Comfort Kills Careers

“I should work on my resume,” a friend said one day.

He had been selling enterprise software at a medium-sized company for the last ten years or so. They hired him right out of school, and it was the only employer he had ever known. He was good at his job and generally liked what he did, the people he worked with, and the work-life balance that it provided.

But now that he was in his 30s, he yearned for more. He asked for a base salary increase and was denied. He asked for a better commission structure and was denied. He was understandably miffed.

Being the good friend and strong employee advocate that I am, I encouraged his desire to explore other career options, offering to review his updated resume free of charge. He promised to have a draft ready by the end of the week, which came and went sans resume. He said work got busy and that it would be ready the following week. You probably see where this was going. Weeks became months. He was still crushing it at work and receiving plenty of verbal praise from his superiors, but no increase in compensation.

Finally, he admitted to me, “I’m just not motivated to [finish my resume and job hunt] one bit and I don’t know why.” And I said, I know exactly why.

You’re too comfortable.

Watson, It’s Evolutionary

What’s wrong with being comfortable? Isn’t comfort a good thing?

Human beings who survived the harsh elements of the Stone Age undoubtedly tried to avoid loss. After all, when you are living on the edge, to lose even a little would mean that your very existence was in jeopardy. Thus, it follows that ancient hunter-gatherers who had just enough food and shelter to survive weren’t big risk takers. … In the Stone Age, this cautious approach to loss certainly increased human beings’ chances of staying alive—and thus reproducing. Their descendants, with this genetic inheritance, would therefore also be more likely to avoid loss.

Nigel Nicholson, HBR: “How Hardwired Is Human Behavior?

We are the descendants of humans that did not risk losing “good enough” in the pursuit of “better”. This made perfect sense when the loss of “good enough” was both highly probable and highly devastating. Nowadays, the average Westerner will not starve from job loss. Yet we still make decisions based on our prehistoric mental wiring.

My friend wanted better, but did not want it enough to risk losing his “good enough” job. What if the new job didn’t work out and he wound up unemployed? What if he didn’t like his new coworkers? What if he wasn’t any good at his new job?

If you’re facing a similar dilemma, you should:

Know your value

Always keep your resume updated so that you can periodically test the job market. You don’t have to (nor should you) quit your current job to do this. If the results are overwhelmingly positive, you can more confidently leave your current job for a better one. And if the results are dejecting – whether because of your relatively low employment value or a weak labor market, you can bide your time while proactively increasing your value.

Have a strategy

If you know where you want to be, you can narrow down which decisions will get you closer and which will not.

Otherwise, any road will take you there.

3rd Commandment of Employment

Really think about what you want from your career. Perhaps you’re not particularly ambitious. Perhaps you want to optimize for job comfort so that you can focus on other pursuits in life. And if that’s really what you want, fine. I’m not here to preach morals or tell you what you should want.

However, be very certain that comfort is what you want rather than a psychological buffer to protect you from the risk of going after what you truly want and falling short. It’s okay to not want grapes if you don’t want grapes. It’s tragic to lie to yourself about not wanting grapes because you’re afraid you can’t get them.1If you’re young and don’t believe that regret is worse than risk, strike up conversations with middle aged businessmen about where they are and where they wanted to be.

Beware of dangled carrots

Finally, the employee is occasionally complicit in their own dangled carrot scam because they fear change. Rather than admitting that they are being taken advantage of, the employee rationalizes that they are staying for the carrot.

Dangled carrots are particularly insidious when you’re comfortable, because they make it so much easier to rationalize inaction. You’re not staying put because you’re comfortable and fear losing that comfort, you’re staying because [insert carrot here] is right around the corner. Okay, maybe not that corner, but certainly the next corner…

As for my friend, he never got around to finishing his resume before COVID ravaged the job market. I hope he tests the market after the economy recovers, but I suspect his employer will have to fire him first. He’s too comfortable.

Photo by Erik-Jan Leusink on Unsplash

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