Selfish, Ungrateful And Unrealistic? Why Your Desire For Fulfilling Work Feels Uncomfortable (And What To Do About It)

Image of two giraffes looking in opposite directions

Craving more fulfilling work can feel petulant and greedy – especially when you know many people would be grateful to have a career at all. But is it such a bad thing to want more from your working life? Natasha weighs up the two sides of the argument, and shares three ways to feel proud and confident about your next steps.

Friday afternoon, 5.30 p.m.

I’m in the car. The volume is up, the windows are down.

There’s a big, cheesy, inspiring '80s ballad playing on the radio and I feel… enraged.

What am I doing in this job? How have I let myself settle for something that’s so clearly not right for me? Why am I selling myself short this way, when I know I’m capable of more? Is my self-esteem so low that I’m willing to accept something that makes me this tired and frustrated and miserable?

I’m furious, decisive. That’s it. I have to do something about this now. There’s no going back.

Until I get to the pub, that is, and meet my friend’s mournful eyes across the top of a pint glass.

“They’re making my role redundant,” she says. “It took me ages to get hired in the first place. And everyone’s saying the job market sucks right now. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

I’m flooded with an ugly, confusing wash of emotions. Sadness for her…. and relief that it’s not me.

Who did I think I was, charging around all self-righteous and entitled? What made me so special, that I deserved a career where I was fulfilled and inspired and proud, while other people were losing their roles, working multiple jobs to make ends meet, or struggling to find work at all?

I should be grateful for what I’ve got. It’s not my ideal career or workplace, sure – but it’s hardly a torture chamber. If I just buck my ideas up a bit, it could get better. This is what adulthood looks like, after all; we all have to do things we don’t necessarily want to do. Work is supposed to be challenging, or they wouldn’t pay you to do it. 

And in no time at all, the pendulum has swung.

The idea of making a career change can feel paradoxical: both hopelessly self-indulgent and utterly necessary.

You wish you could just appreciate how lucky you are. Plenty of people don’t have reliable work at all – and they certainly wouldn’t walk away from a good career that they’d worked hard to get.

But you’re dying to do exactly that. What you’ve got just isn’t right for you – you’re craving something more, something energising, something you’re proud of, something you love.

And you’re worried that that makes you selfish, and childish, and greedy.

It’s a hard knot to untangle – it carries moral and ethical quandaries, and it’s closely tied up with your own sense of agency, confidence and self-worth. And if you’re the main breadwinner or you have dependants, it’s even more fraught with emotion.

Trying to make sense of such conflicting sensations can be really tough, sending you swinging backward and forward and ultimately keeping you stuck.

So let’s take a look, together, at the two sides of the conundrum – and then break down some steps for navigating your way forward.

3 reasons why yes, you’re being unrealistic about what’s possible and ungrateful for what you have

1. We’ve never demanded so much of our work before

Since the end of World War II, Western societies in particular have experienced a huge decline in organised religion.

We’re not going to church any more. We’re no longer looking to deities and their representatives to guide our moral compasses, or to connect us to something bigger than ourselves.

At the same time, particularly since the '60s, we’ve become increasingly individualised.

We’ve moved from interdependent, community-driven life to highly independent, separate existences with a focus on freedom and autonomy. Life is more competitive. Our sense of self is less reliant on other people, or location, or defined by a social group – and is therefore more flexible, transient, and unreliable.

What all this means is that the places we used to turn to find our sense of purpose, community, transcendence, meaning, and a deep sense of identity are disappearing.

Now, we only have two places in which we expect to find all of those elements of fulfilment: our families (primarily our romantic relationships), and our work.

What was once a purely economic engagement has now become the root from which we define ourselves to others, the way we establish social hierarchies, and from which we measure our sense of worth, both economic and moral.

We’ve come, most of us without realising it, to expect our work to offer not just a mechanism for putting food on the table, but also to provide a supportive community, an enjoyable pastime, moments of transcendental joy, and a deep sense of existential meaning.

A common question offered up to career changers to help them find a more fulfilling line of work is the classic: “What’s your ‘purpose’?”

A purpose. A reason for being.

The same question, phrased differently, might be: 

“Why are you even here?”

“What’s the point of your existence?”

When we try to answer the question of ‘purpose’ in the context of a career, we turn the office into our very reason for living. If your work doesn’t feel like it has meaningful purpose, then… you might as well not exist.

And this turns the urgency to find fulfilling work up to maximum volume.

It's an enormous set of demands.

You might even argue it’s unfair.

Maybe the workplace deserves a bit of a break.

2. You’re not supposed to be happy all the time

If the ever-increasing pressure on the world of work to provide everything you need, all in one place, weren’t enough, it then gets bolstered by a seemingly never ending stream of messages from all angles about how screamingly important it is that you’re happy. All The Time.

Being happy has become an imperative for life in general; if you’re not happy, you’re doing it wrong.

But this conversation has only been alive for the past two decades – and to this degree of intensity for much less. And there’s plenty of research that shows that chasing after unrealistic levels of joy actually makes you less fulfilled, not more.

“Our societies put into the category of the pathological what other cultures consider normal – the preponderance of pain – and put into the category of the normal and even the necessary what others see as exceptional – the feeling of happiness. The question is not whether we are more or less happy than our ancestors: our conception of happiness has changed, and to change utopias is to change constraints. But we are probably living in the world's first societies that make people unhappy not to be happy.”

– Pascal Bruckner, Perpetual Euphoria

All of this expectation to be joyful and excited every minute of every day… it creates an enormous crater of potential disappointment between how your life looks, and how you think it’s meant to look.

If you’re not thrilled to go to work every day, it’s no longer simply because most days aren’t actually meant to be thrilling. Now, it’s a deep-rooted disappointed – either in yourself, or in your employer (more on that later).

If you’re not answering the question “What do you do?” with something special, it’s now supposedly a personal failure (never mind that the person you’re talking to probably doesn’t shine with pride when they talk about their job, either).

Unless you’re experiencing workplace bullying or harassment – which is a whole different story – not loving your job doesn’t have to be, objectively, the existential disaster that it’s often made out to be.

So this all begs the question: are you unhappy at work because you’re truly unhappy at work?

Or are you unhappy at work because you’ve been sold the idea that you should be happier than you are?

3. Your brain isn’t helping

Through no fault of your own, it’s likely that the situation you’re in at work feels worse to you than it objectively is.

Your brain has all kinds of automatic systems in place, many of which are designed to keep you safe from suffering and prepare you for future dangers. So when you’re in a not-quite-right environment on a daily basis, these systems are set in perpetual motion. You’ll find yourself regularly trapped in negative thought spirals, which consequently set off other self-protection mechanisms, and before you know it, what would – from the outside – seem like a small annoyance becomes an unbearable set of circumstances.

For example, in her 2012 study ’Fantasies about work as limitless potential’, Professor Susanne Ekmann noticed that people who expected work to make them happy would frequently develop an unusual level of emotional neediness toward their managers, looking to them for constant emotional reassurance and recognition.

And when they didn’t get the level of acknowledgement and reassurance they expected (which happened a lot), these employees felt neglected and began to react excessively. Small events would be taken as clear evidence of rejection, lack of care, and an unsupportive working environment.

The brain’s confirmation bias – a natural human tendency to notice and seek out evidence that supports an idea we’ve already subscribed to – came into play in a big way in the above example. And it’s more problematic than ever now that such high expectations have been set for what a career should be, and what an employer should provide.

You develop a hunch that all is not as it should be in your career, and suddenly you start finding more and more reasons to be unhappy in your job. Problems that you might otherwise have let drop suddenly feel unacceptable. Other people’s mistakes start to look like patterns that are contributing to a bigger, miserable picture. Over time, without even realising you’re doing it, you build a case for the fact that you’re in the wrong place and your employer is crap and there’s nothing you can do about it.

That’s not to say that the sensation you’re having of being in ‘the wrong career’ isn’t real, or even correct.

But there’s also a case to be made that at least some proportion of what you’re dealing with when you’re unhappy at work is your own subconscious biases and social expectations.

3 reasons why you have every right to want more from your career

1. When you’re fulfilled at work, you do better work

“The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads. That sucks.” – Jeff Hammerbacher, data scientist and co-founder of Cloudera

A fulfilling career isn’t just about enjoying what you’re doing every day.

It’s also about finding an intersection between what you’re energised by and what you’re truly good at; bringing your skills to play in a space that matters to you, and in an environment that motivates and supports you to get the most from yourself.

And if you’re going to be spending a third of your life at work, it’s not greedy or selfish to want to dedicate that time to something where you’re doing the best work you can.

What might you be capable of achieving, given the right conditions? What kind of difference could you make to the world, even in a small way, if you were dedicating your time to something you loved? I’d imagine that right now, you have no real idea.

But compare the ripe possibility of that question to what work looks and feels like to you right now.

How much of your potential is wasted with each day you spend in a career that isn’t giving you the chance to find out what you could really be capable of? Are your skills and talents being used to their greatest potential in doing what you’re currently doing?

Seeking out a more fulfilling career is beneficial for you as an individual, yes.

But by finding a channel through which you’re able to do your best work, you’re also making a bigger, more powerful difference to the world at large.

Not so selfish.

2. Fulfilling work impacts more than just your job

People who find and move into more fulfilling work don’t magically have perfect lives.

They’re not constantly happy. Things still go wrong. Some days still suck.

But what is consistently the case – what we hear from our Success Stories over and over again – is that their quality of life as a whole improves.

A fulfilling work life impacts your health: avoiding burnout and exhaustion, keeping your immune system balanced.

It nourishes your relationships. You’re more able to show up fully in your romantic partnerships. Your kids, if you have them, learn what work is about from watching you.

It provides a sense of grounded identity that opens up space for other activities and pursuits outside of work – volunteering, personal development, learning and education.

Striving for a fulfilling career is part of a much greater conversation: it speaks to a commitment to a life that works on all levels, and acknowledges the inevitable interconnectedness of all areas of your life.

Pushing for a more fulfilling career is also pushing for a better marriage.

Seeking work that doesn’t feel like work is also seeking an inspiring career model that your kids will use as a basis for their own futures.

Committing to a career that takes care of your physical and mental well-being is also committing to a longer and healthier life.

Career change doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And if you’re here to live as meaningful a life as possible, that has a positive impact on the people you love, you’re not just justified in seeking a fulfilling career.

You’re obliged to do so.

3. Being honest with yourself frees everything up

It’s a wonderful thing to consciously acknowledge and feel grateful for the things you have in your life, big and small.

But when ‘being grateful’ becomes ‘pasting a smile over pain’, it’s no longer a positive practice; it’s inauthentic and abusive.

You train yourself into becoming someone who puts up, shuts up, allows things to slide that shouldn’t be allowed to slide. Your boundaries blur and fade. You learn to make excuses for unacceptable experiences, to keep your head down, to endure.

Manufactured positivity is no replacement for the real thing. Your body knows the difference. Discomfort, sadness, gut-level not-this sensations… they’re signals. And the longer you ignore signals, the louder they have to shout to get you to start telling the truth.

So forcing yourself to feel grateful to have a job at all – trying desperately to ‘look on the bright side’ and ‘think positively’... it’s not helpful, in the long run.

It’s OK to acknowledge things that are not working. It’s OK to draw a line in the sand; to say “I can see the benefit of this, but I’m not putting up with that.”

In fact, it’s not just OK, it matters. It's your source of integrity. 

It's where you find your confidence, your self-belief, your inner ability to contribute something meaningful in the world.

So by all means, celebrate the positive. And at the same time, be real.

You need to be able to look yourself in the mirror in the morning and see someone who tells the truth – to themselves first, and then to the rest of the world.

Start with the truth, and everything else gets easier.

What to do with all of this

1. Practise both–and thinking

When you’re feeling extreme emotions – great uncertainty, big sadness, deep frustration – there’s a natural tendency to paint extreme narratives:

“This is terrible.” “It’s all unbearable.” “My career is ‘wrong’.” “I’ve failed.” “I should be grateful for what I’ve got.”

And there’s a flip side to those extremes:

“I should be excited EVERY Monday morning”, “There’s a perfect career out there for me”. “I have a duty to do something that makes me happy”, “I deserve to do something I love”.

The uncomfortable truth about this conversation – and indeed about life in general – is that it’s full of things that are both true and contradictory at once. And there’s huge freedom in the ability to hold two opposing truths at the same time.

  • You’re lucky to have work at all – AND this career is not right for you.
  • You’ve learned a lot over the course of your career thus far – AND you want more.
  • Your salary is comfortable – AND you don’t feel good compromising your values for your bank balance any longer.
  • Some people don’t have the luxury of entertaining these kinds of questions – AND you do.

Try not to get sucked into a single narrative of right or wrong, good or bad, worthy or unworthy.

Your situation is inevitably one of both–and, and the more you can engage with its multifaceted complexity, the less you’ll feel painted into a single corner.

2. Don’t move until it’s time to move

Quitting your job because you can’t bear it any more and hoping things will just work out is one thing (and definitely not an approach we’d advise).

If you were to fling yourself willy-nilly into the land of unemployment out of a sense of entitlement, you’d be justified in feeling ungrateful for what you had.

But spending your weekends identifying career paths that could be right for you, meeting new people for conversations about their work in your evenings and lunch breaks, testing out your ideas alongside your day job – and at the same time, making the most of the career you’re planning to leave… that’s something else entirely.

If you’re willing to squeeze as much goodness out of the situation you’re in as possible, and then bid it a decisive goodbye with grace and confidence that you’re on the right track, then you’re moving through a period of transition in your life with integrity and strength.

3. Remember: nobody’s paying as much attention as you

“You will become far less concerned with what other people think of you when you realise how seldom they do.” – David Foster Wallace

Here’s the thing (warning: some pretty straight talk ahead)… who really cares if you’re being selfish for wanting more out of your work than you’re getting?

Who, other than you, is keeping such a close eye on your grateful-o-meter?

Where’s the set of scales that decides how bad your job has to be before you’re entitled to look for something else?

Nobody is as interested in how deserving you are of happiness as you are. Why? Because they’re all far more interested in how deserving THEY are. Yes, even the people who tell you that you should be grateful to have a job at all – even those people are basing those statements on their own feelings of guilt and shame and worthiness, far more than they are on your moral compass.

So release some of the charge from your tail-chasing, and give up using some sense of false morality as a stick to beat yourself with – and thus avoid taking action on your career change.

The people who ‘deserve’ a fulfilling career are the ones who do the tough work to find and move into one.

What are your biggest takeaways from this article? Let me know in the comments below!

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.