man in suit in handcuffs

Trapped in a Job You Don’t Like? How to Find Work That’s Truly Rewarding

Nancy Sullivan Blog

job handcuffs

Are you handcuffed to your job?

That might seem like a silly premise. We all feel obligated to work, and many of us are afraid to leave our current job for any reason. But are you so shackled to your current job that you can't see opportunities for career fulfillment?

I see people hobbled by job handcuffs all the time through my work in coaching and career transition. I meet successful, educated, accomplished individuals that are so locked into what they have been doing that they cannot contemplate doing anything else. Even when the work makes them unhappy.

And then, sometimes, they lose their jobs and have to start looking for a new opportunity. And wouldn’t you know it, those frustrating handcuffs keep getting in the way.

This was certainly the challenge facing Chuck, a successful executive that I met after he lost his job as part of a restructuring.

Chuck was a CPA, and a good one. He had worked at the highest levels of a multi-billion-dollar company for his entire career until a new CEO arrived and decided he wanted to overhaul his executive team. Chuck went from highly successful executive to executive-in-transition in a matter of weeks.

Many people cannot see the path forward to a better job because they are still handcuffed to their former jobs.

Nancy SullivanSVP, Talent Development Consultant
When I first met Chuck, he was pretty lost. He came from a very successful family of professionals that had all risen to the top of their fields. He expected he would work his entire career at the same company, and didn’t really know how to move on. Moreover, as he began to think back on his career as part of the transition process, he realized he had been unhappy for a very long time.

Chuck said he had begun to dread going to work. “After contemplating the last few years, I had to ask myself, ‘What was I doing there?’ I hadn’t enjoyed my job for a long time. I didn’t have any more energy to put into it. What happened?”

Chuck’s situation was tough, but hardly unique. I meet many smart, capable people in transition that suddenly realize they were not happy in their work. Unfortunately, many of these people cannot see the path forward to a better job because they are still handcuffed to their former jobs.

That may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s a very real situation. So many of us are defined by our jobs that, in the event of a transition, we can’t see the path forward. We immediately start looking for a job that is identical to the one we just lost, even if that job hadn’t been fulfilling; we can’t imagine what else we could do. Our opportunities to move forward appear limited because we can’t see other possibilities; we don’t know how to leverage our skills and talents in other industries or roles.

How do we break the handcuffs? By looking less at our former jobs and more at the things we do well and that give us pleasure.

For Chuck, that meant focusing on the essence of his former job: numbers. As a CPA, Chuck had always been good at numbers, and in finding the strategic meaning to the numbers. After examining his skills, strengths and career passions, we were able to see that many other industries needed strong strategic leaders like Chuck.

Eventually, Chuck found a new, senior role at an energy company leading a group of engineers that worked on plant safety. Chuck’s ability to analyze numbers and find solutions helped his new employer institute policies that actually saved lives. The challenge of a new job in a much different industry had re-energized his career and his life.

“I have never felt so good about the work I do,” Chuck would tell me later.

This is a common reaction for those people that can successfully shed the handcuffs to jobs that stopped providing fulfillment a long time ago. It is a difficult process that involves a lot of soul searching and courage.

For people like Chuck, the motivation for breaking free of the handcuffs was the loss of a job. However, none of us has to wait until we are in transition to shed the cuffs.

Take stock of your current job and ask yourself, "Is this really what I want to do?" If it’s not, start the process of picking the lock on those handcuffs.

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