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October 5, 2012 10:30 AM   Subscribe

I am an engineer, and my wife is a business major. She is more miserable with her job and entire career than she has ever been, and I do not know how to help her. It's easy for me to search for jobs - I look for "mechanical engineer" or "robotics" and find positions matching my specialist skills. My wife is a generalist, and seems to hate the people that are attracted to the jobs she is qualified for. Her career unhappiness is taking a serious toll on her personal life and our marriage. Please help us figure out what to do!

It's been 3 years since I posted this question trying to help my wife find a non-miserable career. Having just re-read it, I described the situation and my feeling of helplessness well. All of that still applies. Since then, she quit the old project management job and was recruited by an old friend to work at a small consultancy firm.

She's more miserable than ever now. As one of the commenters in the old thread pointed out, her tendency to pick up the slack for everyone has turned her into the office nag. She's in charge of managing document workflows and some project management roles. Hearing her describe it, the real project managers don't do their jobs, and she is the only one keeping people on track. Her team constantly ignores deadlines without repercussions, and since she is the last person to review documents, this results in extremely frequent late nights and weekend work for her. The people ignoring the deadlines cannot be fired because they are the "subject matter experts". Management higher-ups keep saying, "I know things have to change", but have not done anything about it. Many of them are overworked themselves and don't like hearing complainers. My wife is constantly put in positions with high responsibility and no authority. She is a perfectionist, which is why upper-level management likes her; she will not let substandard work be delivered, so she suffers for the incompetency and lateness of her coworkers.

She has now worked at several similar companies, and from my discussions with her, it seems that the type of people who she hates working with are attracted to this kind of work. They tend to be dominant, loud, and cliquey, and she is introverted with low self-esteem. She is constantly correcting their mistakes at the expense of her own time and happiness.

I don't even know where to start in helping her correct the situation. I've suggested three tracks:
1) Change her perspective by focusing on the good. She gets to work from home a large percentage of the time, and the job pays very well, for starters.
2) Change her situation. I've suggested she stand up for herself more and try to force management to do something about the embarrassingly bad performance of the other employees. She has started to do this, but they seem rather impotent at making any changes.
3) Look for new jobs in the meantime, if only to feel more empowered. She is overwhelmed by this task and after a series of jobs with similar results, feels that it may be this way forever.

As I said in the intro, I have no idea how to search for positions for a generalist. She is a person who "gets things done". She likes planning and checklists and spreadsheets. However, she loathes being in situations where she is the only one who cares about these things. She has an amazing work ethic. She works in Office software all day. These are the skills listed on nearly every job that has ever existed.

She's read all the books and done all the exercises. Nothing seems to help. Can you, AskMeFi?
posted by RobotNinja to Work & Money (48 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
 
Could you afford her going back to school for an entirely different career?
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:32 AM on October 5, 2012


Could you afford her going back to school for an entirely different career?

Possibly, with some moderate-to-major lifestyle changes. I would support this. Part of the problem is she seems to enjoy our upper-middle-class lifestyle, and doesn't fully accept that her job is part of what allows this. This is part of the "look on the bright side" that I try to point out, but I don't feel she objectively weighs the costs and benefits.

A much bigger problem is she has no idea what she would study. She's been working for 10 years now and feels that life is getting away from her and that it may be too late to start something brand new.
posted by RobotNinja at 10:37 AM on October 5, 2012


Would she consider working for a non-profit? Pay would likely not be as good, but she could work in a field or cause she is passionate about (or at least interested in). I've worked all of my professional life in non-profits and the part I like the most is that I'm not the only one who cares or wants to do things right.
posted by TishSnave at 10:39 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like she'd be a perfect Personal Assistant. General skills, detail oriented, responsible only to one person, job description basically: make sure boss can focus on boss stuff while critical admin tasks are done perfectly. It might be tricky to find the right exec to work for, but great PAs are always in short supply.
posted by seanmpuckett at 10:40 AM on October 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


One of my relatives is very similar to your wife. For a few years she had a public sector management job which was great for her, but the government (not US) tightened the rules so business majors couldn't get public sector work. (after some terrible scandals). Now she has finally found her dream-job in a small publishing house. it seems the artists are much more respectful of her skills and her need for a life even if they are a little crazy. So both these things may work for your wife: public sector management and something with the arts.
posted by mumimor at 10:42 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


A much bigger problem is she has no idea what she would study. She's been working for 10 years now and feels that life is getting away from her and that it may be too late to start something brand new.

If she did want to look into a new career, she might consider accounting. If she's a perfectionist spreadsheet-lover, it might be perfect for her, and it's very portable.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:42 AM on October 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Perhaps a holiday would help, but not the kind where you go away and "try to forget" about everything back home.

So for example, you both take a week off work (or maybe a friday and a monday if you're short on annual leave).

During this time, the first day or two are set aside as time with no talking about work. Then the next day or two are for sitting at home with nice coffee, or in a cafe or a park, and talking over all the options, thinking about where she wants to be in 6 months, a year, 5 years, and what the road there looks like.

Then the last day or two are for celebrating what you've figured out, making a few more detailed action points and sending her first actions out into the world to start things happening.

Then, back to work with a smile on her face, the best one she can manage, because she has Started Making Things Better.
posted by greenish at 10:43 AM on October 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


Part of the problem is she seems to enjoy our upper-middle-class lifestyle, and doesn't fully accept that her job is part of what allows this. This is part of the "look on the bright side" that I try to point out, but I don't feel she objectively weighs the costs and benefits.

There is a point, though, at which emotional happiness outweighs monetary comfort.

Listen, I am right now working in an industry I dislike, but which pays me very well. My plan is to stay here only one year more, after which point I will be debt-free; and then I will switch to a different industry.

I will almost certainly have to take a pay cut to do this. I will have to cut back on some of my expenses to make up the shortfall. But believe me, I will be so much more god-damn happier to not be surrounded by co-workers with whom I share absolutely nothing in common in terms of outlook.

I wonder if she may be processing a lot of your attempts to buck her up and get her to "Look on the bright side" as sort of you trying to talk her into sucking it up and staying where she is. Not that you intended it that way; but focusing on the monetary gains may be muddying the waters. I would encourage her to pursue her happiness whereever it may be -- whether she thinks she's too old or not, she certainly isn't getting any younger, and f you both have to cut back just for a while, so be it. She may start shifting her own thinking to figuring out what she CAN do than trying to make herself accept what she doesn't want to do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:44 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like she'd be a perfect Personal Assistant. General skills, detail oriented, responsible only to one person, job description basically: make sure boss can focus on boss stuff while critical admin tasks are done perfectly. It might be tricky to find the right exec to work for, but great PAs are always in short supply.

I've actually suggested something like "Executive Assistant" in the past. I anticipate two objections:
1) A regular "admin" position will probably be a 50% salary cut, and she will feel that it is a major step down from her current position.
2) Being an "executive assistant" or other assistant to a high-power position may require her to be on call 24-hours a day, handle lots of emergencies, and in general be unpredictable. Her ideal work environment is one where everything is planned and surprises are minimized.
posted by RobotNinja at 10:44 AM on October 5, 2012


In my personal experience, as an introvert who also dislikes the dominant/loud/cliquey crowd, I would highly recommend non-profit employers. The pay will likely be a bit lower, but my philosophy has always been that I'd rather work with people I like doing something I feel I have free reign to do to my own (high) standards rather than higher pay with people I dislike and work I find soul-crushing. Ask her to have a look at Idealist for non-profit jobs in her field.
posted by pammeke at 10:44 AM on October 5, 2012


She is a person who "gets things done". She likes planning and checklists and spreadsheets. However, she loathes being in situations where she is the only one who cares about these things. She has an amazing work ethic. She works in Office software all day. These are the skills listed on nearly every job that has ever existed.
Project Management is not as high on the workplace hierarchy as many think. It's really just above administrative staff (where I work, being a Project Manager isn't a full-time position: it's an auxiliary role you perform in addition to your core duties). She probably likes doing all of this stuff because she thinks it's about being "in charge", but in fact it is essentially a serving/support role-- it's a tough place to be in, because she's not the "get things done" person since she isn't doing the work that's being managed and she's not the person who gets the credit for "executing." What she really wants is a higher-level management position, in part because this would give her the authority to make sure that Project Managers do their jobs.
posted by deanc at 10:46 AM on October 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


I wonder if she may be processing a lot of your attempts to buck her up and get her to "Look on the bright side" as sort of you trying to talk her into sucking it up and staying where she is.

This is definitely true. My perspective has always been "make the best of what you have while trying to get out or change it", but I am frequently interpreted as meaning "suck it up." I'm as frustrated as her about this, and often don't communicate well about it.
posted by RobotNinja at 10:48 AM on October 5, 2012


What she really wants is a higher-level management position, in part because this would give her the authority to make sure that Project Managers do their jobs.

I think this is true. She thinks she is unqualified and has no specialized skills required for these positions. All of her work is on government contracts, and the rules require the "real" managers to have particular technical knowledge or experience. Since she is down in the weeds all the time, she never has the opportunity to get these qualifications.
posted by RobotNinja at 10:50 AM on October 5, 2012


If she did want to look into a new career, she might consider accounting. If she's a perfectionist spreadsheet-lover, it might be perfect for her, and it's very portable.

Accounting has come up before and I think might be a really good fit! Is there any way for her to get into this field without several years of schooling?
posted by RobotNinja at 10:51 AM on October 5, 2012


I'm going to take a little bit of a different angle on this, because it hits close to home for me in regard to a particular loved one.

I'm simply going to tell you the story, and you can decide whether it is applicable.

This loved one of mine grew up in an environment that contributed to some low self-esteem issues for her that also were centered on situations where she felt like she was losing control because of the bad decisions of other people. Over the years, her coping mechanism, one that she wasn't aware of until she started some counseling, was to try and control situations. She would come home frustrated from work regarding things that other people were not doing well. She would push for people to do particular things so that she could regain a sense of control. She didn't always trust that other people would do things the "right way," so she would feel compelled to press on them, or pick up their slack. And having to do this would bother her a lot. She was also a back-seat driver (literally, in the car) and did other things that gave the impression at times that she was being controlling, rather than simply helping.

The thing that has helped this person immensely has been some counseling. Now, this does not mean that she should not feel frustrated with the incompetencies of others. But whenever someone says something like "people are always like this to me!" or that a particular profession "always" attracts someone of a particular annoying trait, it does raise a red flag for me. Because on some level, our level of annoyance also has to do with what is going on inside of our own selves, as well, and people who feel like they can't control life like they want to, until they see the situation for what it is, might put the blame on other people who supposedly hold the power to make them miserable.

I do think that whenever we have habitual problems that seem to surface with others, one question to ask is whether or not we are making contributions, either intentional or unintentional (seriously, no blame being cast here... our inner selves are complicated), that might benefit from some concerted introspection.

Of course, it might just be that your wife is very unfortunate in the luck of the draw, as well, and simply needs to find new people to work with.
posted by SpacemanStix at 10:53 AM on October 5, 2012 [12 favorites]


A friend recently suggested I read Shop Class as Soulcraft and perhaps you and/or your wife should read it too. It talks about the kinds of workplaces that sound like the ones your wife is learning she hates. It might give you different ways of thinking about the problem, and might give her some ideas about what to try next. The author asserts that low self-esteem can be a result of these poisonous workplaces where "measurables" are nebulous things like having a certain personality and being likeable, being able to talk in a way that makes you sound smart but doesn't commit to anything, being a good team member, and so on.

It may be that your wife is not happy about herself because she doesn't have any concrete tasks where she can see the results of her work and know that she is really good at something. If a change in her kind of work is not possible, then she might be able to find this in a hobby. I think it's a big mistake to think a job, especially generalist professional work of managing personalities/expectations/feelings, can make you feel useful and fulfilled.
posted by fritley at 10:55 AM on October 5, 2012 [6 favorites]


She sounds so frustrated... has she considered talking to an employment counselor? There are people whose job it is to help with this stuff, and it sounds like you guys can afford it.

Accounting has come up before and I think might be a really good fit! Is there any way for her to get into this field without several years of schooling?

I think this varies by state, but you should definitely look into it, because I don't THINK you necessarily need grad school- you may be able to get away with a postbac.
posted by showbiz_liz at 10:59 AM on October 5, 2012


A lot of strategy consultant companies feature a nonprofit arm, which may be just the place for her. Many not-so-cutthroat folks with great business skills and big hearts find themselves there. Bain has Bridgespan, Monitor works with Teach for America and has an arm called New Profit, so there may be places where she'd feel among her own kind.
posted by xingcat at 11:00 AM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


I am going to go out on a limb and suggest that she may need to evaluate changing her own behavior. It sounds to me like she is her own worst enemy. On one end of the spectrum I'd suggest a healthy dose of 'I don't give a shit' may be in order, on the other end, I would suggest therapy - a recurring theme may indicate that the problem is her? Low self-esteem leading to an overly perfectionist inappropriate set of behavior patterns.

Just my $ 0.02
posted by sfts2 at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


And just one additional detail: when this loved one would come home feeling this way, those around her would feel compelled to "problem solve" in order to help her be more happy. This went on for a number of years. When she started going to therapy, one of the lightbulb moments for everyone (including her) is that she was primarily responsible for her happiness, even despite her unpleasant circumstances, not those who were around her. She gladly embraced this as part of her healing process, and it was a great relief to those who lived with her.

You, my friend, are not responsible for your wife's happiness. You can help her try and figure some things out that will lead to a more pleasant situation, but if you feel as if you are carrying a great burden here, that is an indication that something is amiss.
posted by SpacemanStix at 11:11 AM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


She needs to become aggressive. Not assertive: aggressive.

Her team constantly ignores deadlines without repercussions, and since she is the last person to review documents, this results in extremely frequent late nights and weekend work for her.

Only because her admirable sense of responsibility wrongly persuades her that she should cover slackers' arses instead of calling them right out and getting them disciplined or fired.


The people ignoring the deadlines cannot be fired because they are the "subject matter experts".

So? If they are slacker "Subject matter experts" they can, and should, be fired. Could it be that she is hearing that these people cannot be fired from someone who is eaither one of these people or one who has a vested interest in keeping these people unmolested, and who recognises a sucker when s/he sees one?

Management higher-ups keep saying, "I know things have to change", but have not done anything about it.

And they won't, until she gets mean. They think she's a soft touch. When management think that, believe me, nothing will change.

Many of them are overworked themselves and don't like hearing complainers.

No, because it reminds them that some people have more balls than they do.

My wife is constantly put in positions with high responsibility and no authority. She is a perfectionist, which is why upper-level management likes her


No, they like her because she puts up with being exploited. This is the definitive trait of management everywhere.

I spent thirty years in this world before losing my shit big time and leaving it for good. Please believe me when I tell you that the only options are to start refusing or to get out. Oh... or to somehow wangle becoming one of the exploiters. But that way lies perdition.
posted by Decani at 11:11 AM on October 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


@Decani, that's my position. I keep telling her to start throwing the slackers under the bus to management. I tell her to go in and make management listen and tell them that this is an unacceptable situation. From what I am told, there is 0 chance of them being fired. Apparently their technical field is very specialized and they are literally the only people available who can do the job they're in.
posted by RobotNinja at 11:16 AM on October 5, 2012


Is it clear what is exactly making her unhappy? Specifically what's wrong with keeping other people organized, doing it from home, having a stable and secure job, and getting paid well for it? What would she rather be doing? What energizes her? What's her dream job?
posted by Dansaman at 11:20 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


What's her dream job?

Unknown. That's part of the Big Problem.
posted by RobotNinja at 11:23 AM on October 5, 2012


Since her team is perpetually late in things, maybe she's overestimating the capabilities of her team needs to start adding time buffers? Can she change the timeline of projects (or convince whatever relevant other PMs to do this)? Project management is hard, and people will not always perform in perfectly expected ways - I strongly suspect she's not the only PM-type to have these types of problems. From the one project management course I took in school, I can tell you that people have found ways to get around/accomodate variability and uncertainty in this area, and it doesn't really seem to require extroverty skills :)
posted by The Biggest Dreamer at 11:26 AM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


If she has been to several workplaces, and keeps running into the same problem each time, it's obviously that one of two things is happening.

1) Your wife has incredible bad luck. Like "absolutely far end of the bell-curve" statistically improbable bad luck.

2) Your wife herself is the problem.

Based on Occam's Razor, which of these sounds more likely?

There is a certain kind of person who likes to perceive themselves as overworked whereas the rest of the world is a bunch of lazy malingerers. Does your wife have full visibility to how much work other people do? If not, then how does she know their lateness on deadlines is the result of a poor work ethic, rather than simply being busy?

As for being "dominant, loud, and cliquey"... well, yes. Put yourself in the shoes of your wife's co-workers. If a low-level project manager is always nagging you to hurry up, and complaining to upper management that you are not doing enough work (and if your wife thinks that those people don't know she complained about them, she's being very naive)... well, obviously that person's not going to win any popularity contests. In fact, people will actively hate her, which will diminish her workplace enjoyment even less.

I think that your wife needs to do the following:

1) Ask for more flexibility in her hours. If things are late because she's constantly waiting for other people to get back to her, then there's no reason she has to wait at work, right? Why not simply run personal errands and come into work when she sees the e-mail on her Blackberry that she has been waiting for?

2) See a therapist.

If both of the above fail to work, then it's possible she needs to switch career tracks. But, based on what you are telling me, I'm skeptical that this is the actual problem.
posted by wolfdreams01 at 11:36 AM on October 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


She thinks she is unqualified and has no specialized skills required for these positions.

She should speak with a recruiter or some kind of career counselor to see how she can market her experience and background as something that employers are looking for.
posted by deanc at 11:44 AM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is a service where I live called The Betty Brigade. When it got started it was just one woman working as a freelance organizer and 'concierge' - now she has grown the business into having employees and trucks and all kinds of stuff.

This kind of personal and business concierge work - whether on her own as freelance or as an employee of someone else - might be interesting to your wife. It sounds like she might enjoy the autonomy, and she would be being paid by people who *want* her to pay attention to the details. It's a one on one situation with a client, and less chance to get bogged down with the politics of teams. And it's not just dog-walking and birthday cakes - small businesses use concierge-type services too. (It beats having to have one on staff when you only need a little extra coordination help now and then.)

It's also the kind of thing she could start on the side while still being employed, and transition into full time if she likes it.
posted by agentmitten at 11:45 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


@Decani, that's my position. I keep telling her to start throwing the slackers under the bus to management. I tell her to go in and make management listen and tell them that this is an unacceptable situation. From what I am told, there is 0 chance of them being fired

Then I regret that the "She needs to get out" part of my advice comes into play.
posted by Decani at 11:49 AM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It sounds like your wife is playing "Yes, But."

You: Maybe you should look for a new job.

Wife: Yes, but I don't have time
Yes, but I don't like the people in my job-type
Yes, but I don't know what else I want to do
Yes, but it's just as bad everywhere else.

You get this feeling?

You need to sit down with her and say, "Honey, I understand that you don't enjoy your job. You are actively miserable. Now, it may be that your workplace is the most dysfunctional workplace in the free world, or it may be that your approach to it needs to be adjusted. Would you be willing to see a therapist who can help you with some strategies to help you with this?"

If her answer starts with 'Yes, but'. "You seem to have a lot of objections to my suggestions, but not much has changed over the years. I want to help and I'm willing to support you however I can. Since you've tried nothing and you're all out of ideas, how about we find someone for you to talk to?"

And if that doesn't work, "I love you, and I can't listen to the endless bitching about your job when you refuse to do anything about it. If you don't want to try anything new, and you want to stay in your job, that's fine, but please don't come to me upset about stuff there."

There's only so much you can do. If she really wants to quit, show her what life is like if that happens.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:49 AM on October 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


she is introverted with low self-esteem.

I think that until she works on the low self-esteem thing, every job is going to make her miserable. People learn to value themselves through mastery, so maybe she needs to pursue a hobby or volunteer activities that can help her to feel better about herself. And then, therapy.
posted by Ideefixe at 12:06 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


In troubleshooting electronics, if you move a part and the symptom moves with the part, it's strong evidence in favor of the part being the problem. (Sometimes, there are tolerance stackups and dynamic factors, for anyone on the internet who is picky and disagrees.)

That said, you've moved the part 4 times and the symptom moved with it.

My late first wife was like this but only now that she is dead 14 years, I can say it without fear of argument. Not everyone thrives. Or should. Or can.

People torpedo happiness all the time. It's comfortable to be miserable when miserable is what you are comfortable with, and we all know people who apply subtle pressure to make things trend in a certain direction.

No one here probably knows your wife, but you may and/or more likely may be on the way to knowing her as she is NOW. You have enough data points to start drawing trend lines and making some conclusions and perhaps designing some experiments to validate your hypotheses. That odd feeling you have... the one of thinking you are incompetent or stupid and have no idea what's going on? It's not you. You are a smart engineer. Good chance you are a generally smart person. The chafing is from the constraints you confront. "I'm broken and it's your job to fix me, but it's not ok to do the following...." . "My life sucks. You fix it." "My life sucks because it's full of humans and they suck. Fix it." Lots of things that aren't YOU are in that mix. Do you feel just a little guilty for your own good work fortune? You should be feeling HAPPY about that. If someone is corrupting your happiness, do you know who it might be?

Does she WANT to have a better work life? Does she WANT to be happier? Is she INTERESTED in making changes (including self-change) to achieve happiness at work? Who says you have to be happy at work? Not every job is a happy job.

I recommend that everyone work for themselves for a while so they can see what it's like to work for a real asshle, slave driver, and lazy bastard. She should try it on for size. If you have a job and benefits, you can spot her while she experiments FOR A LIMITED TIME. With no one else in the mix, perhaps she'll see how she contributes to the negatives.

My own experience with this personality type is that it's systemically unhappy, and I've fired a half-dozen folks who mess up a group dynamic by failing to connect. Other times, I just smiled inside when they gave notice.

Not everyone thrives. Kind of like Darwin with dollars. Sadly, in a group of any larger than 2, there has to be one that's out. There is always one that's out, sometimes more.

What would she do to find happiness with work if you were dead and she were alone responsible for making it work? That's what she should be asking and that's what she should be doing. You, in fact, could be dead long before you solve her problem. And it is her problem. It affects you, but it is her problem.
posted by FauxScot at 12:17 PM on October 5, 2012 [7 favorites]


What's her dream job?

Unknown. That's part of the Big Problem.


It occurs to me that for whatever reason, there is no pleasing her. Until that is addressed, there will be no progress. Perhaps the reason she cannot be pleased is because she is searching for the "dream job". This animal is slightly less rare than unicorns. Very few people will ever have what they can honestly tell themselves is their "dream job", but that does not mean that everything else is misery. This may be the source of the "yeah, but" problem that Ruthless Bunny mentions. No matter what other job she might find, she will be trading one set of problems for another.

At first, I was going to suggest the (unpopular on The Green) option that maybe she not work. However, it occurs to me that she would probably be just as unhappy.

My grandmother was found of saying, "there are no happy places, only happy people". Similar, there are no happy jobs. I do not think the job is miserable; I think that your wife is.
posted by Tanizaki at 12:26 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


nthing therapy.

I'm in accounting, and it has the same level of "waiting on x report" so you can start on yours, and tight deadlines so you have to stay until 9 to get something completed my month end close. My team was hoping to get a half day today, and on of our critical reports is over 36 hours late. So we're negotiating who can cover so that this gets handed off to the next step ASAP.

It's filled with a bunch of awkward introverts who like spending their time in spreadsheets, so she's likely to get along better with her co-workers. But if you're the sort of person to think "it's someone else's fault I'm here late to get this perfect" and stew about it, you'll still be oh so god miserable. Frankly, it's a worldview that makes it very very hard to be happy. Or, you are only happy when you're complaining.

I used to be that person. I still find myself falling into that mental rut often. But I've worked hard to internalize a few counter responses:

1) People are extremely unreliable in knowing how long it will take them to do a task. Even PhD's who are aware of the planning fallacy are subject to it.

2) Everyone has an inflated idea of how hard they work compared to other people. I see myself working really hard on something, and my manager talks to me for a few minutes and I realize that I've been spinning my wheels being unproductive. Likewise, I hear the one personal call a coworker makes, and I discount all the hard work she otherwise does.

3) American Capitalism is run very lean. The tendency (especially after a dip in the economy) is to cut as many resources to the bone. That means that things can go wrong very easily. And more importantly, things going wrong is part of the system. Management won't realize you have inadequate resources if you ignore your personal boundaries and cover the work with time that you genuinely don't have (because it should be devoted to life). Missing deadlines and making mistakes is the ugly part of American capitalism that has to happen to trigger a reallocation of resources.

4) The world will not end if you got hit by a truck and your work wasn't completed. I work in tax. And the jurisdictions threaten all kinds of scary books they can throw at you. But honestly. I've seen what happens if you forget to file. Or a check doesn't get sent. They thank you for your money, and send a bill for some fines. If you write a letter explaining that you're sorry and that you're a good person, 9 time out of 10, they'll waive the fines.

There will always be almost late deadlines. And you either decide to make things right. Or you decide that you only have so many resources to effectively deal with the worst of the fires. But people will always offer more work to people who will do more work. She needs to learn either boundaries or acceptance. Resentment hurts nobody but herself.
posted by politikitty at 12:31 PM on October 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


She is a perfectionist, which is why upper-level management likes her; she will not let substandard work be delivered, so she suffers for the incompetency and lateness of her coworkers.

You've described someone who despite multiple employment changes, keeps ending up miserable and overworked because of the above. It cannot all be the jobs. I would encourage you to encourage your wife to see a therapist of a few months to get a grip on this. It's really pretty fucked up when you think about it.
posted by DarlingBri at 12:48 PM on October 5, 2012 [8 favorites]


A few thoughts from someone who recently left a miserable situation, is still in transition, but much happier.

Now that I'm free of the old job, I feel like I should have quit two years ago. Moreover, I feel I should have changed jobs more often throughout my career. That's not to say that I was prepared to quit my last job sooner. I knew I needed to, but I didn't feel like I could. I felt like I needed a plan, that I needed to have another job lined up, etc. The problem was, being at the job made me doubt myself in lots of ways, which made me doubt any plans I made, and which made me feel like I couldn't successfully conduct a search for a new job. I spent a year or so caught in that dilemma.

Then, about a year before I quit, I concluded that something had to change, or nothing was going to change. I shed some non-work commitments more abruptly that I would have liked. I started seeking new input and perspectives. I went to various meetups and lectures. I talked to old friends and former colleagues about career related topics I hadn't felt comfortable with before. I started talking to my wife more about possible changes (moving, our nest egg, etc). I spent a week in San Francisco taking some intensive training in work I thought I might want to focus on.

After about 8 months, it was clear that all those changes were having an impact. I felt like the ice I'd been locked in was thawing and shifting. I felt like I had options, and I was even excited about some of them. About 12 months from the start of the process, I left my job. 4 months later, my savings are smaller and my schedule is starting to fill in with interesting work and I feel so much better than I have in years.

This all happened without a plan. In fact, the first changes came as part of a crisis, and what followed wasn't designed so much as it was nurtured. The closest thing I had to a plan for most of the process was: Do new things, do more of the things that seem like good things to do. Repeat.

So, my general advice to you and your wife: You both seem to understand that something has to change. You don't know exactly what it is, and you don't exactly know how to do it. So, start tinkering, don't think you have to change everything at once. Make small changes around the edges and work from there. Part of the changes can simply be revisiting old assumptions about your lives to see if they still make sense.

Once starting down this road, its going to take time to see big changes. From my own experience, and from talking with friends who've made similar changes, its reasonable to think it could take a year before she's in a position to make a big change, and it could take another year to see how that plays out.

Some more specific suggestions/comments:
1. Part of your wife's frustration seems to stem from a feeling that she doesn't have the power, authority, or support she needs to make her work work the way she'd like it to. It also sounds like it isn't her personality to be demanding and stand up for herself. One thing she should do is try throwing her weight around more. If she is the person who ends up taking up everyone else's slack to make sure that deadlines are met and quality is delivered, then she has a tremendous amount of leverage that she should start using.

2. Your wife would probably benefit from having someone to talk to about her work who isn't you. Someone sympathetic who be completely honest with her, and that she can be honest with; someone who doesn't otherwise have a stake in the results of her decisions. It could be a therapist, a career coach, or a mentor. I think though, that it needs to be someone, not an unfilled vacancy.

3. Going back to school is a big commitment. It takes a lot of time and money, and, likely, some confidence that it is the right thing to do. Rather than focusing on that option, look for ways to make smaller changes. Reputable intensive training programs can be good. One of the things my class did for me was expose me to other people and give me perspective on my own strengths and weaknesses. The boost of confidence that gave me was at least as valuable as the skills I learned and exercised. There might also be opportunities to volunteer. Don't make the mistake of prioritizing skills acquisition over learning about how one fits in in the context of other people. Online classes can be great for learning skills, but they can really limit exposure to people who share that common interest, which cuts off an important opportunity for learning.

Good luck to you both!
posted by Good Brain at 12:59 PM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


RobotNinja, I'm going to guess that you might not like some of these answers (counseling, etc.) because it seems -- from this post and the last one -- that you'd really like to help her "fix" this by helping her to change her environment.

Just keep in mind that part of this might be misfortune on the part of your wife, but it also might be something that you, as a supportive partner, might not be able to carry or fix for her. Part of it might be external variables in which you might have good input, but consider variables that go beyond this, as well.
posted by SpacemanStix at 1:01 PM on October 5, 2012


This was me. This could have been my husband writing, a year ago. But I can honestly, completely, truly say I'm in a much different, much better place than I was a year ago. Here's how I did it. YMMV. It's going to be long, so here's the TL; DR: therapy, boundaries for her AND YOU, a book, and: it's something she has to do for herself, once she's decided she hates living this way.

***
I had a string of jobs where I didn't fit, and yes it was about 60% job and 40% me (I say 40% me because I did have jobs I loved, but left for a variety of reasons). My last job was awful. I hated it, hated my coworkers, they hated me, and I seriously considered either leaving the workforce for awhile or going back to school or just ... something that wasn't this.

My husband, much like you, just wanted to FIX IT. And he would, under the guise of wanting to help, pressure me to do this or that thing that he thought would FIX IT. However, this truly is something you can't fix. This is truly something she has to do on her own. No matter what you think is best, she has to figure that out for herself. And that's hard. That's so hard - to let go and let someone chart their own course, especially when it directly affects you.

1. Therapy: Why do I end up in the same situation over and over and over? I found that I had a similar element throughout my life, not just in my work life. I let other people dictate when things happened and how things happened and what was acceptable and "Oh, it's ok, I'll just stay late again" (and fume about it). I did a LOT of work with a therapist for about 6 months because....

2. Boundaries: I had none. Or, more correctly, I had the ones other people defined for me, including my husband. Not ok. His boundaries are fine, for him. But I needed to set my own. Mine are in a different place than his, now. And that's ok. Sometimes it bothers him, when he doesn't agree with my placement. But that's another boundary, right? The ability to say, "I see what you're saying, but this is what I'm comfortable with, and I'm happy with this boundary." For instance, I'm ok with working off hours - if I need to work with my coworkers in India on a project, I'm ok with working 4AM to noon one day a week. He thinks I should have a set 9-5 schedule every day. I asked if me leaving early or coming home at noon directly affects him. He said it doesn't, he just thinks my boss is taking advantage of my flexibility - my husband has a boundary saying, "I won't work shifted hours". I don't. Therefore, I still work 4AM to noon one day a week, because this doesn't cross one of my boundaries, and it doesn't directly affect him or his plans.

3. She has to get to the point where she says, "Putting in the effort to apply for new jobs is worth it." I'm in the camp that thinks the current situation is untenable - if she's had no boundaries for so long, if she starts putting them in, it will go very poorly. People don't react well when someone starts saying, "I'm sorry, I won't be able to do X because of Y". For me it was saying, "Due to personal circumstances, I won't be able to work more than 60 hours a week going forward (I was salaried). I've drafted a plan to show our options to continue to move the project forward if I cut my hours from 85 to 60." This really didn't go over well. My boss told me that an 80 hour week was expected, and that if I couldn't give an 80 hour week, I needed to start looking for another job. So I did, but it was hard. I was emotionally drained from battling it out with my manager over leaving after 12 hours every day. I was emotionally drained from trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I was terrified that I really wouldn't find a place that wasn't shitty. It was a really tough time. But I would just do one or two apps a day. By that point, we'd gotten to where I could say to my husband, "Can I just say something real quick and not have you try to fix it?" and he'd say, "Sure" and I'd say, "This sucks and I'm so tired of dealing with this" and he'd say "Yep, me too" and we'd go on with whatever we were doing. I really tried to limit my bitching by this point - we both knew it sucked, he didn't need the info repeated ad nauseum - but occasionally I just needed to say SOMETHING to get it off my chest.

We spent a lot of time working out or playing Minecraft together - it helped me to feel like I was achieving something.

4. The book. I found Strengths Finder 2.0 to be helpful in figuring out what I wanted to do. I had to do a lot of thinking for about a month after reading the book and taking the quiz, and I spent time looking at what sorts of jobs came up with I put different keywords into job search engines like career builder or monster, just to see what was out there. Here's the link to the book:

http://www.amazon.com/StrengthsFinder-2-0-Tom-Rath/dp/159562015X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349467296&sr=8-1&keywords=tom+rath

***

The moral of the story? I got a new job about a year ago. I doubled my salary and work 40-45 hours a week doing a job I love for a team I love. But I absolutely, positively couldn't have done it without putting the work into me first.
posted by RogueTech at 1:06 PM on October 5, 2012 [14 favorites]


I know she's probably looking for a career change, and that may be the long-term answer, but all her current problems sound like they lie more with the company environment than with what she actually does all day. A non-dream job can be anywhere from pleasant to hellish depending on who you're working with.

I've been in your wife's position a few times, as an awkward introvert who didn't really fit in with the rest of the team, in a "high responsibility and no authority" role. I've also had jobs that were very much like my unpleasant jobs, but with teammates I liked. It makes a big difference. And sometimes the exact same job becomes better or worse when there's a staff change; sometimes the people you hate become your friends if you let them.

The answers saying that it's your wife's fault she's unhappy probably sound harsh, but I've been there (and would have adamantly denied that anything was my fault) and there is some truth to this. It sucks being an introvert in an office full of extroverts. The hardest thing about it is that the extroverts don't know that you're friendly and your intentions are good. They see you keeping to yourself, and they assume you don't want to talk to them, and so they keep their distance, and you assume that they don't like you, and it spirals from there. And when that happens, it gets really easy for you to resent your coworkers, and they can tell you resent them. (Introverts tend to underestimate or forget about the effect of body language and little social strokes like saying "good morning" to people.)

It can be tricky to get out of this rut, especially when you're sure it's 100% your environment and not you. Sometimes it turns around with some sort of change from outside: a new job, or a new coworker who takes a liking to you. Things like that can make you feel just a little better, and other people pick up on that, and it keeps getting better from there. Make no mistake: even with an external catalyst, the actual change comes from within. If she can't will herself into liking her work a little better or giving fewer fucks, she should seek out an environmental change that will help with that - it can be another job, or just something small that she can look forward to on a regular basis, at work or out of work. (Whatever route she goes, yes, therapy can help.)

Mrs. Ninja is likeable. There is a company out there for her, and a team full of awesome coworkers, and they're really not as rare as she may think - just as long as she opens herself up to the possibility and doesn't close herself off from her coworkers.

There are all sorts of other potential factors at play here, but I've ended up writing a novel about the introversion issue because I think it can be more of a hindrance - and a more work-aroundable one - than most people realize. Introversion isn't something that needs to be "fixed", but figuring out how to adjust a little to an extroverted environment can really make a huge difference in any job.
posted by Metroid Baby at 2:47 PM on October 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Your wife sounds like a dear friend and former coworker of mine. This coworker was extremely intelligent and capable perfectionist, the sort who would volunteer for extra duties, and pick up the office slack to make sure projects were delivered on time and to spec. And she also suffered from self-doubt and low self-esteem.

The thing was, a lot of the slack she was picking up wasn't actually slack. She'd spend hours perfecting low-value projects where "good enough" would have been just fine. She'd take over duties from coworkers who would have sucked it up and done it themselves if she hadn't volunteered. People stopped double-checking their work on her projects, because they knew she'd do it either way. She'd practically kill herself to deliver on time when the deadline could honestly have slipped a few days with no massive repercussions.

I'm really wondering if your wife's sense that she's the "only one keeping people on track" isn't a coping mechanism for her low self-esteem. If she doesn't value her skills (which it sounds like she doesn't) she may feel that she can only be employable through sheer volume of effort. She may also feel that the office is a zero-sum environment, in that the better those around her are judged at their jobs, the worse she must be judged.

I'm absolutely not saying your wife is bad at her job, or undermining her coworkers, just that her lack of ability to accurately judge her own worth and contributions makes it difficult for her to judge those of others. My friend showed exactly that pattern of waffling between "I'm the only one who works hard and gives a damn" and "I'll never find a better job because I don't have the qualifications". In fact, both those statements were false.

Also, I want to suggest that even if this rings true for you, your best solution really may not be to point this out to your wife. This sounds like a very deep-seated psychological block for her, and it could be really painful for her to hear this type of probing questioning from a spouse.

I would really, really, really encourage you to encourage her to talk to a professional.
posted by psycheslamp at 2:58 PM on October 5, 2012 [2 favorites]


Maybe she'd prefer not to work?
posted by zadcat at 4:07 PM on October 5, 2012


Possible idea: Tell her to take a leave of absence for a brief period -- like a few months. She can take a (cheap) vacation, go to a counselor, clear her head a bit. Then, refocus on the big picture. No permanent hit to your income, but perhaps a big refocus in her life.
posted by 3491again at 4:31 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with a lot of the therapy suggestions. It might also help her figure out what she wants from life.

In the meantime, I recommend Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath.

It did a lot to give me a mental framework for looking at situations differently, especially at work.
posted by itesser at 7:15 PM on October 5, 2012


If I am unhappy in my job, I will change it.

If I am unhappy again, I will try again.

If I am unhappy a third time, maybe it's me and not the job.
posted by yclipse at 7:41 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Echoing yclipse's comment, and what a few others have hinted at -- maybe it's not the jobs, and maybe even her "perfect job" would bring about the same kind of problems.

Might she find Cal Newport's Study Hacks blog interesting? It has grown outside its original scope of study habits to cover career happiness, focusing not on finding a "dream job" but instead on thriving where you are.

I'm halfway through his recent book, So Good they Can't Ignore You, and so far it sounds like exactly what your wife coudl use.
posted by third word on a random page at 10:36 PM on October 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Your wife's job sounds like my supervisor's job (and thus my job, to a certain extent). My supervisor also works late nights and weekends to meet deadlines. She thinks that people will somehow learn to deliver things on time. I don't think they will, because it always works out fine because my supervisor fixes it for them. They will only start sticking to deadlines when there start being actual consequences to failure.

But, the way she copes is by using a flexible working pattern, so that when it's not busy she only works a 4 day week. And she has learned to switch off at the end of the day, and not care that things are going badly again.

Also, her team and many of her colleagues are lovely, intelligent, funny people. In a place where you don't get on with your co-workers, jobs like these are untenable. And, I think she would benefit from being part of, or in charge of, a small team of people like her. It genuinely makes it better that we can be like 'us against the world', where we care about doing it well, and feel the same way about the people who just let the deadlines woosh by.
posted by plonkee at 1:54 AM on October 6, 2012


A couple jobs ago, I had a very similar approach and frustrations as your wife. I was the person who put content on the website, so I was the Last Stop Before Deadline and everyone else's delays piled up on me. High responsibility, no power. So frustrating. I was very stressed and ranty.

A few things have changed since then and this is getting better, though it is a well-worn thought pattern by now and it is difficult not to slip back into old patterns. It takes work, but yes, your wife can be happier in her work life, and yes she can become more confident that she has something valuable to offer a new employer, and yes her coworkers are probably taking advantage of her, and yes she's also part of the problem. That last bit is actually empowering rather than judgey because she actually has more power to influence herself.

2 things that helped for me:

(1) I read Things Might Go Terribly Horribly Wrong, which helped me deal with the anxiety and depression and refocus on what I want to pursue in life rather than always focusing on what I want to avoid or fix. It helped me start to get comfortable with the idea that a project might pass through my hands and not be perfect or on time, and that there would be ruffled feathers, AND that that would turn out okay in the end. That I didn't need to constantly save the world. It's a very stressful place to way to walk in the world, and actually means you miss out on a lot of life.

(2) Before that, though, when things were particularly intense and my partner and I talked about little else (which is to say that I came home angry and ranting every night), we made a 5 Minute Rule. I could say anything about work, but he would time me. After 5 minutes, the topic was off-limits for the rest of the night.

This is rather sad and embarrassing to remember, but at first my frustration so blinded me that even though I had requested my 5 minutes, by about 3 minutes in I would get so wrapped up in the petty bullshit that I would have forgotten that he was timing me. I would start getting pissed off that he was looking at the clock. What, did he have better things to do? Asshole. Then he would say "1 more minute" and I would remember and think, Crap! Ok, better get the rest out quick. And later in the night I would forget again and mention work annoyances and he would have to calmly say "You've already had your 5 minutes." (Now, granted, this rule was MY idea, so this was a helpful reminder of my own goal and that made this a positive interaction.)

This accomplished 2 things: (1) I got my evenings back, and (2) the mood started improving at work because I hadn't spent the previous evening winding myself up and getting more angry. It was just my first step on this long road of becoming less of a control freak (or Person Who Cares as we prefer to be called) but it is easy to implement and it surprised me. Things weren't magically fixed and I still quit that job 1.5 years later but it helped me fling myself out of that horrible spiral in my head.
posted by heatherann at 6:37 AM on October 6, 2012 [2 favorites]


Has she ever been happy at work? If she has, maybe she can think about the aspects that made her happy. Perhaps it was co-workers, or the feeling that she had an impact, or something else that is important to her in her work environment.

If she's never been happy with any job, I think the problem starts within. Like many others, I think your wife is unhappy because she has a distorted view of work, a distorted view of herself and an extremely distorted/negative view of others. I also tend to think this job is not a great fit, but she should stick it out in the short term as she works a bit more on herself.

On Others: There is no way she always works with incompetent assholes unless she is the unluckiest person alive. This reads like a perfectionist and a martyr:

her tendency to pick up the slack for everyone
the real project managers don't do their jobs
she is the only one keeping people on track
she suffers for the incompetency and lateness of her coworkers
She is constantly correcting their mistakes at the expense of her own time and happiness


I think this view is her largest problem, and would repeat the many calls for therapy.

I agree it sounds like she is doing this: She'd spend hours perfecting low-value projects where "good enough" would have been just fine.

Being a perfectionist is actually not a virtue in most generalist positions in a business environment (I'm not sure it's a virtue in any environment). If you ever go through CBT you'll see there is a specific kind of perfectionist thinking that is a cognitive distortion. Perfectionists often have a distorted view of what is important, a poor idea of the big picture, and a sense that working hard is working smart. While these qualities are sometimes rewarded at work - particularly as a junior level employee - there is a point where you just start annoying everyone and creating chaos around you. After she has gone to a therapist to deal with her feelings of low self-esteem and hostility towards others, she may want to seek very honest feedback about her work style to see if she is actually causing some of these issues she complains about.

On Herself: She's been working for years in a highly paid position. She is clearly skilled! I think a career counselor would help her think about how to position her skills effectively as she tries to move towards a job with more of whatever she decides she needs. However, I suggest she work on the distorted perceptions she has first.

On work: There is no perfect job. There are jobs that are satisfying, rewarding and pay well. Even those jobs will have annoying or stressful aspects. I have several friends who are pursuing their passions, and sometimes they are stressing about an invoice that wasn't paid, or waiting for work to come through, or losing a client. Novelists have to deliver pages of writing, painters have to sell paintings. My job has days when everyone just brings me annoying problems and people won't do what I want (ha). It all involves aspects that may not be awesome. Is your job awesome all the time? We all have crappy days - but if we generally like what we are doing or our co-workers, or something about the job we can usually see the bigger picture.

I really like Cal Newport's approach and find that as I gain mastery of the very specific skill I love about my job, I am happier and happier at work. It didn't happen overnight. I've worked many years in unsatisfying jobs and kind of stumbled into my specific niche. Now I have a unique skill that I enjoy getting better and better at. I'm also inherently curious about my field, and genuinely like the people I work with in my industry. So, she should keep trying to find a job that includes more of the things she genuinely enjoys.

In short, therapy to address the distorted thinking and negative self-talk will do wonders for this situation - then she should take the practical steps to move into a different career path.
posted by Sockowocky at 10:29 AM on October 6, 2012


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