Why the idea of success could be making you hate your job

Article by Amina Aitsi-Selmi MD PhD

male managers, woman presenting, stressed womanThe 2019 World Happiness report shows that material standards of living are the highest they’ve ever been. But happiness levels do not seem to match up.

Across high-income countries, mental health statistics show alarming levels of depression and anxiety and there’s an important link to work. In Europe, fewer than 12% of people report being engaged with their work.

According to large economic surveys, most people in the West will experience a crisis of meaning in work and life in their mid-30s. Research from over 500,000 Americans and Western Europeans showed a parallel pattern in terms of happiness and wellbeing: a decline in the 30s, hitting rock bottom in the mid-50s then rising again.

Interestingly, this pattern affects people across the board: white-collar workers, blue-collar workers, married people and single people alike. One reason that’s been suggested for this is that by the mid-30s you might realise that you have a version of success that you don’t really like. Another is that your priorities are simply changing. Either way, you find yourself working really hard for a life or job you don’t like.

You may have landed all the trappings of success (‘great job’ with high status and a good salary and lifestyle) but something is still missing and there’s no end to the daily grind. When I woke up to this in my mid-thirties, I decided that more was possible and transformed a career I’d built over two decades. I had a great mentor and coaches who helped me take calculated risks and a couple of leaps to do what I really loved and do it on my own terms.

The good news is that if you’re not happy in work or life, and do nothing about it, you’ll start to feel better in our mid-fifties. But why wait that long? You can create a version of success that works for you now. Here are three things you can start with:

  • Slow down to speed up

Long term studies point to three big reasons work can make us sick: lack of control; effort-reward imbalance; and dysfunctional competition. To be truly successful, you need to take back control of your energy and time as much as you can, so you can channel them where it matters most.

You need some quiet time to think about what really matters to you beyond the noise and external expectations that you grew up with. Perhaps you care less about status and more about time with family. Perhaps you’re willing to take a pay cut from your large salary if you can have more freedom and turn a passion into a real paying job or business. Everyone’s different. If you slow down you’ll be able to hear the guidance from your inner-voice and things will eventually go faster – in a new, better direction.

  • Remember what you loved as a child

Re-connect with things that energise and inspire you. What did you want to do as a child? What did you get lost in, not noticing the hours pass by? How can you incorporate more of that into your life? Few of us came out of the educational system knowing how to enjoy the present moment and appreciate what we already have. We were seldom taught how to speak our dreams and make them come true. We’ve been taught that life is a struggle and to chase money. We’ve been rewarded for workaholic behaviours that drive us to exhaustion despite our better judgment. This is what I call The Success Trap. Allow yourself a bit more fun and see what happens.

  • Apply the 80/20 rule

Manifesting a dream that’s true to your values and vision requires cutting back on things that aren’t aligned with what you want and setting boundaries. You might feel a fear of missing out or guilty about saying no to requests from work. But remember it’s OK to feel the guilt and say ‘no’ anyway! Then you’ll have more energy and headspace to get clear on what you really want and to do it consistently. The new version of your life may not happen immediately, but over time, you’ll find that you feel more alive. My clients take about 18 months to go from the moment they decide it’s time for a change to creating their own consulting business and freedom lifestyle. But they’re happy that they didn’t spend another 5 to 10 years waiting for things to happen on their own.

Someone asked me this month what tips I had for creating a successful career. I replied: don’t rely on “tips”. Commit to your true success and happiness by preparing to make the courageous decisions that will take your life in another direction. If you have any doubts about following your own path, remember the five regrets of the dying:

  • I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  • I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.
  • I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  • I wish I’d stayed in touch with my friends.
  • I wish I’d let myself be happier.

Notice that the regrets didn’t include: ‘I wish I’d worked harder’ or ‘I wish I’d been more successful’.

About the author

Amina Aitsi-SelmiDr Amina Aitsi-Selmi works full time as a Transformational Coach and Consultant online. She helps professionals and leaders who might be feeling stuck to find inspiration again and create a fulfilling career and life. She’s published over 40 academic articles and a book: The Success Trap: Why good people stay in jobs they don’t like and how to break free which is available from all major online book retailers. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and subscribe to her value-filled newsletter on career transformation at www.doctoramina.com.


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