We're talking about practice.

On the reason people wind up disenchanted with their careers

Knowing full well that this significantly raises my risk of being given a wedgie, a public admission: I like math. Loved it as a kid, actually.

This came as something of a disappointment to my father at a certain point, who had nothing against math but had every ambition that I might become a doctor when I “grew up” (still not sure I have, today, btw). I figured out toward the end of high school that while I was sure being a doctor would be cool and all, I wanted to do something that revolved around numbers.

Fortunately for me, I was a student of the you-can-be-anything-you-want variety, not lacking for options. So when someone told me that if you like math but you don’t want to be an academic or an accountant, you become an actuary, I went for it. 

(Had they told me about how many people I would go on to impress at parties with stories of insurance risk, I would have been even more hooked.)

Becoming an actuary meant studying a whole bunch of math, stats and probability in university. Jackpot! The career choice was paying off already. In all sincerity, there’s nothing quite like the flow state of studying for a math exam late at night, loud music in your headphones, when the concepts have all ‘clicked’ for you and instead of looking at numbers and symbols, you find yourself totally absorbed in the poetry of it all.

I may or may not have shed a tear just now. Suffice it to say, I genuinely enjoyed my chosen field of study.

And then I showed up to the first day of the rest of my life.

Don’t get me wrong -- I had some good times working for the Big Insurance Company. Office hijinx, heated debates at the lunch table, tons of spreadsheets (who doesn’t love those?). The work itself, though? Never quite scratched the itch that my studies did.

Most of the theory I had studied in school (and all its beauty and elegance) turned out to be baked into the tools and processes at my disposal. Instead of doing longform calculations with pencil and paper like I had in school, I discovered that my company had these things called ‘computers’ that did all the calculations for me. So the joy I might have otherwise have felt in calculating the value of an insurance liability from scratch was replaced by… tolerating the experience of pressing a few buttons at the end of each fiscal quarter.

It took me a bunch of years to realize it, but “being an actuary” (in terms of my day-to-day experience) wasn’t really about actuarial mathematics -- it was about being an employee of the Big Insurance Company. In other words, the theory had very little to do with the practice. Your enjoyment of a job or career has way more to do with the system in which you operate than it does with how interested you are in the underlying subject matter.

I think the same can be said for many professions, and that we don’t do a good job of acknowledging it.

At the core of most professions is some element of theory and creativity that very often gets lost in the day-to-experience of working in the field. The aspiring doctor dreams of helping people and winds up frustrated by the bureaucracy of the public-health system. The law student dreams of correcting systemic injustices and goes on to spend much of her energy navigating political obstacles. The executive director of a charity turns out to be a professional fundraiser. And so on.

It’s this divergence between theory and practice (and, in particular, the fact that it comes as a surprise) that leads to career disenchantment for so many. Some deal with it by resetting their expectations and accepting the bad with the good, some resign themselves unhappily to a life of drudgery, and others take off to become yoga instructors in Bali.

It’s not possible to eliminate or avoid having some mundane or even frustrating practical elements to every job, but I do think it’s possible to better prepare ourselves for them. When you’re expecting to encounter hardship, you have a much different mindset than when it sneaks up on you. It’s not the nuisances of a job themselves that cause people to panic -- it’s the sudden sense that you’ve made a grave mistake (or have been duped) and the fear that you’re now doomed to a life you didn’t sign up for. In other words, having the wrong expectations leads to people feeling trapped.

When making career decisions (or giving career advice), make sure to explore the practical realities involved. You might find that it’s not the work you don’t like, it’s the environment. The mature company/organization might feel too stifling for your liking; the young one might drive you crazy with its lack of structure. Just depends on your preferences. 

I think if people understood this better, there’d be less career-related unhappiness, less subsequent panic and -- admittedly -- fewer yoga instructors in Bali.