This little tidbit of advice gets passed around frequently, whether by employers who feel justified in their poor treatment of employees or by motivational speakers who want to see the masses take control over their professional lives: If you don’t like your job, get another one.
Many people spend years of their lives — perhaps decades — working in unpleasant jobs. I have always believed that every individual owes it to his or herself to be treated well in any employment situation, even if it has taken me more time than I would have liked, in retrospect, to move away from toxic situations myself. In general, if you are in a bad situation, change the situation. It’s good advice, but unfortunately, the advice is often given by people who are unfamiliar with any particular individual’s specific situation. And reality can be a dark cloud hanging over the world of advice full of optimistic aphorisms and motivational quotes.
Why can’t someone with a horrible boss quit? Why can’t low-wage workers simply find better-paying jobs instead of advocating for a living wage? Why don’t women who are being verbally or physically abused by their husbands (or vice versa) simply pack their bags and leave? To those of us who have benefited from some privilege, the inertia might not make any sense.
I have a friend who has been a teacher for fifteen years or so. She didn’t go to school to be a teacher, but when she graduated she realized that education would be a better, more lucrative, and more successful career path than her chosen area of study. Now, she is no longer passionate about teaching; that is to say, she still loves actually teaching and affecting children in a way that will allow them to become competent, intelligent, and questioning adults, but thanks to systemic changes, she doesn’t really get to do that.
But she’s still teaching for now. She has the talent and fortitude to be successful at any endeavor. We’ve talked about opening a private school where she could have a positive effect under a different type of system. We’ve talked about other projects. But, from a perspective based in reality, she thinks she could be much more successful as a shop owner in a burgeoning middle-class community (that was formerly rural).
That said, it would take a leap of faith and a lot of energy to make this change. Her current job and other responsibilities inside and outside of her family require so much time, money, physical energy, and mental energy that she has little left of herself to give to planning out her future.
And that’s exactly where most people are when they stay in jobs they don’t like. You can’t tell, for example, a single mother who works multiple shifts at two different jobs seven days a week to use her free time to look for new jobs or to gain additional education. She can’t quit one of her jobs because she needs the money today. Living paycheck to paycheck, or even going into debt to afford basic shelter and food, there is no wiggle room.
Survival mode poisons the brain.
Motivational speakers, endlessly positive, want to instill hope. Well, other people have risen from these bad circumstances to thrive. And by admitting it’s difficult, we may not be reaching the one in one hundred who will hear the motivational advice and find a way to take the actions necessary to put themselves in a better position for the long-term. And maybe this is even possible for an additional five in one hundred people who are dissatisfied with their situation, and wouldn’t have done anything unless they felt inspired by a motivational story. Or perhaps this five do have the capability to make these changes and won’t regardless of what they hear.
I’m confident that we’re left with ninety-five out of one hundred people who really hate their jobs (or other life situations) — and this just isn’t because their boss is unfriendly, but because their quality of life is deplorable and they’re unable to think about their future because they’re focused on their urgent needs and the urgency tasks with their roles as employees — who will never be able to put into action the latest motivational author’s twelve-step plan for improving their lives.
If you are in survival mode, upper-middle-class ideals like self-actualization, self-improvement, and planning for the future are impossible. And it’s not a matter of how people work, it involves how people think. Survival mode prevents the brain from operating at the higher levels necessary to guide the actions of a self towards a better future. In general, survival mode hinders cognitive abilities.
This is why, as a society, we have organizations including the government that help people. If an external force can get the most vulnerable people out of survival mode, with the right cognitive training, they can begin to consider more than just meeting the immediate needs of their families. But survival mode is more than just something that happens to people who aren’t meeting their basic needs as one might see on the base of the pyramid that represents Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. If even the threat of loss of life, shelter, or food exists, the brain is still in survival mode.
Work isn’t supposed to be fun.
Not everyone who is stuck is in survival mode. Even people who are relatively secure — or at least, not living paycheck to paycheck — are liable to sit around in a situation that’s bad. In my example about the teacher above, there’s no reason to think she’s in survival mode. Yes, she’s overworked and has little time to consider her alternatives, but her family isn’t starving. Her husband owns a business (and as successful business owners know — you can hardly have a life for yourself if you want your business to be competitive, and an equitable work/life balance is a myth) and provides well for the family, even if income is scattered throughout the year.
Your average corporate employee who has an annoying boss and feels he could be doing something much more fulfilling with his life has something in common with this example: awareness. While they see their situation as unfortunate, they are aware that they don’t have it nearly as bad as the impoverished. People throughout the world seem to be satisfied — or at least not outwardly complaining — with much, much less. This awareness leads to guilt, and this guilt is powerful. When people realize that most of the world has it a lot worse, they feel bad about their petty complaints.
Competitive inertia prevents action.
It can be unhelpful for anyone’s long-term success to compare one’s life or success to another, whether the comparison is favorable (“I’m doing much better than the jobless mom who goes in and out of the homeless shelter!”) or unfavorable (“Some bloggers get all the attention from the mainstream media while I go unnoticed!”). Living life as a comparison for the most part prevents people from taking actions that can improve the situation.
While some people thrive under this type of competition, it’s certainly not the majority of people. Competition causes stress, and stress, especially when it is placed on top of layers upon layers of other stress, pushes people back towards survival mode. I’m familiar with competition because it’s always been a part of my life. Employees deal with competition all the time in their workplace, but like many people, I’ve always participated in activities that rely on interpersonal competitiveness.
I started learning to play the clarinet in third grade. It was a horrible experience, and I was terrible. The teacher made sure I knew I was terrible because he had all the clarinetists sit in a row of chairs, from best to worst. I was the worst and was made to sit in the last chair. (Of course, this is for the most part how musicians are seated in orchestras as adults as well; the “best” performer gets the first chair. The teacher was simply reflecting real life for the third-graders.)
Did that make me want to try harder? No way. I hated it. But I continued, and the next year I moved to a state where the fourth-graders were learning their instruments for the first time. I had a half-year of experience. Suddenly I was the expert — and I stayed “first chair” for the rest of my time through high school (except as a freshman) and pursued music education in college because I loved it so much and thought it teaching would be a great career for me.
The reality is that competition, awareness of the world, most often doesn’t inspire people to improve, it allows people to resign themselves to their situation. This is an attitude that can be overcome, unlike survival mode which happens at a subconscious level, but it isn’t something that’s going to happen just because someone says, “Get a new job, slacker.”
Let’s not forget about the economy.
I never want to be the economy to be an excuse for the choices I make. In fact, it’s hard to know what is really happening in the economy because the news is filtered and changed by the opinions of the people who write about it. But if government statistics are to be believed, the job economy hasn’t truly recovered from the recession that took hold of the world a few years ago. The unemployment rate soared, and the jobs that have returned have been lower-paying jobs.
Companies wanting to survive the recession, a disappearance in customers willing and able to pay for products and services, reduced expenses. And mostly, they reduced their expenses in human resources. Like humans, corporations entered “survival mode,” and employees got the worst of the effects. Employers found ways of surviving with fewer people, pushing for higher productivity from some employees while eliminating others.
This news permeated society, and certainly turned employment into a corporate-favorable buyers’ market. With this impression, people are most likely to “be thankful for the job they have.” They’re less inclined to improve the situation because they believe it’s somewhat futile to do so. This actually makes those who are able to make the sacrifices, leaving a job, stand out more, so it’s still a good idea to seek out better employment situations if you can. But like most things in life, the best opportunities go to those who can afford to take the risk. The survival-mode single mom working two jobs can’t afford the risk.
So if you hear someone say, “If you don’t like your job, get another one,” they’re either talking to someone who has a support system in place to make that risk possible, or they have little understanding of the realities that people who are truly stuck face.
Published or updated July 8, 2014.