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.

3 Big Ideas When You Are Stuck in a Rut

It’s the end of a long, grey winter. The blue skies erase my memory of rain and the sense of clouds on the top of my head.

Winter is finally making its exit.

There is a reason 2 million Canadians go to Cuba every year. Winter here is harsh. Even in Victoria, the Miami of Canada.

At the end of long dark days, the motivation to go out once I am cuddled warm at home plummets. 

This winter I became keenly aware of how much of my daily life is routines. Maintenance. Taking care of my body, earning money, going and spending that money for things to take care of my body.

Round and round.

In the midst of all of that, I am working with people on finding work that gets them excited to get up in the morning. I wasn’t feeling very lively.

If I was only like my friend Sharon who plans a trip every 4 months so she always has something to inspired her.

If I was only a person who loved routines.

If only….

I was feeling some big disconnect between advocating for a life that matters but the dailyness of my life didn’t feel like it mattered much.

I started asking a question. Mostly to myself. How do I create a sense of excitement and purpose in the midst of having so many repetitive tasks in a given day?

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Step out of the rut

My immediate answer was to change the routines. Change the breakfast menu, open the door with my other hand, take a different route to work.

Here’s my reasoning. What was key was creating some sort of change so I wasn’t on autopilot. 

Have you ever felt like you are going through the motions and not really noticing what is going on? Have you ever looked up after spending time on Facebook and wondering where that hour went?

I am astonished at how quickly we form routines. Have you noticed when attending a two-day workshop that attendees go back to the same seat they chose on the first day? 

There is a lot comforting in the familiar.

The rub is that familiarity is also deadening. 

I see how easily it is to be caught in a job that sucks. It happens while one day is unfolding into another. Rinse and repeat.

We get comfortable with the predictability of tasks. 

To make a change on out of a job that is comfortable requires a good momentum. I see it as what happens when we are on a swing. It takes a lot of energy to get moving. If someone comes along and gives us a good push, that gets things going in towards where we want to be.

Often it is a big event that gets us into the momentum.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can lead a life of choice. How do you get out of the automatic responses?

The magic of slowing down

February 21, 2018 - Victoria BC

February 21, 2018 - Victoria BC

Some of moving out of autopilot for me was nature grabbing my attention. We had a late snowfall which was such a novelty. I was captivated by how my world had suddenly changed. The snow hugged trees. I had to pay extra attention as I drove (without winter tires).

I was curious too about the cherry blossoms and what they would say if they could talk. (“What the heck?”)

Life slowed down.  Naturally.

While I was noticing the world around me, I started noticing what was happening inside too. The gift of winter is reflection.

I started taking stock of how I was spending my time but more precisely how I wanted to spend my time.

Often when we want to solve a problem such as work that is no longer serving us, we comb the job ads or university programs. We are ready to gallop. When what we need to is slow down.

When all of our senses tell us to get moving, the real answer is in doing the opposite.

Going back to the basics

The clues are all inside of us.

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When I was developing the curriculum for Finding Work That Matters, one of the premises that formed the basis of the program was this question:

What if I paid attention to what makes me feel alive and do more of that? 

To do that, I needed the space and time to listen.

It was imperative that I listen to myself. Not to those voices inside of me that were telling me that I needed to do more.

I needed to listen to what was calling me.

When I started paying attention to what makes me feel alive, I saw immediately why my routines were overwhelming me. I like to start new things. I love playing with ideas. And I love doing that with other people.

I started checking out some new books that had crossed my path that I didn’t think I had time to read. I found some cool Meetups. There are some interesting ideas that I look forward to sharing with you.

Over to you….

What do you do when you find yourself in a rut?


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Creativity Matters: it matters more than you might think

Have you ever sat down to write or draw and something more urgent that needs to be done? At this exact moment.

Today when I began writing this blog, I sat down at my computer. Within minutes I was washing dishes. It could have been laundry. Or vacuuming.

It seems I have a particular attraction to distraction.

Facing a blank page or screen or canvas is like looking into the abyss. What am I going to say? What do I have to say?

There is an opposing nudge. My book and fountain pen are never far away and I keep the 2-week schedule for my blog. 

On those days when procrastination retreats, I see the 2 forces inside of me. The push-pull I hear from other writers, often with comedic slants.

One quote whose authorship is disputed says, “I only write when I am inspired. Fortunately it strikes every morning at 9.” 

What I know for sure is creativity is fundamental to being human.

We all have a deep desire to express ourselves, to tap into our wellspring and bring our own uniqueness out into the world.

When people talk about what is most important for them in the workplace, creativity is often in the top 5.

If we aren’t in the professions, we think of creativity as other: artists, designers, writers, stylists, engineers.

Perhaps we might count ourselves in if we looked at what it really means to create.

According to Merriam-Webster, the definition of creative is ”using the ability to make or think of new things.”

One year when my children were small, I decided to hang a plant out of their reach. Though I had the pot, I no longer had the hanger part. What I did have was leftover speaker wire. From my macramé classes I envisioned how I could wrap the wire to form a hitch I could slide over the ceiling hook. I used metal nuts, leftover from another project, to secure the ends of the wires into the pot – they were small enough to be tucked under the pot rim.

The end result was a subtle, sturdy and classy-looking hanger.

When I looked at my prototype, I had a thought – I am an inventor!

Oh, I didn’t really see myself in that way.

In retrospect, I can see I was solving a problem. Using the skills I had acquired and the material I had lying around, I connected the dots to create a useful item. A new thing.

I didn’t think of myself as a creative type. In fact, when I thought of all of the wondrous creations that were crossing my path, I definitely was not putting myself in that category.

Now I wonder how much I restricted myself with the thought that I wasn’t creative. 

What is interesting to me is how the age of technology has helped me rethink about creativity. Though computers have presented many opportunities, I find myself in a whole new realm of problems

Back in the late ‘80s when I worked in publishing, my task was to create a database with 2 purposes: doing mailouts according to Canada Post guidelines and identify subscriptions up for renewal.

What I discovered in the process was:

1. Computers allowed me to do tasks that I hadn’t been able to do easily beforehand.

2. The programs had specific ways of doing things, not necessarily related to what I wanted to do.

I had to figure it out. My work became about solving the problems computers presented.

Not that it was a bad thing. As I solved one problem and moved to the next, I was developing stronger problem solving skills. This also provided a rich environment for new ideas.

This is happening all the time as people go about their dailyness. Developing a system for family activities, especially when 2 schedules merge – for example, a parent driving their child to her soccer game – is vital to keeping life rolling smoothly. 

Would you call that being creative? 

What if we expanded our beliefs about what it means to be creative? How might this change how we look at ourselves?

Creativity matters because it shifts how we look at something. Even ourselves.

If we looked at ourselves in expansive ways, we would be able to own our gifts and talents and see how imperative it is to take them out into the world. We would see how our particular contributions make a difference. We would see how the problems of the world are exacerbated by our self diminishment. 

Creativity is a life changer. And imperative to growth.

How can you make room for more creativity in your life? 


Thinking of creativity as the ability to make new things to solve a problem, what have you created?  Please share your stories in the comments below.

What are you doing with your life?

Recently Elizabeth Gilbert wrote a Facebook posting asking this question and framing it in the definition of 4 words. Hobby. Job. Career. Vocation.

The answers were breathtakingly fresh, offering an important distinction between taking care of basic needs to doing what gives you meaning. She is clear that it is important to understand the differences between each of these aspects of being human. To read her article, check it out here

The word that I prefer over career is work. Career can be challenging as it is sometimes seen as corporate or one rung on a ladder that has a vague top step. For people whose work is more of a one-stop type, career sounds lofty and unrelatable.

Work, on the other hand, has its roots firmly planted in our history. I saw it in my grandparents' generation. I hardly remember a time when my grandmother was not working. Far into her retirement, she was cooking and gardening and doing temporary jobs. That view of work was passed onto my parents.

What my father and mother impressed upon me was a strong work ethic. They both worked hard. I doubt that my father’s trucking business was his dream career but he gained a good reputation for doing outstanding work. My mother who is 80 this year still works full time in addition to gardening and caring for her home.

When I think of my parents, I think of Fraggle Rock’s doozers, those tiny, green creatures in construction hats and work boots who are happily industrious.

Work ethic is a value that includes

  • doing a job well,
  • doing what you say you are going to do,
  • separating work and personal life, and
  • caring about what you are doing.

This value is still central to many workplaces.

The key difference in how the world has changed around work since my parents’ and grandparents’ time is the idea of doing work we love. Previously if you found it, that was a bonus. Now it is more deliberate.

And a bit of a double edged sword. For those who have not found work they love, they feel a pressure to figure it out and a sense of inadequacy for not having done so.

If this is happening for you, knowing the distinction between hobby, job, career and vocation may help. When I encounter people who are struggling with the pressure, I encourage them to explore this further – there is a lot to navigate in this new work world.

In thinking of vocation, I like the term - your life’s work. I first heard the phrase from Laurence G. Boldt, author of How to Find the Work You Love and Zen and the Art of Making a Living

Your life's work is something you do no matter what. It wouldn’t matter if you got paid or anyone else approved of what you are doing. It is fundamental to who you are.

For example, I think of my life’s work as an archaeologist. I read books on the subject, plan vacations around visiting ruins, and take courses whenever I can. I am drawn to articles written on archaeology. Once I went to a workshop on deciphering Maya glyphs, a subject that far exceeded my knowledge level.

In a way it is how I do my work as a career coach.

What you will notice about your life’s work is:

You want to know more.

  • You will be drawn to articles or books or videos on the subject. There will be a natural inclination to learn more and pass the information onto others.

You feel alive.

  • When you are doing your life’s work you will feel more engaged in the world.
  • You will also find yourself feeling energized – your life’s work fuels you. 

It will answer the question: what are you doing with your life?

  • Or another way of looking at it, doing your life’s work will stop you from asking the question, "what are you doing with your life?"

“Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice “out there” calling me to be something I am not. It comes from a voice “in here” calling me to be the person I was born to be.”  Thomas Merton



Year-End Review: A Gift to Yourself

As we get closer to our farthest distance from the sun here in the northern hemisphere, I think of this season’s offerings.

The dashing around for the past few weeks will soon come to an end.  It will be time to switch gears.

As a friend once said, “it is time for human being rather than human doing.” 

Victoria:  Provincial Legislative Building

Victoria:  Provincial Legislative Building

The long nights are a good reminder to retreat.  In the midst of darkness, Victoria celebrates with an abundance of holiday lights wound around trees and light standards.  Some of the white lights on the provincial Legislative Building have been replaced with red and green ones.  The dazzling display is an invitation, too, for contemplation.

I have a journal I write in once a year, recapping what I have done in the last 365 days. I do this in a free-flowing way, letting events that have weaved through my year arise.  Having a non-linear process allows me to reflect on what has inspired me the most.

I have done this for 20 years – my journal has 20 entries.  When my friend Monique introduced me to this yearly tradition of hers, I adopted it immediately.  It was like a to-do list in reverse, with all the satisfaction and no pressure. 

Later when I was helping others set goals, I realized how important it is to review progress, particularly when facing something new.  Like another year.

But more importantly, it sets the tone for what’s to come.

Sometimes I read my previous entries and am reminded how far I have journeyed and how I have worked through different challenges.  It is an opportunity for me to honour what I have done and who I am.

In a culture that makes many demands and often tells us we are not good enough, taking time to celebrate who you are is a bold act.  It breaks the rules of propriety.

We are told that talking about ourselves is akin to bragging or being self absorbed. 

But how do you move through this world if you don’t know who you are?  How do you contribute at all if you don’t understand your place?  And how do you contribute anything meaningful if you don’t know what gives you meaning?

Part of that journey is being able to explore your gifts.  Your gifts and talents are where you are going to make the biggest difference in the world. Even if changing the world is not on your to-do list, you likely want to contribute. Or help.  Or at least reduce the suffering of others. 

My once-a-year journal

My once-a-year journal

The journal is my starting place.

Before you rush off to make resolutions or major changes, consider what you appreciate about what you did last year.

Here is an 3-part exercise for your year-end review.  It can relate to the work you do or your personal life. 

Part One:  What did you accomplish?

  • What activities did you do in the last year? 
  • If you like linear methods, look back month-by-month to see what stood out for you. Remember this exercise is about recognizing yourself – focus on what you did rather than what others did.
  • What did you do in the last year that made a difference in someone else’s life? 

Part Two:  What did you learn?

  • What you learned can be formal or informal, personal or skill-based. 
  • Throughout the year, what personal growth did you experience?

Part Three:  What is your overall summary?

  • When you look back over the year, what are you most proud of achieving?
  • How would you state your satisfaction? 

You may notice this exercise does not ask what you could have done better. Although that can be informative, self criticism already gets a lot of air time.

This year-end review is about allowing magnificent parts of yourself to surface.  We are all drawn to work with our gifts and talents.  The trouble is that we don’t recognize them.  Or we diminish them.  But we are expressing them all the time.

Your self-appreciation year-end review allows you the space to move away from keeping yourself small.