Stuck in a miserable, but well-paid, job you can’t afford to quit? Don’t get yourself into that position in the first place!
Philip H. “hates his life”. Those are his exact words. Specifically, he hates his all-consuming job. The work bores him and he no longer believes in his firm’s mission. The gruelling hours he puts in cost him time with his family that he can never recover.
Here’s the kicker: Phillip earns several million dollars a year heading a major office of a top-tier advisory firm. So, you might ask, why doesn’t he quit?
He’s says he can’t afford to.
There’s a big mortgage on a luxury apartment, and another on the beautiful beach house he and his wife bought two years ago. (“The summer weekends we spend there are the only thing that keep me sane,” he says.) Then there are the three kids—all enrolled at a private school. The eldest will start college in a year; the others will follow soon. Tallying up his obligations, Philip envies his Wall Street friends who earn ten times as much as he does.
A couple of days ago I mentioned this story to a well-known financial columnist. “I hear this all the time,” he said. “Lots of people moan about how miserable they are at work but they can’t see a way out.”
“Boo, hoo,” you might say. “I’d trade places with Philip in a heartbeat.” But would a huge income really make up for feeling horrible about your life?
You might think that you could put up with a few years of misery for the freedom it would buy you. You’d put a lot of money in the bank, and then walk away to do whatever you like: launch a small company, or spend the rest of your days lolling on the beach. Maybe you’d devote the rest of your life to doing good in the world. Whatever your goal, you’d collect your last paycheck and say, “Adios.”
It’s not that easy, though. You wouldn’t make a bundle starting out. You’d have to put in your time first. And when serious money began to come in, it would be tempting to reward yourself creature comforts for all the stresses you endure. The higher you climb the ladder, the harder it will be to leave. Then one day you’d turn around and find yourself in Philip’s unhappy shoes.
It might seem that I’m writing about a problem that affects only a small set of people. But I think Philip’s case illustrates issues that apply wherever you are now in the organisational hierarchy, and whether you love your job or loathe it.
Most work choices aren’t either/or
It’s late in the game for Philip, but assuming a different role in his firm might be rejuvenating. Going on sabbatical might set a great example for other colleagues. By framing his decision as stay-or-go, he’s missing other opportunities.
If you’re unhappy at the office, other people know it
Philip’s negativity must come out sideways. If he hates his own job, how can he be enthusiastic when a colleague lobbies for a new project? A big part of his job is evaluating other people’s performance. His attitude is bound to warp his judgement. (I also worry about what he’s like at home.)
Toughing things out is not a career plan
Somehow Philip drags himself to work every day. Maybe he takes pride in his perseverance. As they say, however, “persisting in the same behavior expecting different results is the definition of insanity.” The way things are headed, he risks getting pushed out by his peers. Maybe that’s his subconscious agenda, but it would be an ugly way to go.
Plan your end game
When you take on a job, set a date when it will be time to move on to something else. You can always revise it one way or another, but it’s usually better to leave a year early than a year too late.
The most important lesson of Philip’s story is not getting into his situation in the first place. If Philip had kept these precepts in mind, he would have been alert to his growing feelings of frustration. At an earlier point, a lateral move to another firm or an entirely different field might have been easier. And if he had allowed for the possibility that the job might get stale, he might not have saddled himself with so much debt. But by the time he realised he was on a treadmill, he had gone so far he felt he couldn’t step off.
Sunk cost traps aren’t just financial. They can also be social, emotional, and deeply personal. Philip may have trapped himself with worries about what others will think about his walking away from what most regard as a dream job. I’d remind him of Samuel Johnson’s advice – that we’d worry less about what others think of us if we realised how seldom they do.
In the end, Philip’s self-respect is what counts. Walking away might feel as if he’s repudiating how he’s spent his recent years. But to me, belatedly changing an unhappy life sounds a lot better than doubling down.
This article was written by Professor Michael Wheeler and was orginally published on LinkedIn.
Professor Michael Wheeler’s Negotiation Mastery course on Harvard Business School’s HBX launched earlier this year. Applications for the next wave of students, starting in September, are now being accepted. Version 1.4 of his Negotiation 360 self-assessment/best practice app is available for both Apple and Android devices. It includes coaching videos and a tactics exercise.