“I should wake up excited to go to work,” we tell ourselves. For many people, this feeling is so essential to our definition of what it means to have a great job that we don’t even question it. But is how much you look forward to going to work in the morning a barometer for how good your job is? This topic came up at a recent career group session and led to a really interesting discussion.
The question tends to elicit strong reactions from people. “Of course you should be happy to go to work!” people respond incredulously. That’s how I used to feel, too, but now I’m not sure how meaningful your enthusiasm for going to work each morning really is. I have a childhood friend named Alessia whose father was a teacher and a department head at a prominent children’s school and teacher’s college in New York. He loved his job more than almost anyone else I know. This is someone who would come home at the end of the day and say, without any irony, “I have the best job in the world.”
Yet, during our career group session, Alessia revealed that even her dad dreaded the beginning of the school year and didn’t particularly look forward to going to work each morning, either. His feeling was that you couldn’t only measure how good a job was by how you felt in the morning—the more important consideration was how you felt at the end of the day.
I think the question of whether you should like going to work derives from the fundamental tension of how your work relates to either your passion or your lifestyle (this needn’t be an either/or situation, but it often seems to play out this way). Some people are lucky to have a job where the can work on specific passions and be paid decently. My husband, who is a game designer and programmer, fits in this category. He loves video games and has wanted to be a game designer for most of his life, and now he is one. He still has occasional days where he doesn’t look forward to going to work, but his job contains an essential element of personal interest that means he anticipates it with pleasure most of the time. Other people, whose passions have no viable related careers, may have jobs that fit their skills and general interests, but are predominantly about supporting other activities or lifestyle choices. This can be great too, but does leave work feeling like, well, work and nothing else. For these people, the expectation of bounding out of bed to go to work each morning may never be realistic.
Of course, not being excited to go to work is not the same thing as dreading it. I think that the former is a reality of work for many people and not necessarily indicative of the overall fit or satisfaction level of the job. The latter is unbearable and, whatever the reason, an indication that significant change of some sort is necessary.
It turned out that few people in our career group actively look forward to going to their jobs each morning, even those who really like their jobs. Several said that, while they might not look forward to going to work, they felt content and accepting of it. At least one actively dreaded it. Many of us agreed that we often felt satisfied when we came home at the end of the day.
Even in cases where people dread their jobs, however, observing how you feel at the end of the day can still be a useful exercise. My friend Virginia illustrates this point perfectly. She is an attorney with an extraordinarily stressful work environment and a job that she is actively anxious about each morning, yet she often feels satisfied with what she’s accomplished at the end of the day. She doesn’t want to change her career or industry—she wants to get a similar job at a different firm that is a better fit for her personality. Her goal is to feel about going to work the way she feels about going to a yoga class.
“I am not always inclined to go to yoga class because it means getting dressed, leaving my house and walking to the studio,” she said. “I am also afraid that I will be tired or the class will be challenging. On the other hand, I feel calm about the prospect of going because I have had so many positive experiences with it in the past. I never dread it and, if I did, I wouldn’t go. Once I’m at the class, I enjoy it immensely. Even if some moments are unpleasant, I derive satisfaction from working through them and overcoming the difficulties. By the end of the class, I feel ecstatic about the fact that it is over and that I put myself through it. This is how I would like to feel about my job.”
For many people, work is not like the things they do for fun. Even if their work is like what they do for pleasure, the realities of commutes, salaries, and coworkers end up complicating the overall work experience of most jobs—even the ones that seem like they should be perfect fits.
Like many people I know, my job is a big part of my identity. This creates a lot of additional pressure to be really satisfied with work all of the time, even though that is not a reality of most jobs. I am always trying to figure out ways to make work feel less like work, mostly by continually trying to increase the amount of time I spend on the parts of my job that I enjoy, and minimize the time I spend on the parts that I don’t. Having said that, I can’t envision my work ever feeling enjoyable in the same way as the things I do solely for pleasure. I’m not sure that I’ll ever know whether this is due to to my personality—namely, feeling like nothing is as fun once it becomes an obligation—or because my job is not sufficiently aligned with my interests.
Assuming that the “right” job will leave you actively wanting to go to work each day is a colossal expectation that, for me, can lead to frustration. Instead, I try to approach the work day knowing that there will be challenges. I keep my expectations tempered. I think this helps me work through the obstacles that necessarily come up throughout the day without spiraling into irritation or despondency. In this way, having more moderate expectations for the day actually enables me to feel productive and satisfied when it’s over.
How satisfied you feel at the end of the day, rather than the beginning, certainly isn’t the only metric to consider when evaluating whether a job is a good fit, nor am I advocating everyone to settle on a job and to quit trying for something better. But by moderating our expectations of how we ought to feel at the beginning of the day and instead observing how we feel at the end of it, we may find more clues about what aspects of our jobs satisfy us, and ultimately feel more contented with what we’ve actually accomplished.
This post originally appeared on The Billfold. Image: Eddie Marritz