A job that’s just right

Telephone Switchboard Operators - a vintage circa 1914 photo

Almost two years ago, I chose happiness over my career.

I was five years into a job in environmental consulting, focused specifically on air quality. While I loved being in the environmental field, some elements of this job made me dread going into work.

Working long hours (for me)

We all have a natural happy working threshold, beyond which we don’t want to work. I was well past that point and feeling pressure to work longer hours still. I had trouble fitting in regular exercise, and I felt like my life was all work. Because I was not willing to put in the time that others on my team regularly devoted to this company, I started to feel like I wasn’t measuring up.

Working for the man

I worked for an expensive consulting firm, which meant the big companies hired us. Major refineries looking to obtain controversial permits to expand, large oil companies accused of causing oil spills leading to environmental and human health impacts, developers looking to permit the next giant skyscraper. I went into environmental engineering because I care about the environment, and I want to protect it. Instead, I found myself protecting big money interests.

Not finding meaning in my work

I derived no bigger purpose, no meaning from my job. At my most cynical, I felt like we were creating massive reports that no one would really ever read. It did not feel like a worthwhile pursuit, or a good use of money and brainpower. And beyond that, as a consultant I only got to see a small piece of the puzzle; I had no ownership over the larger picture.

Few opportunities to learn and grow

I learned a lot when I first started the job, but the learning curve eventually tapered off, and I eventually found myself executing rather than problem solving. I love to be challenged, and this job no longer gave me the opportunity to creatively use my brain or the knowledge I’d worked so hard to gain in college and grad school.


Looking back, after reading Happier, I can see that I was a part of the rat race, forgoing current pleasure for some vague idea of future meaning. He argues that we can have both.

What I desperately wanted was a job that —

  • I enjoyed and felt capable doing
  • Gave me a feeling of purpose
  • Allowed me to continue to grow and learn
  • Contributed to bettering the world, in whatever small way I could
  • Provided me with time to pursue other things that bring me happiness
  • Gave me feedback through the appreciation of others

Two years ago this August, I took a job at a nonprofit focused on conservation and the environment. At the time, it felt like walking out on a ledge because the position was initially temporary with only the possibility — not guarantee — of its becoming a permanent position. I took a major pay cut and, for that temporary period, gave up benefits.

I could not have made a better decision for me.

I feel so fortunate with how well things have turned out, but I also truly feel that things have a way of working out for the best. My job gives me all of what I was looking for and more. I enjoy my work, continue to grow, find meaning in what I do, and have time for exercise and other hobbies (like blogging!).

I knew that there would be things I would miss about my old job, and I was curious to find out what those were. The first was respect — I had to earn that all over again. I also missed my colleagues, but we have stayed friends and I’ve made new friends at my current job. Again, things have a way of working out.

Though I am absolutely happier, I’ve sometimes wondered if I made the right choice. Practically speaking, we live in a very expensive city, and I make a lot less money than before. But as the author of Happier stressed, money is not the ultimate currency. Happiness is. Money is only useful to the extent that it can enable you to get more happiness. And I am happier. Isn’t that what we’re all after?

(Of course, it’s worth stepping back to recognize and appreciate that we live in a time when many of us can think about such considerations when choosing a job. This is something I am very grateful for.)

Have you made a big career change? Are you considering one? How was your experience? How have you decided to balance money versus enjoyment when choosing your jobs? I would truly love to hear.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Royce Bair)

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