I’ve been ‘retired’ all of one week, and I already feel like I’ve been shocked awake with a cold bucket of water. Wim Hof amirite? I guess it makes sense. Even though I had a cushy job where I was only in an office a few hours a week, it was the responsibility of being a manager that took its toll. Putting out fires, answering questions, generating useless weekly reports, staying on top of my emails, and never letting my phone be more than a few feet away. I was trapped by work. However, now I have time to stop and think, to be truly present, to be detached from phones and emails. My grand epiphany you ask? Work is a trap, plain and simple.
Trapped at Work
I’ll be honest. This topic came up because I apparently ruffled a few feathers with the way I left my job. Unfortunately for the people that are pissed, I’m no longer involved with any office politics. It made me wonder why they were so mad. Unfortunately, they weren’t focusing on the right things, which is how and why we are doing what we are doing. They are busy focusing on themselves, their own limitations, and them being trapped at work. How is work a trap, though? There are a number of ways and they can vary widely by people. The ones I encounter most are: loyalty, fear, complacency, unclear goals, and occasionally some combination of them all. Let’s dive into each of these reasons.
Everyone knows the loyalists. They’re the ‘company man’ or ‘company woman’. They do whatever anyone asks them to. Skipping taking their vacation time. Showing up sick even though they should’ve kept their ass at home in bed. Their hope is that they become known as a ‘team player’ and all the other unquantifiable bullshit adjectives. The issue is that they do become known as that person, and they are usually quickly taken advantage of.
The real bitch is that the loyalty only goes one way. Imagine a board of directors discussing making changes to the corporate structure. A decision that will directly eliminate your position. Do you envision that one of them remembers you from the Christmas party three years ago and says: ‘Wait. We can’t do this. That James is a real straight shooter and he puts the company first. We have to go another direction.”
If you believe that, then you’ve got a few screws loose. Loyalty to a company is a silly notion, but it happens more often than you think. Unnecessary loyalty shifts the power balance 100% to the company. A job on a fundamental level is an agreement for you to trade your time and ‘productivity’ for money. If at any point the company feels like you’re no longer holding up your end of the bargain, then they’ll tell you to kick rocks. You need to be willing to shift that power dynamic back in your favor, otherwise you’re truly trapped at work.
Fearfulness is a big reason people feel trapped at work. They are scared of so many things that it’s hard to list them all. Afraid to quit because you’re living paycheck to paycheck without any emergency fund. Scared that they don’t have enough money saved up, because they aren’t aware of how simple the math of retirement is, even though they have more than enough of a nest egg. Worried about the job market and going through the process of finding another job. Scared that without the job, they are no longer important. The list goes on and on.
There are obvious ways to overcome these fears. Save some damn money. Work out the math and understand that, despite what Suze Orman says, you can retire on $1-2 million, unless you want a private island like her. The job market is fine right now and you shouldn’t have a hard time finding a well paying job if you look hard enough. Know that you aren’t important. If you died on a Monday, your job would be posted by Tuesday and there would be another person trained and at your desk doing your job within two weeks.
Once I was no longer afraid of losing my job I no longer felt trapped at work. Emboldened by the feeling, I could turn down useless meetings, stop pandering to everyone, and eliminate the false obligation to respond to every email sent my way. I like to think that I became a better employee and manager from this. I definitely spent much less time working, but with even higher productivity which helped me lead a more fulfilling life the past few months.
Some people are complacent, and others wake up years later wondering what the hell happened. There is a clear career path. Stick it out for 30 years and you’ll get a few promotions. That sounds like a damn nightmare. This complacency is what has them trapped at their job. These are the people that adhere to the ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ mindset. This falls back into the fear mindset we covered earlier. The issue with this line of thinking is that not only are you not reaching your full potential, but you are also content to be miserable at your job for years on end without seeking something else out.
Also, the chances are if you’ve been in the same job for the past 5 years, you’re being under paid. The average annual increase is 3%, but with a job change you’re looking at a 10-20% increase. Take myself for example, I managed to leave my job and come back to the same position less than a year later for a 27% pay increase. I liked my job, and I was good at it. But, that didn’t mean that I wasn’t up for an adventure. Also, it all worked out in the end. Besides, job hopping is a great way to network. You get to work for a couple years with another company. You get to meet new people. People who will do hopping of their own and may be looking for someone to fill a new spot at some point in the future.
Don’t let getting comfortable for too long make you get trapped at work. Your friendships with co-workers can outlast multiple job changes, I know mine have. Ultimately, if they don’t work out once either of you have left the company, then it might’ve not been a friendship anyway, just co-workers enjoying who they work with. There is likely something better out there for you. If there isn’t you can always try to get your old job back with a nice little pay bump.
Having clear goals is the easiest way to stay on task. Be clear about your goals to yourself and others. This is an easy way to avoid getting trapped at work. You wanted to get a promotion, or you were planning to look for another job after you got a little experience but now you’re in a state of drift where every day is the same. You no longer know what you are looking to get out of this job, or even life. Your goals have morphed into some bastardized version where you have no control over them.
For now, you twiddle your thumbs for months and just wait on your annual review and your measly 3% increase. Wait until your current manager quits. Then you try to get the promotion when he leaves. However, he should’ve been gone a long time ago based on the way he complains about the job. On second thought, maybe you don’t want the job at all the way he bitches about it.
Without clear goals, you just wait for the decision to be made for you. Whatever happens to you is no longer something that you have any input in. Hopefully the perfect job comes by just wrapped in a bow with your name on it. Until then, trapped at work will continue to be your reality. Wake up! Take control of your life! Tell people your goals. Not only will you have an added layer of accountability, but these people can probably help you reach your goals anyway.
Feeling trapped at your job is a normal feeling for many people. The reasons could be loyalty, fear, complacency, or unclear goals, but the end result is all the same. Feeling trapped is a terrible feeling, and one that can be overcome with the right actions. However, you have to show a little initiative and do something. Make moves in the right direction, and you’ll be amazed at how the power dynamic shifts. You’ll likely become a better employee, a better co-worker, and even a better person outside of work.