we could draw parallels with dating trends. People started ghosting on Tinder and Grindr before we noticed it in the workplace—a trend that reflects broader behavioral patterns in different contexts.

Wilding: Can you talk about the five psychological types you outline? What surprised you about them?

West: The first type I discuss is the most existential, the identity crisis. These individuals have often been in the same profession for a long time and have invested a lot of effort, time, and sometimes money – a significant sunk cost. They have strong social networks, are knowledgeable in their field, and enjoy status, but they begin to feel existential panic and question whether they still love the identity they have held onto.

It’s like owning a big house and having kids – a deeply rooted life – but suddenly feeling like that might be all there is to life. For these people, the journey often begins with the question of whether their old job still defines them so much that giving it up would leave a void that is difficult to fill. They need to honestly assess whether their identity is central to their happiness or is simply a source of discomfort.

Next, we have those who have distanced themselves from their job, like not recognizing your spouse anymore. These people feel less anxiety than separation, and feel nostalgic when they think back to their former workplace, especially the changes post-pandemic. They wonder if the industry or just their job has fundamentally changed, and how significant those changes are locally or globally.

Then there’s the “overwhelmed” type, which I think applies to everyone. This chapter looks at the challenges faced by people who are burdened with multiple roles at work and how this affects their passion for the work they love. It also looks at the neuroscience of memory formation, showing why switching between tasks can be so mentally exhausting and how understanding this can increase productivity.

I then talk about people who feel that the job is not giving them back what they put into it. The “second-place finisher” type often feels competent but struggles to get promotions due to communication gaps and unclear expectations. Many receive little or no feedback on their career progression, leading to frustration and confusion about how to move forward.

Finally, there are the “underappreciated stars” – individuals who are recognized for their talent but are not adequately compensated or rewarded. This chapter challenges the assumption that everyone aspires to star status and highlights that many companies value reliability over perceived brilliance. Understanding these dynamics and aligning personal goals with company values ​​are the main themes of this section.

When I formed these five types, several surprises emerged. One of the challenges was realizing that many people are ambivalent about their jobs. I expected clearer signals – either love or hate – but found that feelings can fluctuate quickly. It’s similar to the complexity of relationships, where feelings about our jobs can fluctuate without clear markers, similar to the uncertainty before a breakup.

Wilding: The stress test is really useful. What are your favorite questions from it and what can they tell you?

West: I’ve been collaborating with Amy Gordon, a professor at the University of Michigan, and Wendy Mendez, a professor at Yale, on research into everyday stress. They’ve developed an app called My VP Lab, available on Samsung devices, that measures everyday stress and relates it to blood pressure, which can now be measured using a Samsung phone.

For the book, I put her findings into a more succinct framework. During my interview with Amy, she stressed the importance of asking people whether what will stress them out in the morning turns out to be the most stressful thing at the end of the day. She found that people often misjudge what will stress them out. This question – what worries you most in the morning and what actually stressed you out in the evening – yielded about a 50% overlap in responses.

Interestingly, when people anticipate stressors, they often take preventative measures to manage them, which can lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy effect. For example, extensive preparation for a presentation can mitigate anxiety during the actual event. However, unforeseen stressors, such as long and unpredictable commutes, which affect many people on a daily basis, surprise us despite their frequency.

Most people have experienced these unexpected stressors before, but we are unable to recognize them unless they are pointed out to us. This realization is crucial when evaluating workplace stressors or considering a career change. Rather than focusing only on expected stressors, such as morning worries, it is useful to consider what actually caused the stress during the day. This shift in perspective can guide job search and career decisions more effectively.

Wilding: Could we go through some tips for each of the five psychological types?

West: Sure, I think the hardest thing for people in an identity crisis is exploring new identities while still holding on to the old one. It’s crucial to gain clarity about possible new career paths without feeling guilty, like you’re betraying your current job. Many people feel a strange loyalty to their current role.

To achieve this, you need to break out of your comfort zone and network with people outside your industry and social circle. Most of our contacts are within our workplace or industry, which makes it difficult. My top tip for you is to make new contacts in social circles that don’t overlap. This means meeting with people who don’t know each other and offer different perspectives. This goes against your usual networking instinct, which often involves seeking validation from trusted sources.

Those who feel they have drifted away from their job often instinctively blame the job for the changes, not themselves. It’s important to look within and consider lateral changes within yourself. Instead of thinking of it as “I used to be X, now I’m Y,” think more about how your preferences naturally change over time. Break the pattern of thinking that your career has declined while you’ve improved. Sometimes it’s about becoming different, rather than becoming worse.

These steps can help you deal effectively with these difficult psychological types.

Wilding: What did you learn about yourself through writing this book?

West: Writing this book has been an eye-opening journey for me. Initially, I struggled with interruptions while trying to write in a hotel in Miami. This led me to examine how interruptions affect my ability to refocus. I realized the importance of strategically managing interruptions, both external and self-imposed.

I’ve learned the importance of radical candor in career conversations. Discussing potential missteps with senior leaders, not just my immediate boss, is crucial to understanding how to move forward effectively.

As I grappled with the idea of ​​being an underrated star, I had to confront my professional identity. I realized that success is subjective and that humility is the key to success in different professional environments.

Personally, the book helped me to accept my ambivalence towards my job. I learned to accept the emotional rollercoaster of work without prejudice and to recognize that mixed feelings are completely natural.

Overall, writing this book has deepened my understanding of career and identity and taught me how to authentically deal with emotions like fear and insecurity.

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