Resolving a Career Crisis

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Reader’s Question

I’m a 23-year-old woman going through a career depression. I worked for a big company for over a year, and it gave me financial security. I got along well with everyone except for my own team; people told me it was because they felt threatened, but in the end we buried the hatchet. However, an old school friend offered me a job which suited my college major. Since I thought it would be good to pursue and it’s something I’d enjoy doing, I took the job. I did my research, talked to my family and friends, and they supported me in the decision. I moved out of my old apartment to a location nearer my new office. But it turned out my old friend had lied to me about the contract, the job, basically everything. In the end, I ended up working more hours even on public holidays without getting another day off or even being paid. It severely affected my health and personal life. I resigned before it got even worse. So, I received unemployment compensation for a few months and also ended up digging through my savings.

My former manager offered me a job someplace else that he thought would be good for me. I wasn’t sure at first since I really wanted to go back to my original company. But in order to get out of the unemployment and pay the bills, I took it. I’ve been trying really hard to move on, to stay positive, and not let the slightest things get to me. I know I can learn a lot in this new job, but what causes my depression is the fact that it’s a long commute, and the job itself is not really something I can do well or enjoy doing. I’m stepping out of my comfort zone since it’s a big opportunity to learn and work in a new environment, but once again I feel like I’m buying into the ol’ BS of the initial job offer. I’m so scared of failing again, I can’t cope with unemployment, and it feels like my life is falling apart. I was an honor student and suddenly I became this corporate victim. I understand the corporate world is a real jungle, and I don’t want to waste my time doing this unwise pursuit — but it seems like quitting yet again. I’ve been reading lots of spiritual books, self-help books, and some of them made me feel better but they don’t give a real solution. I feel so lost right now.

Psychologist’s Reply

What you’re experiencing isn’t unusual among high-achieving young adults who land lucrative and ambitious jobs after college. It sounds like it has been a very difficult and unexpected road for you, especially given the success you experienced in college. While family and friends can be supportive and mean well, sometimes they encourage us to make choices that seem to be good for us on the surface — but when we reflect on the experience, we recognize that the environment or work just isn’t a good fit. Because you have started the process of reflecting on your own experiences, you’re on the right track to making a change that helps you find a much better person-environment fit.

Many people, especially people just starting out in their careers, are surprised to learn that people change careers an average of seven times within their lives. Like you, many people see a certain path for themselves, but their needs as well as their interests shift as they go along. When I work with individuals like you with career conflict, we explore three areas: abilities, interests, and values. For example:

Abilities
  • You are college educated and probably have skills such as critical thinking, analysis, effective writing/communication and others that may fit within your major field of study. It sounds like number-crunching is not a skill you feel most comfortable with.
  • You have already held two jobs and likely have interpersonal conflict resolution skills, teamwork skills, and other job-specific skills that you acquired.
Interests
  • Ask yourself what you enjoyed as a teenager or during college (including extracurricular activities) as well as what job you would love to do if money weren’t a concern.
  • What led you to choose your college major? Did others influence the decision?
  • How did you choose to work in a corporate environment? What interested you about the first job you held?
Values
This seems like the area with the greatest amount of conflict for you right now and might require the most exploration. There are many questions in this area to begin to ask yourself — for example:

  • How do you want your personal/work life balance to look? Would you work part time if you could?
  • How much do you want to earn or need to earn? What are the tradeoffs to earning less money but working fewer hours?
  • How important is retirement and healthcare, and what are you willing to give up to obtain those benefits? Do you thrive in a high-stress environment?
  • Do you prefer to work alone or on teams?
  • Do you want to be in an office all day, or would you prefer to be outside or going to other sites?
  • How long do you want to commute to work?

I would encourage you or anyone in this situation to find a professional to help explore these and other questions. Many colleges offer their alumni free or discounted access to career services, which might be worth looking into. In addition to career counseling, your university might be able to connect you with a mentor who can help you navigate issues like new job contract negotiation, and networking outside your group of friends and family. Otherwise, finding a licensed psychologist who is trained in vocational/career assessment and counseling could be a great investment — especially if you’re noticing other areas in your life that you’d like to feel better. In addition to helping you sort through what you want in your personal life, a psychologist would ask similar questions and offer interest inventories that can help predict what careers would be more satisfying for you. Giving yourself the space to explore these areas with a professional may help you feel like you have found your internal compass again.

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