Saturday, March 31, 2012

A Surprising Realization

I don't normally post "big" posts on the weekends, but I've spent a lot of time at my desk this weekend, watching work emails. We're were finishing up a big project, and my role at this point was largely to watch, answer questions, and standby to jump in if necessary. Anyway, this gave me the time to write up some thoughts that have been nagging at me recently. Fair warning- this is a ridiculously introspective post. If that's going to bother you, click away now! But it helped to write this all down, and since I've shown time and again that I absolutely cannot predict which posts will strike a chord with someone out there... here it is.


I've been struggling with a lack of motivation at work lately. I have had a hard time figuring out why. I like my colleagues, and I'm well-respected at this job. I'm doing work that I'm good at, and that most of the people I work with value. I've got a great team working for me, and the people I have to collaborate with are mostly easy to work with, albeit with some quirks (but we all have those).

So what's my deal? Why am I daydreaming about finding some other way to make a living?

I figured out the answer while I was out for a lunchtime walk. I use my walks as a time to think. I like to set myself thinking about a hard problem I'm trying to solve at the start, and it is sort of magical how I often have a solution by the end of my walk, even though I don't force myself to think about only that topic. I let my mind wander where it wants to go.

Anyway, on this particular walk, I couldn't come up with a problem to think about. And I realized that lately, I haven't been thinking about work problems on my walks. I've been thinking about posts I want to write, or process optimizations we need at home, or a parenting conundrum, or... anything but work. I thought about that a bit more, and decided that isn't because I'm shirking any work. It is because I don't have any hard problems to solve right now, and haven't had any for at least a month.

I'm busy at work. There is lot that I need to do, and some of that is not trivial. It draws on my experience and on things I have figured out in the past. But none of it is hard for me. The only challenge is one of prioritization, and I solved the general form of that problem a long time ago- these days it is mostly a question of applying that solution to the specifics at hand.

Some people might be happy to find their work life so ordered. But I am bored. I spent some money on some career counseling several years ago, and one of the exercises I did was to determine what my "work values" are- i.e., what things I want in a job. One of my top values was that I want to be working on hard problems.

And I'm not.

And worse... I realized, as I thought more about this on that walk, that I haven't been working on hard problems for a long time. Or at least, the majority of my job has not involved hard problems for a long time.

This may sound strange, since my team just successfully completed a major, high profile project on time. That certainly required a lot of hard work, from me and everyone on my team. But my part of that work wasn't intellectually challenging. Once we worked out the schedule, my contributions were in communications (within the team and outside the team), task tracking, deciding when we needed to make a compromise on what we were trying to accomplish in order to ensure we could complete the project on time, and keeping other people from bothering my team. In short, I was the project manager. And none of those things are an intellectual challenge for me anymore.

One I  realized this, I understood why I keep getting restless in my jobs. The intellectually hard part of what I do is figuring out how to get things done in a new environment. Once I've done that, then the execution isn't an intellectual challenge- although it can be a challenge for other reasons. Based on my recent record of employment satisfaction, I'd say that it takes me roughly 6-9 months to figure out how to get things done at a company. Then I get 3-6 months of happily accomplishing things. And then I get bored.

So now that I've figured this out, the question is what to do about it.

I could stay in my current line of work (which pays well, after all) and just devote more of my time and attention to my hobbies- like writing. Perhaps I could tackle some bigger writing projects in addition to writing this blog. The problem is that I can't really cut back on my work hours, and I don't want to cut back on the time I spend with my family, so that would mean squeezing in more time for hobby work around the margins. I'm not sure this would work well.

I could talk to my boss and tell him I'm bored, and see if we can come up with any changes to my job that would fix the problem. Unfortunately, I know full well that the reason I was hired was because I am good at managing projects and getting things done- so it seems unlikely that I'll be able to stop doing the work I'm doing now. And I don't really want more work. I want different work.

I could stay in my current line of work, but change things up to try to get more intellectual challenge. I could go out on my own as a consultant (which is financially risky, so would require some lead time and preparation) or I could try to find a "bigger" job in my current field. I wonder if this would just be a short term fix, though.

Or I could try to find a new line of work. I lean towards doing this, but that opens up another huge area of introspection. I've done well in my current career- it seems like pushing my luck to toss it all in for a new career, and if I do, it seems unlikely that I'll get yet another chance if my second choice goes poorly. So it seems that I should make that second choice carefully.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about what I might want to do. About 18 months ago, I was unhappy in my job (it was a different job), and thinking that I needed a "life reorg". I even wrote a series of posts about it. My post about my "core competencies" is particularly relevant here. I had identified "organizing information" and "getting things done" as my core competencies. In fact, I think those collapse down to one: organizing things. Unfortunately for me, what makes me happy is organizing information, but what I've found people to pay me to do is organizing people and projects.

So I've got a lot to think about. How to get back to doing something that I really enjoy for work? (Note that I don't hate my current work, I'm just a bit bored by it.) Could I find a way to get paid to lose myself in masses of information and organize it? How to fit all of this in with my larger ambitions? I don't know the answers to any of these questions yet. I guess I know what I'll be thinking about during my lunchtime walks for awhile!

Feel free to give me advice in the comments. What would you do in my shoes? As always, I may or may not actually take any of the advice I get, but I enjoy reading other people's perspectives.


  1. Ooh, this is exactly why many of our engineering friends say they have tried really hard to stay out of management (even project management). And I understand from one of the blogs you linked to a while back that it's common for top employees to leave a company when they're bored.

    My husband is currently intrigued by the idea of management-- can he look at management problems as problems from an engineering perspective and find solutions, and what would those solutions look like. But perhaps it intrigues him because it's something new for him and if he went into it, the novelty would wear off. Perhaps he really would be best off doing consulting with me keeping my stable job. (From reading All The Money by Laura Vandekam, I imagine that might be what she would suggest as well. Either that or starting a nonprofit.)

    One big benefit of my job is that when I get bored with something I can do something new. So far it's been keeping me out of trouble, which is what I tend to do when bored. (We actually have a related post queued up for the Monday after next, I believe.)

    1. He might find that solving management problems will keep him interested for a few years. There ARE real problems there, and they can be hard to solve. But after awhile- at least for me- they all start looking like special cases of general problems you've already solved.

      I sometimes wonder if I really goofed when I decided to leave academia, but that would be a hard decision to undo. And I'm not sure that the little corner of academia I would have been headed into would have been a good fit for me. Perhaps my mistake occurred much earlier, when I picked my field. Or maybe I would have gotten restless no matter what I did. Who knows?

    2. DH is in academia and he's restless.

      He's also the kind of person that changes hobbies every 1-3 months. I'm not!

      Though I do seem to change online outlets every few years, but only once I start getting into trouble. ;)

  2. Postdoc5:10 PM

    Well, we're certainly in a time now in scientific research where there's no shortage of data - in fact we're being overrun by data - the challenge now is how to organize, interpret, and curate that data, and connect that data in new ways. Some things that come to mind are gene chips, bioinformatics, PubChem, high-throughput screening data, and the next wave of DNA sequencing. Some recent articles along those lines are:

    Personal gene sequencing in particular seems to be very hot in the Bay Area right now.

    Good luck!

    1. I get to handle some of the big data- but I'm too senior now to get to really play with it. Basically, I am more valued for my management skills, and they can find someone else to play in the data.

      From what I can tell from my friends, it is surprisingly hard to get funded to do deep data work in academia. This was one reason I didn't stay in academia way back when I made that choice. I hear that it has gotten better, but is still difficult. And in industry, it all has to be justifiable in terms of the company's goals. The companies I know of who do really deep data work generally work with demographic and sales data- think Amazon, Google, etc. Because understanding the patterns in that data can make them money.

      And this is going to sound weird, but my sweet spot is a step later. Take the raw data and do the analyses to make information. THAT is what I like to start with- masses of information that needs organization. I know. I'm picky!

    2. Oh man, no, you missed your calling as a Social Scientist!

      "Take the raw data and do the analyses to make information. "
      Is what I do. It's what I train people to do. It's what even my friends who are senior level still do, although they often have underlings doing the actual programs. They still say, "Do this and give me the output."

      Maybe the difference is there's more people able to do datawork but not able to do the other stuff in Science, whereas being able to muck about with data and turn it into information is an incredibly valuable skill in the areas that use social scientists (government, nonprofit, etc.), since they tend to attract less technical people.

    3. Postdoc6:42 PM

      @Cloud: Interesting. Speaking of turning data into information, have you heard the fascinating "How Target figured out a teen girl was pregnant, even before her father did" story? The NYTimes has a great story on it: . Great read - but it's a little long; if that's a turnoff, Forbes has the highlight article here:

    4. I hadn't seen that example, but I know of countless similar ones. It frustrates me that we can't get science to make better use of its data and do similar sort of mining, but the structural challenges have so far proved to big. The closest I know of is some of the mining done in the scientific databases of large pharma companies.

  3. Have you read anything by Barbara Sher? She has a couple of career books. The titles are really corny, but I remember she has a really good metaphor about the need you are describing to move to new things after a particular condition (in your case, hard problems) has been met. I think she has some specific examples of folks in that situation, and for them moving to consulting was a great fit. I'm not describing it well, but it would be worth checking out if you haven't already. She might at least give you some language to use to pin down what you want next.

    1. Thanks! I'll take a look at her books.

  4. I just remembered, the distinction she makes is between being a "diver" and a "scanner" or "skimmer." This is a decent summary:

  5. I think I feel exactly the same as you. I love my faculty job, but it is much more managerial in nature than I thought it would be. (I recently re-whined here)I don't have the time to do technical work any more and instead I mostly supervise; while necessary, this bores me. I must say I have developed a bad case of academic restlessness and it spills into everything -- don't have the patience to read a book, don't have the patience to sit through seminars... I am not quitting because (a) this was my dream job (so be careful what you wish for!), (b) kids and hub need the security and money my job brings, (c) I honestly don't know what I am qualified to do other than be a professor, a smartass who will boss people around into doing good science, (d) I have issues taking orders from people.

    In my case, the main hindrances to rekindling my love for my job through delving more deeply into the technical work are (1) incessant grant writing and (2) having to maintain a steady flux of papers and graduating students. Sometimes I feel like I should graduate the students I have and then take a break for a while, not work with any new ones, and instead try to reignite the passion for work. But that's not how it works, and drying up the group and the funds may be something I never recover from.

    I don't have advice for you, I am just seconding your sentiment. What I tell myself is that most people have jobs that are much more mundane than mine and pay much, much less. So I scold myself for being a spoiled brat and tell myself that I should do whatever it takes to make this great job work for me.
    I am working on it, I guess...

    1. Yes, there is something a bit strange in feeling bad about a really good job, isn't there? The evening after my realization, I was talking to my husband and said something about how I didn't know how I could have screwed up my career so badly. And he looked at me and laughed, and reminded me that most people would not think that having the job I have would equal a screwed up career!

    2. It's true... my DH is the first member of his family that we know of that actually has the luxury of being able to be a dilettante. Everyone else just mildly hates their job because that's what work *is*, and it's something responsible people do to bring money to their families. (Or they're on disability or live in someone's basement/couch surf.)

      BTW, while you're adding things to your reading list: Your Money or Your Life. We found it helped a lot with the planning next stages and thinking about the future. For us it was comforting-- helped DH realize he could be a dilettante without doing too much damage to the family futures. It emphasizes calculated risks. Not the best written book but extremely powerful when you're going through a mid-career crisis.

  6. @cloud - could you get work project managing projects around organising data? I'm working with lots of projects at the moment about portals, catalog services, things designed to make it easier for people to find data, or projects around collating large amounts of data toward a particular purpose (usually, but not always research)
    The work is definitely out there - would that help?

    1. That's sort of what I do now! I run projects to organize scientific information. On paper, I have exactly the job I wanted when I left grad school a little over 10 years ago.

  7. One way people I know have solved this problem is to stay in their current job but become the person who publishes/conferences/sticks his/her neck out to reach out to the broader community. This helps because a) they start being asked about problems in OTHER companies, which even if it remains the same base expertise brings in the issues of other cultures, etc. and b) often becomes a launch pad for the consulting role you've outlined a bit, which can bring new challenges.

    My job changes fast enough to suit me although it doesn't pay super well (right now I am about to try to master video editing). That was one of the reasons I switched roles actually, quite a while back.

  8. This is precisely why I got out of programming and meandered my way into research. I was in co-op as an undergrad and just loved all of my coding jobs, but once I started working full time I realized that it was those first 4-6 months of getting it all figured out that I really loved, and being asked to do something I was good at, over and over again, is just boring. Of course the opposite, being constantly challenged and never getting to do anything that you're actually competent at is frustrating in a totally different sort of way, and I've come to the conclusion that what I want is about 50% challenging and 50% routine - that satisfaction of having done something really well helps you through the really tough creative stuff. Thus far my all time favorite job was research assistant. I'm plotting to try and get back to that once I get my PhD - I love being involved in 10 different projects, all being driven by the enthusiasm of other people, who are depending on you for particular bits of expertise and knowing how to pull it all together, or go off and figure out that one missing bit that will make everything make sense, but also being able to see when a project is not working out and being able to shift gears towards something that is more productive while you wait for the bits that aren't quite ready yet.

    1. I love being involved in 10 different projects, all being driven by the enthusiasm of other people, who are depending on you for particular bits of expertise and knowing how to pull it all together, or go off and figure out that one missing bit that will make everything make sense, but also being able to see when a project is not working out and being able to shift gears towards something that is more productive while you wait for the bits that aren't quite ready yet.

      Your dream job sounds a lot like being a prof -- the fun research part of being a prof, that is.

  9. The milliner5:59 PM

    Knowing absolutely nothing about your industry, two things come to mind when I read your post. 1: is there a company that you could work for that would essentially hire you out as a consultant for a long term project (ie a year or so). You could get things up and running, and then you'd switch to a new project...would keep things fresh and possibly provide new challenges. But, you'd have the luxury of not having to look for the consulting work yourself and your pay cheque would be more stable (if that's what you're looking for).

    2: can you work for a start-up /smaller company where you'd have to do more of the hands on work as well as PM?

    Oh, actually three things come to mind...

    3: Can you do what you do in a slightly (or very) different industry. It can help keep things fresh & challenging.

    I've been in and out of being bored with my job for the past 5 years. Having a kid within that time has helped delay total and absolute boredom, but I know the clock is ticking. I currently happen to be back in a place where things are more challenging (at least for the moment). I actually was a bit scared when my boss volunteered me for a project. But then I realized that it was exactly what I needed...a big challenge. Definitely for me, the PM side of my job can't occupy more than 50% of my time. I get bored and it's not what I'm passionate about. I have told my boss (and others) that just because I'm good at something doesn't mean I love to do it. I work hard to make myself better at all parts of my job, but since I've been back from my extended leave, I've made sure to prioritize the work I am most passionate about in my job. Everything else I delegate (when it makes sense and I can) or I do as expediently as possible. So far, I find I'm much happier in my work when I take this approach. Oh, and also, it totally helps that my boss now recognizes that I can easily get bored in my current position and he is actively doing what he can to help me break that (conferences to keep me learning, putting me in touch with higher ups in our co. Who I want to learn from or possibly work for, let's me keep a very flexible schedule, and he & I now have weekly strategy lunches instead of weekly meetings since I am able to manage my area without need for coaching on his part).

    1. The milliner6:01 PM

      That should be " When my boss volunteered me for a new kind of project that I hadn't done before" :)

    2. I worked as a consultant for about 5 years, awhile back. I had some really good projects... but then they figured out I was good at project management, and that was all I was every going to get to do again. And fair enough- I saw what happened to projects who didn't have good project managers.

      But I have thought about trying to join a smaller consulting company, to see if I could get a good mix of work there.

      There is also a chance I could make a lateral move to a similar industry. I've thought about that, too.

      I think one of the things that appeals most to me about trying to start my own company is that it would take this thing I'm really good at but a bit bored with doing (project management) and blow it up to such a big scale that it would be interesting again.

      But I'm not ready to jump to any of these options yet. As you say- having kids in the midst of all this makes things interesting. Maybe being a bit bored at work isn't such a bad thing when I'm coming up on needing to figure out how to make the kindergarten schedule work with the rest of our lives!

    3. "Maybe being a bit bored at work isn't such a bad thing when I'm coming up on needing to figure out how to make the kindergarten schedule work with the rest of our lives!"

      That's exactly how I feel at the moment. As long as I get some challenge now and then and work on some stuff that is fun, boring (& easy) can also work to my advantage right now. I just know I can't ride this wave forever.

  10. Uh yeah, I could have written this post, and it explains why I've switched jobs (within my company) approximately every 18 months for the last 9 years...

    I'm not sure what the answer is, since my solution was to have kid(s) and then reduce my time at work. So I like it but it's not LOVE, and I'm ok with that for a while. But at some point I'm going to have to face it :)

    I'm voting for talk to your boss and see if there's some other interesting side project they might be able to give you that's not PM-y. You might be able to get some different experience there that'll help you figure out where you want to go?

    Good luck.

  11. Thanks for all the comments, everyone. It is wonderful to read that I'm not the only one who gets bored in perfectly good jobs! And you've all given me a lot of ideas to think about.

  12. What I love about writing books is that I go deep into a project for 2 years or so, and then I move on to something different. It keeps me intrigued. I think it's the same thing my husband likes about consulting. Go deep for a while, then move on.

  13. Being bored stinks. My solution was always change jobs every 2 years within my company and often cross-functionally to keep it challenging. But...eventually you kind of hit a wall. You have done all the lateral moves and the next move up requires a significant work/life balance shift. (loads more travel or way longer hours and usually both). That's hard to do when you have kids you actually want to spend time with.

    SO....this is my compromise. I keep doing the job I'm in that gives me the best work/life balance, BUT I try to push the envelope on how I do the job. I may be just an account manager, but I'm doing much more strategic stuff with my customer base than the average joe. On the side, I have a learn "1 new thing/year" to rule. Historically that's been work related, these days, it's not. One year it was blogging, this year it may be to write a book, next year it may be cheese-making, and I just use that stuff to stretch my brain. I specifically am doing non work stuff that has nothing to do with my day job which is super technical. If I wanted to really stretch myself, I guess I'd learn an instrument or try to write music or something I have no knowledge in.

    I will absolutely tell you that if you're too bored for too long, you will eventually go from being awesome to mediocre. Boredom eventually leads to reduced productivity (at least for me it did), so I think it's essential to try and figure out how you mess around with your job to make it more challenging without taking away from your family time.

  14. I'm in the same boat as you and what First Gen American said. I either climb up and spend less time with family (and get stressed out beyond my comfort level) or stay lateral. I am bored at this moment, but pushing for more new things to do at work is not the solution. That's because i learned tons of new things at my job last year and I was not bored; however, knowing myself, I also need downtime at work. Sometimes, too many new challenges prevents me from doing well at my existing job.

    I also think about my blog / writing more than my work!

  15. Anonymous4:51 PM

    Whenever I find myself bored with work or home (I am a part-time worker) I try to think about what things I can do within my existing limitations to make myself feel fullfilled. Often the answer is not things at work but things at home. You post doesn't talk about ways that you can feel secure and yes bored at work but use that to open the doors out of work.

  16. Anonymous9:54 PM

    I hardly ever post comments in blogs, but this caught my attention. I also struggle with being bored very often! Well, I would stick with your job unless you are miserable. Continue to focus on your hobbies and family. At work, I would find a good friend (same sex) to talk about your problem (short-term solution), but I would would not address the problem to the boss. Perhaps you can shift your focus on helping others (something new)...


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