Please tell my brother that he's lost his mind! A physician's assistant for five years, he has a good job, a nice condo, great friends and secure employment in this rocky economy while some of his friends are barely hanging on. Yet he tells me that he plans to quit his job in a few months to find a new profession outside of health care. Why? Because he says that while he's been successful in the world's eyes, he's "still hungry" inside. What can my parents and I say to make my brother reconsider? -- N.T.
Probably not much. Countless philosophers, religious leaders, mental health experts, career counselors, writers and media personalities have wrestled with the definition of success, especially when success seems disconnected from emotional satisfaction.
Theorists have long offered a span of explanations for these disconnects. A sampling:
-- The trouble when people with money, power and a record of achievement hit an emotional wall may stem from conflict caused by compromises and trade-offs made in pursuit of a highly successful career.
-- Distressed achievers may have failed to accept an internal measure of success, but instead tried to fit into a mold that others define as successful.
-- A legacy mindset may underpin feeling of distress, as an individual wonders whether a hundred years from now it will make any difference that he or she lived on this earth.
I've read a ton of career-change guides but don't recall a single one that suggests readers begin repotting by leaping off a cliff and crossing their fingers that they can fly. All serious career-change counsel touts serious research and reflection -- and sometimes therapy.
Consider a case cited by one author in support of exercising informed judgment before jumping: After barely surviving a heart attack at age 39, a hard-charging lawyer experienced a sudden need to weigh the meaning of life. His first impulse was to chuck the practice of law, take his savings, move to a small town on a lake and open a bait-and-tackle shop. But after research, therapy and reflection, the lawyer remembered that he liked living in the city and treasured its restaurants, museums and theaters. In the end, he did not run from the law. He took a less stressful position as legal counsel to a historical society.
In my personal observation of friends who've asked me to help them set a new professional direction, nobody moved at the end of their research-and-reflection phase. To a person, they decided the grass wasn't greener elsewhere and chose to re-energize their present careers.
But -- and this is important -- the career development literature is full of case reports about career changers who did carry through and now happily graze in more vibrant pastures.
Anyone struggling with the success-that-doesn't-impress quandary may find it clarifying to think through two sides of the question:
-- Why must I spend the rest of my life running between the raindrops in a career field that doesn't make me feel successful? Why isn't it insane to keep repeating the same things during long working hours that make my life disappointing? If I stay on, won't the stress eat away at my well-being and make me physically sick?
-- What makes me think that I can find my idea of success in today's raw and most-competitive-in-memory economy by going up against job seekers who are (a) younger than me, and (b) are seen by employers as less risky to hire because they already have experience in the field I want to enter? If I leave now, will I ever be able to find a job I like much more?
You can best help your brother by engaging him in a discussion to define success and career contentment as he sees it. You can open with a variety of quotations of your choosing, such as these, each prefaced with the question of whether it's true or false.
"There is only one success: to be able to spend your life in your own way."
"Success is to laugh often and much, to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children, to earn the appreciation of honest critics ... to leave the world a little better..."
"If at first you don't succeed, skydiving is not for you."
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