What Should I Do If There's a Vast Mismatch Between My Job and My Interests?

It was another dreary Monday morning. My alarm clock rang off the table. It was still dark outside. I jammed myself into a tube filled with fellow commuters. Everyone adhered to the silent pact of the London Underground; no one looks anyone else in the eye, nobody speaks. A mass of professionals collectively bracing themselves for the week ahead.

Reaching work, still waking up, I tried not to get engaged in conversation in the elevator. I reached my allotted grey cubicle, opened Microsoft Excel and took a deep breath. At that exact moment Dom poked his head over the cubicle wall and whispered: “this is pretty rubbish isn’t it!?” I immediately saw a kindred spirit. Someone else not prepared to settle, someone else bold enough to want more than a sensible job in a big organisation.

Follow the small sparks…

We were two management consultants with no business-building experience and limited capital who came up with an idea that excited us so much it just wouldn’t go away. It is an idea has now seen us quit our jobs and spend the last three years building a global community of over 135,000 people who also believe that life is too short to do work that doesn’t matter to them.

Every day we get emails from people in different cities around the world saying “WE NEED THIS HERE!” Although our idea was born in “The City” (London’s financial heartland) we have discovered that it resonates far beyond the UK in many different industries and countries. This is a widespread phenomenon – more and more people working in big organisations, over-burdened with process and bureaucracy, are asking themselves whether they can expect more from their careers.

We have been joined by a third partner, Mikey, who escaped an investment bank to help us build our community. Mikey is another comrade in the fight to save people (and ourselves) from the corporate treadmill. The more people we speak to, the more we realise what a massive problem this is. So many talented and passionate people doing work that doesn’t really matter to them.

We are three normal people who were treading the conventional path through the world of big organisations and corporate jargon – doing work that didn’t really matter to us. We’re building a business around the story of our own entrepreneurial career transitions. However, if you’ve ever thought to yourself – “surely there’s more to life than this job?” – then this is your story too.

Global capitalism is in crisis…

Everywhere institutions and governments are struggling to cope with environmental, social and political challenges, technological innovation, and increased people power. Everywhere we read about surveys telling us that job dissatisfaction is worryingly high. Doctors talk about an epidemic of anxiety and depression in developed countries.

The way things work isn’t working.

Here we are – at the start of the 21st Century – faced with huge challenges and even bigger opportunities. And yet, paralysed by fear or a perceived lack of viable alternatives, so many of us keep our heads down and keep treading the conventional path.

The world is changing. Companies that dominated markets two decades ago don’t even exist today. People are doing jobs in today’s economy that hadn’t been invented ten years ago. Even five years ago we wouldn’t have been able to build our business in the way that we are today.

Not changing in a world where change is accelerating is a very dangerous approach. It is far too easy for us to laugh at the Kodaks and Blockbusters of this world as being examples of organisations that failed to evolve without realising that the same will be true for us as individuals if we fail to adapt.

If you are anything like us before we escaped, you may be noticing a vast mismatch between the things you are interested in and the realities of your job.

In our case, we were fascinated by the power of the Internet to mobilise people behind an idea. We loved reading about how new technologies were challenging goliaths in every industry and disrupting the status quo. And yet, there we were, working in massive organisations that were the status quo. They of all places were unlikely to be the ones shaping the future – they represent the past. Our corporate jobs weren’t plugged into the world we wanted to be working in. We left when we realised that it would always be this way.

We have spent the last four years thinking about why so many of us end up doing work that doesn’t matter to us and questioning what can be done about it. Our personal experiences have been invaluable, but even more enlightening have been the countless conversations with people who aspire to lead a life on their own terms.

No two escapes are the same. There is no guidebook for building an unconventional career. However, there are certain themes that unite people who have stepped off the corporate treadmill.

Through the incredibly exciting journey of building Escape the City we have noticed nine broad themes or ideas embodied by people who successfully “escape the city”. If we were doctors diagnosing corporate job dissatisfaction then these nine ideas would form the basis of our cure…

Idea 1. Change = opportunity.

Whenever there have been big shifts in human civilisation (think the shift from subsistence to agriculture or from agriculture to industry) two big things have happened:

  1. People get hurt (usually those who fail to adapt and therefore became obsolete).
  2. Some people profit greatly (usually those who understand the changes and are in a position to take advantage of them).

Those of us who will prosper and enjoy ourselves in the coming years will be those who embrace change rather than resist it. Understanding the nature of change relative to our skills and jobs and careers is crucial if we want to thrive in the economy of the future – especially if we’re planning on building careers on our own terms rather than being “owned” by a big corporation.

Idea 2. People are opportunities.

Most people who do genuinely exciting jobs in progressive organisations didn’t find their opportunity on a job board. You cannot underestimate the importance of building genuine relationships with people doing interesting work in areas that interest you.

Check out some of the research into the strength of weak ties. It is really interesting on why your next opportunity will probably come via someone you haven’t yet met in your extended social and professional circle and what you can do to help this process.

Idea 3. Develop skills – stop chasing qualifications.

The established career path religion tells you to spend up to ten years in academic institutions getting qualifications to equip you to do your chosen career. In many sectors this is important and in some it is crucial (think engineer, doctor, pilot). However, far too many of us study for that liberal arts degree, that masters or that MBA without necessarily knowing why – other than it seeming like a “sensible thing to do”.

In the process, we get ourselves into debt (limiting our options) and delay the far more important activity of experiencing lots of things in order to work out what we want to do with our lives. In this book, we argue that the agile, employable workers of the future get ahead through learning by doing, targeting specific skills and teaching themselves things that interest them.

Idea 4. Just start – doing beats thinking every time.

Successful escapees (career changers and entrepreneurs) often talk of engineering serendipity. What they mean is that, through being proactive, they are making things happen for themselves. You are not going to change jobs by thinking about your escape or by complaining that it is hard – you are going to change jobs by taking steps forward (no matter how modest).

We believe that you don’t have to expose yourself to huge risks to discover new paths. You simply have to take small steps in new directions. It is only through making a habit of “doing” that you will be able to manufacture a transition for yourself that doesn’t involve a blind leap of faith.

Idea 5. Information is power – be inquisitive.

We wouldn’t be writing this if we hadn’t been inquisitive about the future and our place within it. We would still be sitting in our corporate cubicles wondering where to find exciting opportunities. Access to information has been radically democratised by the Internet. There is no longer an excuse for not knowing about something that interests you.

You will not be able to take advantage of opportunities that cross your path if you don’t understand them. Innovation often happens when ideas from dramatically different areas cross-fertilise. The more ideas you engage with, the more you are putting yourself in a position to spot new and exciting opportunities.

Idea 6. Dealing with fear and risk.

Fear and worry are incredibly useful emotions. Being fearful of something that may harm you means you are protecting yourself from potential harm. Worrying about things that might happen allows you to plan and mitigate potential risks. However, you live in a body that evolved for a very different reality to today’s society.

Often fear causes us to run away from things to avoid short-term pain when the long-term result would have been favourable. This is particularly powerful with big career decisions. A basic understanding of your mind can equip you to better distinguish between useful and useless fear and potentially free you from the cycle of analysis and paralysis.

Idea 7. Set your own principles.

You are surrounded by opportunities to rank yourself against other people. Like it or not, you subconsciously compare yourself to your friends and colleagues on a ladder of achievement. It is human nature. Through the media, society’s norms and your parents you have developed a definition of success. If you live in a city you are constantly surrounded by people who are better or worse off than you. Faced with this barrage of cues it is really hard to remember what you personally enjoy doing and find the space to develop your own definitions of success. Knowing your principles is crucial for making good career decisions as they provide you with a lens through which you can assess and identify new opportunities.

The advice to “follow your passion” is like trying to find the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. If you wait to find that one job where your passions are fully reflected in the work you may be waiting some time. Passions don’t tend to map to job titles (or companies, or whole industries). Instead, we reckon you should follow your principles, work on things that interest you and strive to solve problems that you care about. Only through doing so, you will allow your passions to express themselves.

Idea 8. See any Escape as a start-up.

When you are starting a business your plan will depend on certain assumptions and you will need to mitigate certain risks. You will have a certain amount of investment and you will need to closely manage the amount of cash coming into the business against the amount flowing out. Your career transition, even if you’re not starting a business, is remarkably similar.

There is a lot of fluffy career advice out there. We believe that seeing your career as a start-up is an effective way of consistently dealing with uncertainty whilst managing risk until you find the way that works. This approach encourages you to create a vision, define your principles, map your assumptions, manage your risks and test towards the way that works.

Idea 9. “Do something different” as a strategy for everything.

Standing out is scary. You risk being laughed at. You risk being wrong. You risk failing. In the industrial age corporations needed people who could fit in, people who could follow instructions, people who would stay firmly in the box. Today’s economy needs people who are prepared to stand out. If you aren’t remarkable (literally “worth remarking on”) you’ll be squeezed out in the inevitable race to the bottom (faster, cheaper, outsourced).

Until you do something different your CV looks exactly like thousands of others. Compared to your parent’s generation there are far more capable and over-qualified people today chasing the best gigs. The best way to give yourself a competitive advantage in your career isn’t to collect qualifications until someone picks you … it is to consistently operate differently to your competition in order to get noticed by people who value innovation, creativity and bravery.

As with anything in life, use what is useful, reject what is not.

Make your decisions your own. If you have been feeling stuck then we hope these ideas will be useful. We don’t have all the answers. We do have lots of questions. We hope you can use Escape the City to figure out some answers that are truly yours.

You are at the start of a search for something better. Let the hunt terrify and excite you. This is what life is about. The process is the journey. Don’t obsess about the end point. Enjoy the ride. There is no such thing as universal truth – we are all so different. Find your own truth and leave the rest of the world to search for theirs.


Good luck and please do let us know how you get on and how we can help – use the comments, it’s what they’re there for!

This essay is adapted from our book The Escape Manifesto, which you can buy from Amazon.comAmazon UK or use our publisher Wiley to show you your local retailer.

Like to know more about getting unstuck? Join our Escape Tribe or check out our Do Work You Love Workshop.

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