Do you have your priorities straight?  Are you clear about what’s important to you?  Do you have a firm grasp on the tradeoffs you’d be most willing to make, versus others, in the event you weren’t able to snag your no-holds-barred “dream job” at the present time?

Frankly, I think most Americans stink at this.  In terms of having a very clear and grounded sense of what’s important, I mean.  For example, I routinely receive e-mails such as the following:

“Matt: I’ve been a software developer at Microsoft for 8 years and this Microsoft culture is literally sucking the life out of me.  I’ve found myself thinking about a career change for a while now.  However, the prospect of taking a significant cut in pay or medical is downright frightening, so I’ve felt trapped.”

This isn’t to knock the person who wrote this in the slightest.  I’ve had hundreds of people from Microsoft, as well as numerous other places, express similar sentiments over the years.  They’ve got a steady job, are making good money, and are enjoying medical care and benefits out the ying-yang — but still seem to be experiencing an incredibly strong sense of dissatisfaction about their work situation.  They yearn.  They aspire.  They crave more passion in their careers.  They want to self-actualize.  And all this despite the fact that most people around the globe — and throughout recorded human history — would consider holding a safe, secure, well-paying middle-class job in America to be about as satisfying as it could possibly get!

Here’s the twist, though.  In one sense, could this actually just be an amazing sign of our country’s progress?  I mean, isn’t it incredible, from one perspective, that here we are going through one of the worst economic periods in a century and yet millions of working adults are still feeling unsatisfied about their career situation, despite the fact that they’re currently earning a steady paycheck and continue to have access to most of the creature comforts in life?  It boggles my mind when I think about it.  We’ve reached a point of prosperity, over the past few decades, where the vast majority of Americans expect to own a home, expect to have their kids go to college, expect to be able to live in whatever part of the country they want, and act as if the lower rungs of Maslow’s pyramid (e.g. food, shelter, safety) are too “pedestrian” to count for all that much, any longer, on the personal satisfaction scale.

And yet, perhaps the times they are a-changing.  There’s a growing contingent of professionals who have now been out of work for a year or two, or even longer, and my sense is that some of these folks are experiencing a bit of a “reset” in terms of their priorities.  They no longer take for granted the idea of a decent job and a steady paycheck.  They’ve outgrown some of their expensive habits.  They’ve been forced, due to budget constraints, to separate “their wants” from “their needs” for the first time in ages — and as a result, may have started to permanently downsize their living arrangements.

I see so much of this going on, in fact, that it makes me wonder if we’re at a true watershed moment in our society.  Is the wave of economic hardship these last few years going to trigger a wave of perspective where we no longer (myself included) take so many things for granted?  And if so, would this be a good thing or a bad thing?

I’ve seen countless studies promulgate the notion, after all, that money is not a “motivator” and that simply drawing a paycheck — or earning a raise — doesn’t usually increase a person’s job satisfaction level.  As the author of one recent study on the subject put it, “It’s not so much that money buys you happiness, but that the lack of money buys you misery.”  But this strikes me as largely an issue of semantics.  Sure, ask somebody if they are motivated primarily by money, they’ll almost always tell you (and the pollsters) no.  But rephrase the question as “Do you like the fact that you’re able to eat out at nice restaurants on a regular basis, drive two cars, put your kids through college, and receive world-class medical treatment immediately, when you need it?”  I suspect the answer for a lot of people would change not just to yes, but hell yes!  So why doesn’t money seem to “buy happiness” for more people, if it’s the currency that provides these things we all enjoy and seem to want?  Why isn’t just having a job, and earning a living, more innately satisfying?

In closing, I realize I’m raising more questions than answers with this post, so my apologies for what may seem like a bit of a semi-rant.  I’m not criticizing the system, though, or anybody in it.  I just continue to be fascinated with the notion of “career satisfaction” and amazed at how I’ve got some clients who are going through really tough times — and in danger of losing their house, car, retirement, and other basic necessities — and then other clients who seem equally as unhappy and dissatisfied,  despite the fact that they are gainfully employed and still have all the money in the world coming in, relatively speaking.

Again, is this a sign that most Americans don’t have their priorities straight — or a sign of how much progress we’ve made as a society, as evidenced by the almost impossibly high standards we’ve all come to expect from our career pursuits?