Article by Sophia Dembling
Melissa Thrailkill just isn’t sure what to do.
Thrailkill is a family law attorney in private practice in Dallas. She loves helping people and being her own boss. She relishes not having to deal with office politics or play nice with people she doesn’t like. She’s happy outside of a corporate environment, not “dealing with gossip, faking friendships, the typical BS,” she says. “I’m not going to get on the sailboat with the executive director if that’s not how I want to spend my Saturday.”
But she’s also not quite happy. Sometimes Thrailkill feels like she’s being pulled in a million different directions or being dragged down by formulaic tasks like drafting documents.
“Even though I may be helping people, it’s not challenging,” she says. “It’s just annoying. I feel like I’m not living up to my potential.”
It also seems like, no matter how hard she hustles, she doesn’t earn enough money to feel comfortable.
Sometimes Thrailkill thinks she should give up her solo practice and get a job with an established law firm. Other times she thinks what she really needs is an attitude adjustment. Does she need a change of situation, or a change of mindset? Deciding can be difficult.
“Many people’s first impulse when they start feeling uncomfortable at their job is to blame others or the work environment,” says Lisa Sansom, who puts her master’s degree in applied positive psychology to work as a business coach. “We don’t believe that it has anything to do with us. We think the situation is beyond our control and there’s nothing we can do.”
Thrailkill is well aware of that risk. “In my 20s and early 30s, I never thought my attitude was the problem,” she says. “Then you mature and have some life experiences and think, ‘Maybe it was my attitude.’”
The first thing you should do when contemplating a job change is take stock of what else is happening in your life. For example, you don’t need to add a new job to the mix if you’re getting a divorce, just lost a parent, or have suffered a financial setback.
“A lot of people get in such despair and anxiety at those times that they want to quit everything,” says Dallas psychologist Delane Kinney. “Your brain isn’t really online, so you lose perspective.”
That loss of perspective almost happened to Kerry Wekelo, who is managing director of human resources and operations at Actualize Consulting in Reston, Virginia. Shaken by the death of someone important to her, she started soul-searching.
“I was living a lie,” Wekelo says she realized. “I wasn’t happy in my marriage, wasn’t happy in my job.”
Wekelo and her husband divorced, and she contemplated quitting her job to become a yoga teacher. She snapped back to reality when she realized that, financially, that would be a poor decision for a single mom. So she stayed at her job but began exploring how changing her mindset might help her situation.
Becoming aware of how you might need to change is a rational first step in fixing a bad work situation. The next step is asking someone for advice.
In the workplace, consulting a manager or mentor can be useful, Sansom says. She suggests that entrepreneurs in particular have a “board of mentors — people you can talk to on a regular basis who are going to be a sanity check, a business check, the ones who can talk to you when you’re struggling with all the things entrepreneurs go through.”
If Sansom were Thrailkill’s business coach, she might suggest Thrailkill decide how much she wants to earn, figure out how to set boundaries on her time, and perhaps charge some clients more so she can continue helping low-income clients.
Thinking through how you might be able to fix a situation, you can also draw on the red-cape-green-cape approach developed by James Pawelski, Ph.D., one of Sansom’s former positive psychology professors at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Imagine you’re given superhero powers,” Sansom explains. “A red cape allows you to stop all the bad things in the world, but it doesn’t mean the good’s going to get any better. The green cape allows you to make the good things stronger and better, but it doesn’t fix any of the bad things. Which do you choose?”
If you’re in a workplace with a micromanaging boss, for example, you could don your green cape and focus on the good of the job — perhaps your coworkers, your salary, or the impact your work has on the community. Or you could wear the red cape and try to fix the bad of the job by talking to human resources and studying strategies for dealing with a micromanager.
Make an Informed Decision
In figuring out her job situation, Wekelo looked both within and outside of her company.
“We are a consulting company, and one of my biggest responsibilities is hiring our talent,” she says. “I wasn’t happy about how we were running our organization, and I didn’t ethically feel good about bringing people into our organization.”
In the course of her attitude adjustment, Wekelo read Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, published by The Arbinger Institute, which was transformative for her.
“It was about taking accountability for every situation you’re in,” Wekelo says.
In becoming accountable on the job, Wekelo approached one of the founding partners, who is her brother, and suggested ways she thought the company culture could improve. The company adopted her suggestions, the culture improved, and Wekelo was able to stay happily on the job. She went on to write Culture Infusion: 9 Principles to Create and Maintain a Thriving Corporate Culture.
There might come a time, however, when no matter how much self-reflection you’ve done or how many adjustments you’ve made to your attitude, you conclude that a job change is the only right decision, like Lori Cheek did.
After earning a master’s degree in architecture, Cheek followed the expected career path.
“I had some of the coolest jobs you can get,” she says, including store planning and design for designer Christian Dior. “I got flown to Paris, all over America. [But] I was just so dissatisfied. I would get to work every day at 9:15 a.m. and get in trouble for it. Every day there was this fear factor — about what I was wearing, being out too long for lunch.” She enjoyed the friends she made on the job, but then got in trouble for socializing too much.
Cheek went on to work in sales at a couple of other places — great jobs, same problem. “I was still super unhappy with the stress and the hours and the fear of it,” she says.
Cheek didn’t like feeling owned by her employer. “I just wished there was more time in the day back then,” she says. “I didn’t want to live for the weekend like that.”
Finally, when she was downsized from her last job, Cheek decided to pursue an idea that had been percolating in her mind for years. She created the dating app Cheekd, which connects users in close proximity to each other. This entrepreneurial venture turned out to be more expensive than she expected, and she’s putting in as many, if not more, hours than she did at her corporate jobs. But seven years in, she’s thriving.
“Now I’m living a lifestyle I love,” she says. “I’m excited to get up in the morning, excited to open my computer.”
For some people, a change of mindset will be the trick. For others, a new job or career will be right. The key is taking a hard, and perhaps uncomfortable, look at every aspect of your situation before making a decision.