The company I work for strongly encourages establishing a career development plan, and includes career goals and skills as elements to be discussed as part of our annual performance evaluations. Both my direct supervisor and a number of other managers who I work with have regularly been asking me questions about where I want to go from here, what I want to do, what I like and dislike, whether I have a five-year plan — and soon, I’ll have to do the formal sit-down with my manager to discuss these goals.
I have no idea how to answer any of these questions. The truth is, I often feel isolated in my workplace because I feel no passion at all for my job. I’m in a STEM industry that is incredibly demanding and, for all the complaints people in this field willingly dole out, all of my co-workers and past classmates (at least those who made it to graduation) express genuine enthusiasm for and dedication to their jobs. I think that’s great, and it’s certainly one of the only ways to survive the academic and industry standards demanded of us. But the most positive thing I can say for it is that since moving into this, my second industry job (the first was horrid), the seething hatred I’ve felt since freshman year of college has cooled into something resembling lukewarm ambivalence.
I know my feelings affect my performance — I held other sorts of jobs in college, and I know I can give more dedication and drive to a job that I like. But I’m by no means bad at it. I receive regular positive feedback and have an ever-increasing list of responsibilities that testify to that. But if anything, this feels like more pressure to start defining how I want to move within the company and how I intend to expand my skills.
Without genuine interest to guide me, and with very little ambition about my career (I mostly get fulfillment from feeling useful or helpful to others), how would you suggest I navigate these conversations? I don’t think I can say outright to my supervisor, however amiable and cheerfully burnt out he is (and he is), that I feel very little interest in doing any one thing and he should just plop me on a path to … somewhere. Which is what I would like to do. How do you weigh career options and conversations when you have no real interest in them?
Have you ever considered that you might be in the wrong field? Because I think you might be.
I don’t say that because you don’t feel a particular passion for your work. Lots of people don’t feel passionate about their jobs! (More on that in a minute.) And I don’t say it because you don’t have a clear idea of your goals for your career, either; that’s pretty normal too. I say it because you felt “seething hatred” for your field when you first began studying it and since then that’s settled into what you call “ambivalence,” but which sounds like deep unhappiness.
I want to be clear: It’s both okay and normal not to feel any special passion for your work. We’ve sold recent generations the idea that you should do what you love and that work should be a source of fulfillment (or, more accurately, we’ve sold that to a particular socioeconomic slice of the population; it’s generally something only kids from privileged backgrounds get told, which is a whole separate problem), but most of the world works principally for money and there’s no shame in that. In fact, the “work should bring you joy” crowd has done a lot of damage, because when people raised to believe that have trouble finding work that they love, they tend to feel like something’s wrong with them. We’d all be better off if we instead taught people to find work they’re decent at and don’t hate. Finding work you’re passionate about — and which pays you a living wage — is like winning the lottery in a lot of ways. It’s great when it happens, but you’re not a failure if it doesn’t.
But if you actively dislike the way you’re spending 40-plus hours a week, that’s a sign that something is wrong. There are jobs out there that wouldn’t make you miserable. (You know this, in fact, because you mentioned having had different sorts of jobs that you liked in the past.) You have a long career ahead of you! Do you want to feel this same way for the next ten years? Twenty years? You have other options — in fact, having a STEM background gives you a ton of options that don’t involve doing the specific work you’re doing right now. But you’re not locked into STEM-related or STEM-adjacent work either; plenty of people switch professional paths entirely when they’re mid-career (or earlier, or even later). It is very doable, and the payoff in satisfaction and quality of life can be significant.
If I’m misinterpreting your letter and you are in fact perfectly content at work, just without any specific ambitions or interests to guide you, that’s another matter. If that’s the case, that’s actually perfectly appropriate to raise with your manager at your upcoming performance conversation! You could say something like, “I’ve seen that others at my level are developing specific interests that can help guide their next steps. I’m not finding that same sort of clarity; I feel open to a number of directions, and I’d welcome your input on where you think it might make the most sense for me to focus, or on whether I even need to pick a focus to start working toward.” Sometimes people in this situation will also say something like, “Mostly I want to continue growing in the role I’m in and getting better and better at what I do.”
Or, if you want to, you can take a clear-eyed look at what the career options are a few levels above you and decide which of those seems like the one you could live with most happily — which might be about the work itself, or it might be about the kind of hours that are expected, or the amount of travel, or how much schmoozing is required, or any other factor that either speaks to you or repels you. People don’t always pick their career paths based on a deep, innate drive; sometimes they pick based on practical factors like those.
But truly, if the issue is less that you don’t feel passion for your work and more that you feel consistently unhappy at work, there are other paths that could entirely change your day-to-day quality of life. Please consider it!
Order Alison Green’s book Ask a Manager: Clueless Colleagues, Lunch-Stealing Bosses, and the Rest of Your Life at Work here. Got a question for her? Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her advice column appears here every Tuesday.