What’s It Like to Feel Lost at Work?
April 12, 2019 | Filed in: Your Career
Certain stages of life lend themselves to workplace uncertainty. Here, writer Dana Hudepohl shares her experience of feeling lost at work, talks with other women who are navigating their own versions of ‘lostness’, and seeks advice from experts about how to bounce back.
I don’t remember the exact day that the uncertainty started seeping in, but it was somewhere around year 19 of my career as a freelance writer. I felt lost, my job satisfaction muddied by questions weighing heavily on me. Do I enjoy spending my day plopped in front of a computer? Is the work I’m doing meaningful?
So, I did what any busy, deadline-driven woman would do: for two more years, I kept going through the motions. But in between moments of celebration—excitement about a new project, pride in meeting a goal—the nagging feelings continued. Over pedicures and lattes, I confessed to a friend that I wasn’t enjoying my workdays, and she helped me wrap my head around what was going on: I felt like I had been there, done that. I was bored.
You can expect to have some career uncertainty at specific times in your life: as a new college grad, after maternity leave, at a milestone birthday, or after spending decades in the same kinds of job. “Everyone feels this way sometimes,” says Laura Riordan, Ph.D., a career and life transitions coach. “The questions behind ‘lostness’ change as you grow professionally, but the central question is am I really doing the thing I’m meant to be doing in my life?”
We talked to professional women who’ve grappled with feeling lost at work to hear how they’ve coped. We also interviewed experts for their advice on how to tune in to your inner dialogue, address those continuing questions, and gain clarity about your next steps.
Feeling Lost When You’re Starting Out
Common questions: Did I pick the wrong major? Why did I get all of this education to do entry-level tasks? What’s the right career for me?
Why you feel this way: Stepping into the work world as a college graduate is often the first time you’re leaving behind the familiar structure of childhood, when you’re always told what you have to do. The newfound freedom can feel chaotic. “Some recent grads feel that what they went to college for was something that their parents told them was the stable, secure choice, but in their hearts, it wasn’t aligned with who they are,” says career coach Kathy Caprino, author of Breakdown, Breakthrough: The Professional Woman’s Guide to Claiming a Life of Passion, Power, and Purpose. “Other grads may have studied something they loved, but in their efforts to find gainful employment they find that what they learned in school, while interesting, isn’t helping them land jobs.”
Emily Golitzin, 23, a physics major who graduated from an Ivy League school last spring, knows this feeling all too well. After completing an internship where she sat in a cubicle and wrote computer code all day, she realized that a research-centric career wasn’t a good fit for a people person. Now she feels like she’s starting at ground zero figuring out what road to take with her liberal arts degree. “It can feel confusing to have so many choices,” she says.
Reframe your mindset: “Remember that this is still a time to learn and grow, and you do not have to have figured out what you want to do with the rest of your life,” says Alessandra Wall, Ph.D., a psychologist and coach. Change is far easier in this stage of life than when you have a mortgage, family, or geographic location you are tied to. “A lot of my friends who I graduated with have already had several jobs,” says Emily Schmidt, 25, who just began circulating her resume to explore positions outside of the software industry she works in now.
Bounce back: Pay attention to clues about your strengths. What skills do you like to use? What gives you energy and lights you up? What kind of people do you like to be around? “Forget the fifth-grade teacher who told you that you’re not a strong writer or the uncle who told you that you should be a lawyer like the rest of the family,” says Riordan. “Often we’ve gotten off our natural path because we’ve gotten messages stuck in our head.” Consider taking career assessments (many are available for free online) to figure out your strengths. And pull out your journal to answer open-ended questions. What are people always asking you to do? If someone gave you a million dollars what would you do with it? When you’re in a bookstore, what section do you gravitate toward?
Feeling Lost When You’re Coming Back to Work from Maternity Leave
Common questions: Do I want to be dedicating this much of my time and energy to work? Am I giving enough of myself at work and at home? Why am I only the one who feels this way?
Why you feel this way: When you begin caring for a baby, you’re entering uncharted territory. “When we are in a process of reorienting our life, we are different, physically, mentally, and emotionally, and nothing feels like it fits the same anymore,” says Cynthia Bowkley, a professional development coach. It’s even trickier when you expect to be able to give 100 percent at the office and 100 percent to your family, leaving no time to yourself. “I felt like I was treading water, barely getting through each day,” says Stacy, 35, who pumped breast milk three times a day when she returned to her job as a corporate brand manager after having a baby. “I found myself questioning everything about my career and whether what I was doing aligned with my newly clarified values,” she says.
Reframe your mindset: Remind yourself that you’re supposed to feel out of sorts for a while when you’re juggling worlds that often clash. “If we give ourselves the gift of accepting that things are going to feel wonky and off for a little while, we can better surf through the uncertainty,” says Bowkley. Zoom back and look at the bigger picture, and realize that you have a long professional life ahead of you. Being thrust into a dual role gives you an advantage, since it forces you to pause and ask questions about what matters to you that many professionals take years to face head-on, says Riordan.
Bounce back: Stop comparing yourself to your friends on social media who seem to be doing it all. “We often start looking around to see if the grass is greener on the other side of any number of fences that surround us,” says Bowkley. Instead, reach out to other women in your situation to share real conversations and strategies about how to make it all work better. Let go of your previous vision of what your career should look like and ask questions that will open up new possibilities. “We are ever-changing,” says Bowkley. For you, that might mean figuring out how to gracefully continue your climb to CEO. What is the legacy I want to leave for my child? How can I give my best to this baby while honoring my needs and dreams? Or it might mean going after another vision. Can I allow myself to have different desires than I had before and shift my priorities? What is important to me now that I’m in this new chapter, and how can I best go after it? After her second baby was born, Stacy started her own business. “I may go back to a full-time corporate role later in life, but I’m grateful to be pursuing something entrepreneurial right now as it’s something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “This whole experience was the nudge I needed.”
Feeling Lost When You’re Doing the Same Thing You’ve Been Doing Forever
Common questions: Is my industry even interesting to me anymore? Am I lazy to not try anything else? How can I support my lifestyle if I step out of what I’m doing now?
Why you feel this way: As we get older, our expenses and responsibilities grow, and we may become risk-averse. This is at odds with what you may be craving: the learning and newness that accompanied your climb up the corporate ladder. While you feel comfortable and competent, it’s also easy to feel bored or disillusioned or like you’re not tapping into your full potential. “After 23 years in my company, I’ve reached the highest level I can, but it’s not everything I thought it would be,” says Laurie, 52, a manager in a Fortune 500 company. Beyond feeling like you’ve plateaued, as you approach mid-life you start to think more about meaning and purpose and legacy. You wonder whether your work is truly helping others or whether you’ll ever make time to pull the trigger on a personal goal you’ve been toying with for years.
Reframe your mindset: Let go of the assumption that you’re stuck. Just because you’re searching for something that makes you feel more alive or valued doesn’t mean you have to fulfill those needs through work. Novelty and excitement can come through choices you make inside and outside of the office, whether asking for a new assignment, working a side hustle, or volunteering. One of Riordan’s clients, who took up sailing, joined a team that went onto compete at nationals, giving her a sense of fulfillment that made her happier at work. Kim, 40, felt underappreciated at her law firm so she took on even more work—as the PTA president of her kids’ elementary school. “I don’t mind adding that to my plate because there’s a profound appreciation for my knowledge and expertise,” she says. “I feel valued in a way I don’t at work.”
Bounce back: Sign on for a new responsibility at work that will challenge you, or carve out time outside of work to try something that feels risky and fun. “Giving ourselves permission to play with the ideas that arise about how life might be more interesting or inspiring opens up a world of possibilities for growth and change,” says Bowkley. Gigi, a magazine editor, had always intended to get an MFA in creative writing after college, but it wasn’t until she felt blocked at her supposed dream job that she realized she had a perfect opportunity. “I was antsy, and I saw no chance for advancement,” she recalls. She found a low-residency writing program and kept her day job, using her vacation time and personal days to travel to campus. Even if you don’t have a long-standing vision of how to boost your overall sense of accomplishment, you can create space for self-reflection through a purposeful vacation, a retreat or a workshop to rediscover your deep-seated interests. What have you already accomplished? What are you capable of? Set up a networking coffee, look into classes, or research volunteer opportunities that will provide a window into other avenues.
Whatever it is that you settle on, get started. “Fear of making mistakes makes people spend huge amounts of time trying to gather information, more information, and just a little bit more,” says Wall. “They forget that the information gathered means nothing until it’s applied. You will never know exactly whether what you learned works until you try it for yourself.”