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Why do some smart, motivated people end up hating their jobs?

There are lots of different ways to categorise jobs. Recently, I’ve been looking at how different types of jobs can challenge us in different ways, and what this means for how you feel about your work. After a lot of thinking, I’ve boiled it down to two types of jobs, and three attitudes towards those two types of jobs.

Let’s start by thinking about what most of us what from our work. The vast majority of us are in a position where we need to earn an income from our work, so, of course, money comes first. Next, most of us want to enjoy our jobs, or at least not hate them, which means we need a comfortable work environment, with colleagues we can tolerate and tasks that are aligned with our skill level.

From here, it gets a bit more complex. Some of us want to be powerful and crave the status that comes from a prestigious job (even if we don’t like what we’re doing). Some of us hate being bored and prioritise challenge, and those people will look for variety and room for growth. Some enjoy the feeling they get when they help other people, and the satisfaction of being able to care for others is enough to keep them turning up.

If you’re familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs you may recognise that the things we need from our work line up in a similar way to Maslow’s pyramid – we need our most basic needs met first (money), followed by things that are nice, but not quite as important (decent work environment), and finally we look for self-fulfilment (status, prestige, power, challenge etc).

Not everyone gets past the basics

Not everyone who works has the luxury of changing their work environment if it doesn’t meet their needs.

These people are ‘stuck’ on meeting their most basic need – money. This is not ok – everyone should have the right to a workplace which is safe, comfortable, non-toxic (literally and figuratively). But until we wake up to the fact that employees who have their basic needs met are more productive I’m afraid that some of us will still need to work in jobs where money is the main concern.

If that’s you, all I can offer is that while you cannot change your job right now, you can change how you see your work, which may make it slightly better.

What about everyone else?

If you are someone who has the privilege of working in a safe and comfortable work environment, and your financial needs are met, then we can move on to the three types of attitudes and two types of jobs.

The easiest way to start is with the Bricklayers Parable. Now, it’s got religious overtones which I don’t love, but the concept is good so bear with me:

Three bricklayers are busy at work building a church.

The first one, when asked what she is doing, responds that she is laying bricks.

When the second bricklayer is asked what she is doing, she says she is building a church.

The third bricklayer, however, replies that she is building a House of God.

The theory here is not complex:

The first person sees their work as just that – a simple, repetitive task which pays the bills but serves no other real purpose.

The second person gets that they’re building something bigger, and they see their work as part of a project.

The third person has a calling.

Remember, these are not needs-based approaches to work – these are approaches taken by people who have already had their basic needs of income and comfortable work environment met.

So we have three general approaches to work:

It’s just a job

People with this approach would prefer to be elsewhere. They turn up, do a task, and go home again. They may enjoy their work environment and get along with their colleagues, but it’s still just a job.

What’s in it for me?

People who have this view of their work understand that they have a career, and that the effort they put in now will have long-term benefits. These people are driven by their own needs and desires – they want to get promoted, earn more money, find a better job, which is why they turn up, and potentially put in more effort than the first group.

Part of something bigger

People who feel like this about their work understand that their work has meaning, and can see how it fits into the bigger picture. They work for pride, achievement, and recognition. While it may not be a ‘calling’, they’re passionate about what they do and would probably tell you they have a great job.

How our work environment challenges us

And now we have our three general approaches to work, let’s look at our two types of work. I’m going to start out by saying that there is waaaay more variation than just two types, but in general you can group jobs into one of two categories this way, although some may sit more towards the middle.

To split jobs this way we first need to assume that all of the people to whom this article refers (smart, motivated, hate your job) find their job challenging to some degree.

Note: If you don’t find your work challenging then chances are that you’re bored, and if you’re a smart motivated person who hates your job, I would suggest you go look for something else. Yes, I know it’s a difficult employment market, but start upskilling and see where you end up.

There are two types of challenge in the workplace:

The Micro Level – Jobs that require you to complete repetitive, challenge, and complex tasks

You need to concentrate to complete your tasks, but they don’t vary much in complexity or content, and your work doesn’t build into something bigger over time.

Think about the kind of tasks Air Traffic Controllers or Dentists perform – each day, they turn up and have to concentrate for hours, but at the end of the day they haven’t progressed anything – they’ve just performed a role which required their skill. I should know what this is like – I used to be an Air Traffic Controller.

There is little sense of achievement, expect when you succeed with a particularly complex case, and every day can feel the same. If you were to leave, they would be able to replace you with someone else with the same level of qualifications and experience and with no noticeable difference in service.

The Macro Level – Jobs that challenge you with long-term, complex projects

These types of roles require concentration, planning, and talent, but they also offer a sense of achievement which is hard to replicate in the first type of job.

Engineers, Project Managers, Authors, Government Staff, Architects – all of these jobs tend to be based around long-term projects with clear goals and milestones. Each day brings new challenges, and it’s clear how the work fits in to a bigger picture.

You bring a unique skillset and knowledge, and probably know your projects better than anyone. Replacing you would be a complex process, and there would need to be a handover period.

What does all this mean?

Both of these types of jobs require intelligence, focus, and determination, and both types are vitally important, but only one delivers clear higher-level benefits (as in, more than just money and a comfortable office).

Which means if you find yourself in one of the second types of jobs then it will be easier for you to take a ‘part of something bigger’ approach to work. You are already working in a job with a clear purpose and goals, and it’s easy to see how your work contributes to the bigger picture. At the end of a project comes pride, achievement and recognition.

If you’re in a micro-level job then it’s much harder to see the reasons behind why you turn up each day. Unless your workplace sets targets and is working towards an obvious goal, you will be responsible for setting your own big-picture, longer-term goals. There also be no clear reward or recognition for any long-term goals you set yourself, in contrast to macro level jobs which often celebrate the completion of projects. There is one exception to this rule – some micro level jobs are vitally important, and bring their own sense of achievement and satisfaction.

Where to from here

When we separate jobs into two categories like this, it’s easier to see why some smart and motivated individuals can end up hating their jobs.

If we assume that it’s a good idea to move towards viewing your job as part of something bigger, then people in macro roles have a head start on everyone else. But this doesn’t mean people in micro roles can’t also make the move – they just need to find a way to view their roles in a larger context.

From here, people in micro roles have a few options:

  1. Find the purpose in your role – do you help people in some way? If so, perhaps you could see your role as part of a larger effort to help the community. A good example of this would be an Emergency Nurse who reframes his job from ‘just fixing broken bones’ to ‘keeping the community healthy’.
  2. Training and supervising others can bring variety to your job and help you see how your role fits into the bigger picture for your profession. If no training or supervisor roles are available, then consider becoming a mentor for new entrants into your field.
  3. Set self-improvement challenges, and celebrate your success. You could learn a new skill which helps you improve the service you offer, or set a personal work-related goal. For example, commercial pilots often say they feel like bus drivers after a few years, but they could set a goal to improve their landings and keep track of their performance over time.
  4. Suggest that the team develop group targets, or run a performance-based competition. Not only will you be able to work towards something over the longer term, you will also be able to challenge yourself against your peers.

In brief

This is a very brief summary of a very complex topic. It’s possible you’ve never thought about your career this way before, so if this information is resonating with you then I encourage you to think about what it could mean for you and your career.

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