I'm too smart for this job

What happened to all my "great potential"? Where is my fabulous career?

Published May 10, 2012 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

Though my "problem" (which may not be seen as a problem for some) has been on my mind for a long time, I was triggered to write after seeing the "I get paid to do nothing" letter from a professional who was in a decent position, making decent money, but really not doing much. I feel very similarly, and wonder if there is more to it than your recommendation to "give money away and enjoy the low-stress."

For years, I was told how smart I was, over and over again. Not genius-level, mind you, but "very bright" and "advanced." Parents, teachers, other students all echoed the same thing. School was easy up to a certain point, and early on I had the chance to skip a grade (I didn't do it for fear I wouldn't fit in with the grade above me, and my parents agreed emotional maturity might be an issue). Then ... I don't know what happened. Maybe it was laziness, under-confidence, or an extreme penchant for procrastination, or maybe everyone else just caught up. I was never a straight-A student but did fine, and went to a decent college. After graduation, big dreams gave way to crummy jobs, one after the other.

So, now it's many years later, and I still have not "figured it out." After several jobs, mostly in the same field, my career, frankly, sucks. Many of the people around me have become wealthy, most of my friends have now been in their chosen professions for a handful of years (I still struggle with making it over the two-year mark) and are seeing success, and plenty of my peers and contacts are at least "locally famous." So what the hell is my problem? Am I dumb?

I have always wanted success and money, but never figured out how to get it. I work, yet I hate (loathe, despise, all of the applicable synonyms) it. Not just the job, but work. I feel unsatisfied, a bit hopeless about achieving the material trappings I would like to have, and have a bit of green-eyed envy when I see how well so many (not-so-smart) people have done. I've spent my life afraid of repeating my parents' existence -- two very smart people who have struggled, hated their own jobs, and never had the proverbial pot to p*ss in. I hated growing up that way, but now feel doomed to repeat it!

I realize this letter sounds a bit like a tale of keeping up with the Joneses. It's not the real problem. What I wonder is, am I dumber than everyone else? How do people reconcile expectations and reality? And, when you feel this uninspired and hopeless in your work life, what do you do? Is there a happy ending or have I gotten stupid?

Thanks, Cary. I welcome any thoughts you may have ... I only hope I'm not too brain dead to understand them.

Where Did My Potential Go?

Dear Where Did My Potential Go,

There is a fundamental question at the heart of this, and it has to do with how you conceive of yourself and what might make you happy. So I'm going to suggest -- and this is only experimental -- that you begin thinking about all the things you like, that make you happy right now. What do you enjoy today? Where would you be right now if you were happy, and what would you be doing? If a fantasy arises, go with it. Ask yourself what you want right now. Allow yourself to experience, in your mind, whatever it is that you want. Where do you see yourself? Are you alone in a room? Are you with someone else? Are you on a stage, in a car? Is there a crowd there, cheering you on? What country are you in? Is it daytime or nighttime? What are you wearing?

Think of times in the past when you have been happy. What were you doing? What was the source of your happiness? If one of your happiest times was when you were with a boyfriend at the beach, and you knew that he loved you, and it was a particular beach, and you had eaten a particular meal or seen a particular movie or had just done something particularly pleasurable, relive it. Identify all the parts of it that you enjoyed. Carry it around with you in your heart for a few days. Just let it percolate. Let it suffuse your body, all these memories of happiness and pleasure. Let them live in your body. Look for correspondences as you go through your day. If you were wearing a certain dress of a certain fabric on that day, see if you notice any dresses like that in the windows or on the streets or on the bodies of your co-workers. Do you still have those clothes? Do you like them? Have you worn them in a long time? Take them out and try them on.

As I say, this is an experiment. The object of it is to push you toward a conception of yourself not as someone who must function at a certain level to attain a certain level of satisfaction, but as a distinct individual with likes and dislikes the attainment of which will satisfy you.

You may think you want a fast car and a high salary. Maybe you do. But what I am asking is, What has actually made you happy in the past? Were you skiing? Were you drinking? Were you lying in the sun? Were you competing? Were you singing? Were you making love? What has made you happy?

You have a vast emotional memory. You have many desires. The fulfillment of desires is one way to approach happiness.

Of course, the Buddhists will tell us that desire is infinite and eventually our attempts to fulfill all our desires just result in endless quest to fulfill endless desires.

But fulfilling your desires is a start.

Have some ice cream.

Also, as to the job thing, a couple of thoughts. Think back to what you studied in school and ask yourself what parts of that you enjoyed. It's possible that you studied something in school that you enjoyed, but now you are only doing that in an approximate way. For instance, liberal arts majors often end up in sort-of-approximate jobs. Like if you studied art maybe what you enjoyed was actually making art but you end up in some cubicle talking about art but that's not what made you happy. What made you happy was being in the studio.

Things like that happen. Maybe you liked being at the beach so you end up in a cubicle talking to people about the beach but that doesn't make you happy because it's not talking to people that makes you happy, it's being at the beach.

So that's my suggestion to you: Forget all this success crap. Go directly to what makes you happy. Let the job eventually follow.

As to how your parents can be really smart but not good with money, and all the pain and frustration that can cause, I like the book "Rich Dad, Poor Dad." It talks about that. Very smart people sometimes don't understand money. My parents were like that, too. Having a practical understanding of money and its place in your life is important, so I like books like that and like "Your Money or Your Life," too. Because it's not about the money per se, or how much of it you are paid or can accumulate. It's about your relationship to money.

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Since You Asked Workplace