Take this job and shove it
     I ain’t working here no more
My woman done left and took all the reasons
    I was working for
You better not try to stand in my way
    ‘Cause I’m walkin’ out the door
Take this job and shove it
    I ain’t working here no more  

(vocals by Johnny Paycheck, lyrics by David Allan Coe, attitude shared by millions everywhere)

Every year US News and other publications try to identify the best jobs available, and their lists always include surprises, like ‘cartographer,’ which is a person who makes maps. I assumed this job had (like maps) mostly gone away, and that most of the remaining map making jobs involved working for pirates, but I was wrong on both counts. Argh!

For several years back in the 90’s, the top-ranked job was “actuary,” to which most people responded, “Awesome!…What is that?” Actuaries are the steely-eyed accountants of death. Before you can buy a life insurance policy, an actuary wearing a green eye-shade, thick glasses, and a pocket protector labors in the bowels of a towering office building to figure out how long you are likely to live. They also calculate the likelihood of other disasters like car wrecks, sinkholes, and Justin Bieber so insurance firms can sell policies for those things, including the $7,000,000 insurance policy issued to cover the chest hair of singer Tom Jones, and the slightly more practical “multiple birth insurance” policy which pays out if your little darling brings along a playmate. Or two.

Actuaries, as you might expect, do not tend to be party animals, though our friend who works in this field is pretty jolly. Actuaries like to snap each other with towels in the locker room after a grueling day of calculations, and have lots of written tests they make each other take, and after passing every single one of these exams they are awarded special honors, and given a new green eye shade, and taught the secret handshake, which gains them admittance to all the best actuary parties and lets them distinguish true actuaries from mere posers. What is a true actuary, you ask? You poser.

Sciencey people who study jobs tell us two things about what makes a job good. The first one explains why our friend loves being an actuary, even though most of us would rather eat gumbo off the floor with chopsticks than endure the green eyeshade of despair for even an hour or two: certain jobs fit certain people, while others do not. In other words, like many of the other sources of happiness in life, you have to figure out who you are and what works for you, regardless of what anyone else thinks. This explains why the two summers I spent roofing houses in 100 degree weather were actually fairly enjoyable: the job worked for me. It also explains why I have avoided certain opportunities, since I know myself well enough to know they are not for me.

This whole “job fit” model, which scientists call the “job fit” model (they are practical like that) explains some of the workplace despair we see: someone holds a “great” job which is envied by all his friends, and aspired to by many co-workers, yet he literally hates going to the office. The trap of these jobs is simple, but effective: if you have a job others admire, you will to struggle to leave it for one that fits you better, especially if you hate the job but love the large paycheck (see “golden handcuffs”). If you hate your job (or even strongly dislike it), you are spending the majority of your life being miserable, which is going to make the other parts of your life seriously lousy as well.

The contrasts here are startling. Some directory assistance operators, whose workday consists of looking up phone numbers for callers who have not yet discovered Google, absolutely love their jobs. Medical doctors (the kind of doctors who actually help people, as opposed to doctors like me who mostly sit around in tweed jackets with elbow patches and think things), are among the most respected and highest paid professionals in America, but are also among the least happy with their jobs: less than 50% (in some specialties far less) say they are happy at work, a majority say they are burned out (“loss of enthusiasm for work, feelings of cynicism, and a low sense of personal accomplishment”), and divorce rates hover 10-20% above the national norm.

By the way, there are some really bad jobs, that almost nobody would enjoy, like viewing online images every day to determine whether they are  depraved enough to take down (most of them are) and people in these jobs suffer PTSD and other mental health issues as a result. Even animals can have bad jobs, like the poor British dogs in the 1600’s who were bred with short legs so they could walk in a giant hamster wheel all day turning delicious spits of meat over a fire, always walking but never getting to have a taste.

Besides finding a job that fits you, researchers have also determined that certain things make jobs more satisfying in general, things like free coffee, low levels of radiation, and an absence of annoying chipmunks. Actually if you are looking for a job you should try to find one that has these:

  1. Skill variety. Doing exactly the same thing all day, every day, is soul-crushing for most of us. Even actuaries, who do have souls.
  2.  Task significance. Jobs that have some meaning, for somebody, somewhere, are better than jobs that feel like we are just laboring all day to feed the machine. Of course what defines ‘meaning’ varies from person to person, so your job may be meaningful to you, but nobody else, which is absolutely fine. Best recruiting pitch ever, from Apple CEO Steve Jobs to Pepsi CEO John Sculley in 1983: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want a chance to change the world?” Sculley left Pepsi for Apple.
  3. Autonomy. Having some control over the work you do is much more satisfying than just following orders. Your boss plays a huge role in how much of this you experience. I have experienced both near-total autonomy and virtually no autonomy in the same job (different bosses).
  4. Task identity. Work that produces an identifiable product (e.g. a chair) is far more satisfying than work with no discernible beginning or end (producing chair legs all day on an assembly line).
  5. Feedback. Knowing if you are doing well or not is critical. Wondering if you are doing a good job is maddeningly frustrating to most people.

The lifetime career is a distant memory. Changing companies, changing fields, and changing professions, multiple times, is now the norm. If your job is not making you happy, start with these 5 items and figure out if the job itself is the problem. Some of these things can be changed, sometimes just by asking. If the job is fine, maybe fit is the issue; maybe it’s a great job…for somebody else.

Finally, you may need to rediscover what you found meaningful and joy-inducing in your job before. Here are some questions that can help you refocus and repurpose what you do all day if it has lost its meaning.

You spend way too much of your life at work to hate it, or even for it not to bring you joy. If work is not working for you, maybe it’s time to consider a change.

Postscript: Songwriter David Allan Coe was apparently so unhappy with his work that in 1993 he began ignoring his friends at the IRS; in 2016 he was convicted of tax evasion and ordered to pay $1 million.

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More on this topic:

  • Dan Ariely’s podcast on the secret of meaningful work.
  • A simple but profound comic that suggests we all get 8 lives (not just one) and should be intentional about ending each so we can move on to the next.