Unhappy in Your Job? These 3 Principles Could Help

Career advice from Aristotle
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Career advice from Aristotle

Last year, each day at noon the bell rang. Twenty-six sixth-graders trooped out of my classroom, happy that the best time of day (lunchtime) had arrived. They chatted loudly as they ran down to the cafeteria for twenty-five minutes of freedom. Meanwhile, I seized those twenty-five minutes to ask a colleague a question, use the restroom, cram down my lunch, clean up from my English class, and prepare for science class with the next group of twenty-six sixth-graders.

I felt the constant pressure of shaping the future of fifty-two children. I was teaching students—brand new to the country—to speak, read, and write in English. I was also introducing them to science. My school was an urban public school dealing with a spectrum of issues. There were days when I returned home at night unable to grade or lesson plan because I was still emotionally recovering from the chaos of an average day.

I had to make a difficult choice. Was it better for me to continue teaching, where I felt needed but was unhappy? Or should I leave my students, take a risk, and dive into graduate school and (hopefully) a better lifestyle? Recent Verily articles have explored those two options. One article discussed how changing your mindset can make you happy with your current job. Another perspective expressed that sometimes it is necessary to quit the job with crazy hours and a high-pressure atmosphere to have a better quality of life.

This year at noon, I am taking Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics out of my backpack, chatting with five other doctoral students about our work–study jobs, and settling down for two delightful hours discussing the nature of moral acts. The right choice for me was graduate school. And while reading Aristotle’s Ethics, I realized that his explanation of happiness offers criteria that we can effectively apply to career choices.

01. There must be a goal to everything we do.

Aristotle said, “Every action and choice is thought to aim at some good. . . . Shall we not, like archers who have a mark to aim at, be more likely to hit upon what we should?” Looking past the antiquated language, Aristotle is saying that whether we know it or not, we are all aiming for something. We will be most successful if we have a clearly defined target. What do I want to achieve through my career? What is my goal?

I know that if I had continued teaching, it would have become easier over time. But I also know that good teachers are always “on” from 7:30 a.m. until 3:30 p.m. They then continue grading, lesson planning, and doing administrative tasks outside of school hours. For some people, educating young minds is a satisfying goal and worth the hours. But for me, I felt that long term I would want more flexibility in my schedule. I also wanted to spend my time on topics I personally find more intellectually stimulating than sixth-grade planetary science.

In defining what I ultimately wanted to aim for, I realized that I needed to shift my career target. I am still in the education field now. Instead of being in the classroom as a teacher, I am studying philosophy and education with the goal of becoming a professor someday. This feels like a more motivating goal for me.

02. Prestige and money don’t equal happiness.

Some people “identify happiness with honour . . . [they] seem to pursue honour in order that they may be assured of their merit,” Aristotle notes. There is satisfaction that comes from professional prestige, promotions, and praise from one’s boss. But Aristotle dismisses this as a superficial type of happiness. He argues that in placing your satisfaction on outside merits, your happiness depends on others’ opinions of you.

Meanwhile, he continues, “the life of money-making is one undertaken under compulsion, and wealth is evidently not the good we are seeking; for it is merely useful and for the sake of something else.” We work so that we have money to buy things to live a dignified life. Money gives us the financial means for necessities such as food, shelter, and clothing, as well as for pleasurable things.

If I had continued as an English-as-Second-Language teacher, I could have gained professional prestige as an experienced teacher in a high-need area. Also, though no teacher would call herself wealthy, my salary was certainly enough for my needs. So, if not for prestige or money, why did I cheerfully choose to sell my car, pack up my classroom and apartment, and move to a dorm room again? The answer lies in Aristotle’s third lesson.

03. Happiness is a result of personal excellence.

Aristotle said that true happiness is what “makes life desirable and lacking in nothing.” He doesn’t believe that happiness is a wishy-washy feeling but that it is the result of “activity of the soul in conformity with excellence . . . in accordance with, or not without, a rational principle.” If we want to achieve true happiness, we have to strive for excellence in a rational way. This means we have to understand what makes us human and work to be the best person possible through our vocation.

Humans are different from animals because we can reason and pursue virtue. Any honest job can help us develop skills and virtues that bring out the best in us. But each person has her own individual strengths. I find it more natural to be my best self when researching and writing a paper than grading or instructing in a classroom. I look forward to discussing and learning from texts with my classmates, whereas before, the intensity of my schedule made it difficult for me to embrace learning the skills and virtues that the school environment offered. Now I am able to focus on fewer tasks and invest my full self into doing them more thoroughly.

One last piece of wisdom from Aristotle is that “with a true view all things harmonize but with a false one they soon clash.” We can all sense when there is harmony in our life. There is a beautiful sense of peace that comes from being where we are supposed to be. That’s not to suggest that work won’t be difficult or that you won’t have to do some undesirable tasks. But it does mean that if you feel there is a “clash” between your professional and personal lives, it is time to ask if your job is making you truly happy, as Aristotle defines it.

Once you can define your goal, your rationale for choosing your job beyond material reasons, and whether you’re able to give your personal best, you can figure out how to glean true happiness from your career. Though I’m only a few months into my program, making far less than I was as a teacher, I find my work fulfilling, and I find happiness in being able to give my best.

Art Credit: Katherine Messenger