How to Fill That Career-Shaped Hole

Michael Brundage had everything working for him: a great marriage, healthy children and a successful career in commercial real estate. But something—something big, but invisible—was missing, and the result was a depressive streak that led my friend and colleague to pursue therapy.

Then, in the middle of an early session, his therapist discerned the problem, which she immediately shared with Michael: “You hate your job. That’s the problem.”

Initially, Michael protested, somewhat confused. He was good at his job—very good—and it paid well, ensuring a more than comfortable lifestyle for his family. Wasn’t that what a job was supposed to be about? Indeed, several generations of Americans have bought into the notion that our work is primarily—if not solely—a means, not an end in itself.

“As a culture, we’ve collectively bought into the lie that work has to be miserable,” writes career expert Jon Acuff in his newest book, Do Over.

Michael had learned, in his words, “what a long shadow not liking your job can cast over the rest of your life.” So he decided to do something about it.

He read voraciously, including Do Over, in which Acuff offers a method to career management regardless of where you stand on the love/hate job continuum.

Acuff’s counsel applies to four different types of career transitions that everyone faces:

1. A “Career Ceiling” is a negative, but voluntary, experience when “you willingly go to a job where you know you are stuck.”

2. A “Career Jump” is a positive, voluntary move when “you decide to change companies, start your own company, or take a continuing education class to get better at your current job.”

3. A “Career Opportunity,” such as a surprise promotion or an out-of-the-blue dream job offer, comes when “something awesome that is out of your control happens,” a situation that is quite positive but also involuntary.

4. Lastly, the dreaded “Career Bump” is when you get “fired, lost your job in a layoff or graduated into an economy” rendering your chosen profession obsolete.

Do Over then offers four different types of personal investment we can make in terms of time, effort and money to help us capitalize on the positive career moves and hedge on the negative:

1. A “Skills Investment” is a necessity in any career progression and insurance against hitting a Career Ceiling.

2. A “Character Investment” is the “mortar between all the other parts.” It’s a lifelong pursuit that will help you get another chance when you fail and avoid the trappings of ego and vanity when you succeed. It’s also a necessity in the case of a Career Jump.

3. A “Hustle Investment,” in addition to each of these, pays off in any stage of our careers, but is especially helpful when capitalizing on a Career Opportunity.

4. And a “Relationships Investment” can provide both solace and generate new opportunities in the aftermath of a Career Bump.

Be forewarned that these investments are best applied proactively, not reactively. If you wait until you get the proverbial pink slip in your inbox, kick-starting all four at once could be a herculean task. Additionally, if you are seriously deficient in any of these categories, it could wipe out benefits gained from the others.

Fortunately, by the time Michael’s career revelation came, he already had a head-start in the character and relationship departments, enabling him to apply his efforts primarily to hustling and gaining necessary skills. The former came naturally to Michael, but the latter was no small effort, because his career search led him to become a financial planner, a professional change that required a lot of new education and a skills upgrade both deep and wide.

Knowing that he couldn’t just go out on his own with no experience in his new calling, he wisely gave his skillset a huge boost by partnering with an experienced planner esteemed in her community and profession. Thankfully, his own well-established character and relational foundation compounded the benefit of his hustle.

One of the great challenges we face in deftly navigating our careers—and especially in finding a job that is more than a means to an end (that is, a paycheck)—is in receiving wise counsel. There aren’t many career books I can recommend, but when marketing and leadership guru Seth Godin proclaimed Acuff’s Do Over “the best career book ever written,” it certainly got my attention.

Here is what I believe makes Acuff’s approach different from the overabundance of mediocre career books:

  • He doesn’t take himself too seriously, displaying a great sense of humor throughout.
  • He doesn’t make unrealistic promises. “There’s no such thing as a perfect job,” he says, encouraging us to make a “Grit List” of all the elements of work that we don’t love, even if we have our dream job.
  • It’s not just for career changers. In fact, Jon agreed with my assessment that many of his readers may just find a new love for the job they already have after following his prescriptions.
  • When appropriate, Jon uses an evidence-based approach. He employs a great combination of anecdotes, logic and research that support his hypotheses.

Best of all, regardless of the pragmatic benefits of applying the advice in Do Over, the investments you’ll make offer inherent value that simply leads to a better life, professionally and personally.

This commentary originally appeared January 21 on Forbes.com

Tim Maurer, CFP®

Tim Maurer, CFP®, is a Wealth Advisor at Buckingham and also serves as our Director of Personal Finance. Tim’s second book, co-authored with best-selling author, Jim Stovall, is The Ultimate Financial Plan: Balancing Your Money and Life. He is a CNBC contributor and also writes weekly for Forbes.com. He is a graduate of Towson University.

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