Why we stay in jobs we hate - Part One: Golden Handcuffs

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This is the first article in a 3-part series on why people don’t pursue their dream jobs and stay in ones that are a horrible fit. It could be you. It definitely was me.

In this first blog posting, I look at the cultural rewards built into our workplaces for staying where we are. I begin with my story.

The server placed our drinks on one side of the table. We reached over for our own. It was that bar. The kind where the servers are street tough and the windows are covered with dark paper so no light would enter.  It was shortly after 11 am.

Four of us had come together from our midnight shift at the factory, worn out and exhausted but doing what many do after their work – head out for a brew. Except of course this was morning.

 We all shared one thing – nothing about our jobs intrigued us.

 In fact, we were bored. Everything I learned when I first started the job several months before I learned in the first 15 minutes.  There was nothing I looked forward to except the machine breaking down. Something to break the monotony.

 How did I land there?

When I first moved to the city I was 18, no experience and no one willing to hire me to get the experience. My aunt, who had worked at the factory for over 40 years, vouched for me under the condition that I not quit because she was doing me a favour.

The midnight shift looked more interesting than the evening shift where I first started. Everyone who worked during the day seemed to take it a bit too seriously. My transfer was immediately approved. No one wanted the night shift.

Mostly I worked alone or with one other person. Our middle-of-the-night lunch hour is where I met my buddies, guys who liked to have fun, exactly what an 18-year-old was seeking. 

We had this attitude: “We get the work done.” So if we took extra time at lunch or during the breaks, well, we worked hard to get it done. If that meant during our breaks we added a little vodka to our thermos, well, that was on our time.

To say that we needed to leave our jobs was an understatement. I was the new kid on the block. A couple of those guys had been there for decades. That their off-work coping strategies spilled over into their work time became more and more justifiable, as their spirits withered.


It was inconceivable. They had worked a long time and were getting pretty high wages. Even I was getting well over minimum wage. Some had come straight out of high school and had done nothing else. Where else was there to go? Another factory? Start over?

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Later I heard the term “golden handcuffs,” a phrase that encapsulates those high-paying, low-stimulating jobs that people work hard to acquire and are loathe to quit because of the pension plan, benefits, more paid time off and the pay.

Why would you quit such a job?

The fact is the work world rewards its workers for putting in the time. Whether it is pay raises or the freedom promise that comes with a pension plan, there is plenty in our culture to keep us tied to staying in a job.

In the midst of the inner turmoil of an imagined life and how it is really playing out, any glimpse of freedom is a beacon of hope. Vacation time is packed with adventure, or as much as can be mustered given how worn out a person is from the demands of their job. Weekends become a recovery and preparation for the next onslaught.

Or as me and my buddies were demonstrating, sometimes waiting for the weekend isn’t enough.

One of those fellows, a very likable and engaging guy, was a well-managed alcoholic though one might question his ability to contain it. When he talked about electronics, that’s where I saw the spark.


I could imagine, even then when I was young and hadn’t many ideas of what a person could do with their life, that he was somehow misplaced. Like a Star Trek transporter, there was a malfunction that placed him where he did not belong and he had no idea about how to get to the right place.

There was a whole lot keeping him where he was, in that tedious factory job where he was using a fraction of his abilities. The older he got, the longer was his list of responsibilities. Mortgage. Family. Children going to university. All of it was tied to him keeping the wage he was earning. He felt like he had no choices.

And no encouragement to change his circumstances. My comment to him, “Why the hell are you staying here?” I wouldn’t classify as support; it certainly wasn’t the first time he heard that from others and it reinforced an idea that he was incapable of doing something different. And he also felt shitty about why he wasn’t leaving.

According to work studies, 70% of people are not engaged with their work.

When I think of my other co-workers at the factory, I would have said it was a higher percentage.

Everyone was in the same boat.

Which is both compelling and horrifying.  What we have is a cultural norm. Staying in a shitty job. We hardly notice when people complain about their jobs. We commiserate.

The problem feels so big and beyond our ability to solve that we shelve it for future consideration with a dash of hope that along the way something will happen that will eject us out of our limited life into the big life we were meant to live.

But it is all okay because the same thing is happening to our next door neighbour, our co-worker and our friend. We are soothed by the idea that we are not the only ones experiencing a void of meaning in our work lives.

We are part of the herd.

When we stray from the herd, the new territory feels unfamiliar. The people who we used to commiserate with, we suddenly have one less thing in common. Complaining on a Friday night doesn’t have the gusto it did when you were all talking about what you hated. Straying from the herd can be a lonely venture.

That is how I ended up being in a seedy bar at 11 am. With my herd.

Saying farewell to 2018 and howdy to 2019

Isn’t it perfect when you notice a gift right when you are in the middle of it?

Mine was time. Between Christmas and New Year’s. Where there were things to do but nothing that had to be done. Where I could move at my own pace. Where there was a settling after all the Christmas excitement.

There was breathing space.

What a gift it was to just sit with what is. I continued my daily practice of writing down “10 Things…..”  One day I wrote 10 ways I would like to focus my energy in the next year.

A few hours later, it was clear that there were items I had left off the list. That is the gift of breathing space. A time for percolation.

On this last day of 2018, I am thinking ahead and back.

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Later today, I will do my last-day-of-the-year ritual, writing about what happened in 2018. Tomorrow I will move on to 2019.

I have already begun the process.  I reviewed the goals I set for 2018. My achievement rate was 56%. This is a pretty low. If the percentage is in the 70s, I see that as pretty successful. But 56% is not. According to the Internet, a 56% rate is a F.

Some of the goals were pretty lofty (doing 2 presentations) but then I didn’t really try. Others didn’t make sense. Anymore.

As one who has a dislike-hate relationship with goal setting, here is some thoughts for others in the struggle:

1. Moving Targets

Life changes. Where you want to focus your time and energy is anything but static. I still like the idea of writing down goals at the beginning of the year. But if they don’t make sense down the line, they need to be shucked.

I have a thought for my next year – looking at the goals that I set at the beginning of the year a few times during the year (no more than 4). What needs to be brought to the surface. What needs some amending. I am going to try that. And let you know how that works.

2. Pick a word or a phrase for the next year

What resonates with me is using a guidepost for the upcoming year. For sure, I want it to be inspirational and in alignment with where I am. 

One year I picked the phrase, “Be courageous and be brave.” There was a lot of upheaval ahead, some difficult conversations and serious letting go. I carried that phrase with me every day. 

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I so appreciate the work of Danielle LaPorte who says that what we are seeking is a feeling. Her book, The Desire Map, outlines a process of uncovering your Core Desired Feelings. Our CDFs will ignite us.  

Here’s what she has to say about following what you love:

Your pleasure is your power. In relationships. In business. In service of the greater good. Doing more of what you love helps you be more loving, think more clearly, and be more resilient.


Previously in this blog, I have talked about my end of the year process. It is a compilation of ideas that I have gathered over the years that works for me. I have done some tweaking but the format works.

Here is the blog posting:

Year End Review

I have a journal devoted totally to the purpose of year-end review. 2018 is the 24th year of me writing in this book. After 24 years, I would say that is a strong attestation!

What do I get from writing the process?  I see birds-eye view of what happened in the last year. Lots of revelations!

Recently I heard that one of the great abilities of being a human is our ability to reflect. That makes a lot of sense to me. It is through our reflections that we can see:

  • our mistakes – what we have learnt, what not to repeat and what we might want to adjust

  • what needs improvement

  • how far we have come

  • what is most important to us – from an experiential perspective

In the spirit of that reflection, I found a cool tool for year-end reflection and planning for the next year. It’s a free downloadable booklet Check it out here: 

Year Compass. 


I would love to hear how you end one year and begin another. Any traditions?? 

You don't have to have it all figured out

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I am working on a new program for the beginning of the coming year. I have been working on this for a while, months really.

I am caught between what I did before that didn’t work, what might work and what else is working out there in the world.

The process has me frozen in my tracks.

What is the problem? I asked myself.

It’s an old visitor I recognize well. It’s the one that says I need to have this all figured out.

That whatever I develop has to be a certain way. Impactful. Different than the rest.

That feels like a lot of pressure. The kind that takes me down a dead-end road.

It is a familiar story. Not just for me. My clients.

Often during our first conversations, they tell me about the pressure. Not only do they have to make money, but it needs to be something that they love to do. This message has been drilled into them for a long time.

So rather than getting excited about the possibilities, they feel lost. 

That kind of environment is like living in a closet. There isn’t enough room.

I get it.

So here’s what I want to say to you.

You don’t have to find the perfect job that fits for you. You don’t need to satisfy some other person’s expectations of what you should do.

You don’t have to have it all figured out.

Is there something to do?

The answer is yes.

 I read an article today about holding space by Heather Plett. It is called What it means to “hold space” for people, plus eight tips on how to do it well.

The ideas that she learned through the experience of her dying mother are also profound for the confusion of career change. 

One tip Heather Plett shared was about only giving so much information at a time. The confusion of looking at the world of work is trying to figure it out all at once.

It’s too much for our brains. And feelings. I agree with Heather that it can make us feel incompetent. 

I like to think of the work I do in phases. Mixing up the phases leads to inner turmoil. 

What we forget in the muddiness when we don’t know what to do is that it is okay to not have it all figured out.

It doesn’t mean that we won’t.

Let’s ease the pressure. 

If you liked this article, you might also like:

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4 crucial ideas about the work world that you weren't taught in school

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Have you ever wondered how different your life would have been if would have chosen a different career path?

Where would you be today?

One of the frequent statements I hear when I am talking to others about finding their right work fit is:

I wished I would have known this when I was in high school. 

What would have helped you the most? Below is what I wished I would have known back then.

When I was entering high school, I had no idea what I would do with my life. Oh yes, I had some vague thoughts. It seemed clearer to me what I didn’t want to do. I was lost.

I felt as if everyone else BUT me had it figured out.

The harder I tried to think about what to do, the answer felt more elusive. What I felt was….  pressure.

I talked to my friends. I got more confused and felt inept. Who else could help? I had no clue.

So I pretended I knew what I was doing.

I picked classes I thought I might need. I made sure I had good grades. By the time I graduated, I still was baffled.

I suspect that others, like me, and went through the maze of life and got some pointers along the way.

But what if….   What if I could have learned what I needed in school? What if that maze didn’t have so many tangles and pathways that I never embarked on?

What did I not learn in school that would have been helpful?

1. There are many choices

 One of the challenges back then was how I was approaching the problem. I thought there was one answer. One type of work that I would choose and follow for the rest of my life.  

Part of the pressure I was feeling back then to figure that ONE thing out.

What I know now is not only are there many choices of occupations, that focussing on occupations is not the answer.

What we are all seeking, I believe, is a place of belonging. Of contributing to the world in a way that makes sense to us.

The work will be in alignment with who we are.

So the question that gives the best direction is:

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Who am I? 

 A big question but there are lots of fun ways to discover this. Here is a question to begin the process:  What excites you?

What else I wish I learned in school was:

2. What do I have to offer the world? 

This inquiry often happens when we enter the work world. Employers ask us what are our strengths. Wouldn’t that have been handy to learn in school?

I didn’t even know what a strength was. Oh, I had some faint idea that it was something I was good at. But I didn’t know what that was either.

What I know now is our strengths which I also call our gifts and talents, is so connected to how I feel when I am doing an activity. I will be engaged in a way that resonates deeply with me.

This is tied to another thing I wished I learned in school:

3. What the world really needs

We all want to make a difference. How we do that is unique to each of us. But what the world needs is for us to know what matters to us. Because what matters is where we will make a difference. The world needs a lot of that!

There is a great quote from Aristotle about this:

“Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation.”

What I know now is that how we make a difference cannot be discovered quickly. But oh, how I would have loved started exploring this when I was in high school.

What matters to us is refined over time. From our experience. From our world view.

4. No one has it all figured out

 Those students who were knew their path back in high school were also on the wrong path, on somebody else’s path or were so annoyed at not knowing, they picked something.

There were also some who just knew it. But they weren’t the majority.

What I know now is what we want to do for our work often doesn’t fall in our lap. It takes consideration and self inquiry.

 But oh how I wished I would have known that in school because I felt so alone. What if I would have had the company of others and we had a curriculum where we got to see a bunch of occupations in action?

 I would have seen people loving what they do, hating what they do and what it really takes.

What did I do to find work that fits for me?

I went to the school of life. One muddled and circuitous route. I observed other people and what they did. I asked a lot of questions. I paid attention to what excited me and what I wanted to learn more about. 


I wish I had known what I know now. Sooner. There were paths I wished I went down. Where I could have experienced mastery.


Here’s one of the best things about life. Some of the most powerful, life changing experiences we can have is what we stumble upon. Occupations I never could have imagined in high school have been added to my dream jobs list. 



What advice would you give to a high school student who has no idea what they want to do with their work life? 

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