Is Suffering Ever Necessary in Your Career?

If you have been reading my career writing you probably know that everything that I write about comes from years of working with others, and my own experience. Sometimes, it takes the use of a triggering phrase to make a light bulb go on in my head. 

The phrase “necessary suffering” ignited that light bulb, recently. I realized I had to write about it because it sheds light, (sorry!), on how we think about work more broadly. 

Is suffering ever necessaryI was speaking with a friend/colleague who is in his late twenties and has been a successful entrepreneur. He threw out the term “necessary suffering”, to describe what he was going through. The phrase suggests there is some psychic or physical toll one must pay to deserve success, or to level-up, professionally. 

I recoil at the idea. I don’t ever think that suffering is necessary. Learning and understanding is necessary for growth. We may also face challenges we should try to resolve as efficiently as possible. I think of the person who has signed up to run a marathon in two months. Without doing any research, every day they attempt to eat as much as possible and run as far as possible. That’s an approach that likely will lead them to significant digestive distress, perhaps without a significant buildup of stamina or improvement of time. If instead they read books, or speak to marathon runners, they might develop a smarter strategy. 

However, at some employers, it is the necessary suffering point of view that enables workplaces where new hires have to work very long hours or get paid very little to prove their commitment to the institution, or its mission. We as adults in the world of work don’t need to have difficulties heaped upon us, or normalized in workplace cultures, to act as employer hazing. Life itself can be challenging enough.

Your employer shouldn’t make you suffer. And you also shouldn’t accept suffering. You should do what you can to lessen its severity whenever possible. 

There are periods in making decisions about our life, whether our work or personal, where we are seeking growth, that can involve hard decisions. Often those decisions aren’t easy. And that’s why we reach out to those we trust, friends, family, or professional peers to give us advice, perhaps confirm the complexity of the decision, and make us feel less isolated. No suffering is necessary, but decisions can be hard. So: Ask yourself what can make them easier. 

I spoke with someone this weekend who was trying to choose between two jobs. She wrote to me urgently about the need to speak soon and she shared her challenge. The job she had was not too taxing and paid well, but it wasn’t fulfilling in the way that she had hoped. She had a new offer where she felt she might be more fulfilled, but the lower pay and the rigidity of the workplace gave her reason to consider whether she should say yes. We spent an hour getting clearer on her goals and concerns. Neither job was perfect, so we needed to decide what made sense now. Ultimately, we landed on her staying with the “unfulfilling” work while making a more deliberate effort to locate other work that didn’t have so many obvious drawbacks. In this case she just needed me as a sounding board to help and lessen her suffering.

I often speak with people where their boss, or the big boss, at an institution extolls a set of values around honest communication or the importance of balance for employees but exhibits none of that in their interactions with staff. They fail to build it into company policy. And sometimes we accept that and spend our time out of meetings or after work muttering to ourselves about the absurdity of the discordance between that person’s self-perception and how you and the rest of your colleagues experience them. So, you have to ask yourself: Is the necessary suffering from being in this place worth it?

What have you normalized as “necessary suffering” in your professional life? Why? What do you need to make it better? A new job? A conversation with someone(s) at your workplace to improve your situation? Support to make a shift in your life? Don’t accept what’s happening now because it is what you’ve experienced recently or with this boss or in this workplace or throughout your professional life. 

Even if perfect may not be attainable quickly, better can happen. And it starts with your not accepting what is causing you to suffer now. 

Russ Finkelstein is the opposite of your High School Guidance Counselor.  A career coach, social entrepreneur and advisor to founders, he is currently the Director of Coaching with the Roddenberry Fellowship, Coach-in-Residence with StartingBloc Fellowship and a Co-Founder of Title8 a Legal Marketplace. He was a founder of the noted careers website and his new book, "Let's Sort Out Your Career Mess, Together..." is forthcoming in 2021. 

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