Earlier in the week, an old friend during my college years asked me for some advice relating to her career. She had been working for a professional services firm for the past two years and has become increasingly frustrated with the lack of work-life balance in her life. The office politics, promotional expectations, frequent 2 a.m finishes and working during her vacation days were making her stressed out and very unhappy.
After telling me about her situation, she asked a very important question, “Is it all worth it?” That is one question I have asked myself too many times to count during the seven years of my career as a management consultant.
Is it all worth it?
My answer to her was, “It depends.” It really does.
I told her that when I handed in my resignation letter, the Director in my firm had asked me, “Won’t you miss the work?” I almost burst out laughing. I had to contain myself and maintain a straight face when I replied, “No. I won’t.” It occurred to me then that she had assumed that my career aspirations were the same as hers, that—ultimately—every single one of us in professional services have the same goal—to be made a Partner in a firm.
It’s a long road, one that requires not only long hours but also a lot of fraternizing with corporate clients after work. In other words, I wouldn’t be living my life for myself, I would be living it for the firm. For some people, the partnership is worth the 15 years or more in time investment. For me, it wasn’t. To put it simply, working towards partnership would be like walking five thousand miles to a place I didn’t even want to go to in the first place. The effort just wasn’t worth it. What I had to give up just wasn’t worth it.
When I was promoted to Manager some years ago, I remember thinking to myself that I don’t want to be sitting in a large corner office ten years from then, a big shot Partner married to her job, wondering where all the years have gone by and why I never followed my dream of becoming a writer. It was sobering to realize that life goes on and time continues to move forward regardless of whether I do or don’t. Lying in bed that night, I knew that the only emotion I would feel if I didn’t give my dream a shot was regret, and regret was not a dish I wanted to eat for breakfast everyday for the rest of my life.
Many people stay in unfulfilling careers because they feel they have no choice. They feel that they have invested their time and energy carving out a path for themselves and it would not make sense to start a different one even if they are unhappy to keep walking down the same path.
Life circumstances don’t always offer us the luxury of a radical career change. For many, there is a mortgage that needs to be paid, bills that arrive in the mail like clockwork, mouths to feed and a family to support. The options are not always abundant and the choices are not often easy. This—I understand. The price then isn’t so much about the unfulfilling career as it is the opportunities the career can offer their families. That is the price worth paying. That is a sacrifice worth making. A comfortable life for their families and a good education for their children are worth the effort and the years they invest into their careers.
I know an elderly couple who came to Australia as political refugees some thirty years ago to get a fresh start for their family. They arrived with only the clothes on their backs and a few small belongings. The man spoke no English and had to work two jobs. One of them was being a janitor in a big office building at night. For years he emptied bins and cleaned toilets to put his kids through school so that they could have a better life. All his children grew up and became successful in their own right because of their education. He and his wife now live a very comfortable life in a big house in the sunset years of their lives. If you ask him if the years spent cleaning toilets was worth it, he would say, “Yes.”
If you are wondering whether the pain and effort associated with doing something is worth it, the answer is obvious, all you have to do is ask yourself the following questions:
What’s important to me?
What do I value the most?
Is what I’m doing getting me closer to my purpose or is it taking me further away from it?
Does it tick all the right boxes for me?
If nothing changes and I keep doing what I’ve been doing, will I look back in regret five, ten years down the road for not making a change when I had the chance?
The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it. You only have one life so make it count. If you cannot change your circumstances, at least change the way you think about it. Find different perspectives that make you feel good about the existing situation. Make a list of things you are grateful for. For example, if you are not particularly happy with your job, think of all the things it provides you with—a paycheque that puts a roof over your head, food in your belly and clothes on your back. Think of how much more fortunate you are compared to those who are wondering where their next meal would come from and where they should sleep that night so that they don’t wake up in the morning with hypothermia.
And if you can change your circumstances, take steps towards it. If an immediate radical change seems too daunting for you, make a gradual transition. Make a list of all the things you are afraid might go wrong and write down what you can do to manage or prevent them from happening. That exercise alone will open your eyes. What seem really frightening before might not be all that frightening after all when you confront it head on.
So, is it worth it? I don’t know. You’re the only one who can answer that question for yourself.