When You Are Too Big For Your Job

E. Forrest Christian Careers, Coaching Leave a Comment

Jaques is right that there are three different components to job fit:

  1. Size (time horizon) compared to timespan of discretion of the role
  2. Knowledge and skills
  3. Values: what you want to do

Alan told me a story recently about using some of the things about RO and careers to help Pete, a guy in his church, out. Pete was bored. Very bored. So bored that he decided to quite his job and join the Peace Corps. He wanted meaning in his life. But there was a hitch: he had just fallen in love. He knew that she probably wouldn’t wait the two years of his Peace Corps enlistment for a relationship that was just starting.

“What, are you crazy?” Alan said. “Go for the girl!”

Alan sat down and talked to him about how when you get too big for your job, you get bored. When you work for someone who is not big enough to be your boss, he breaths down your neck. Worse, he doesn’t see that you are adding more value than everyone else. He keeps on bringing you in to have “teamwork” pep talks that never seem to work. You become depressed and start wondering why you can’t make people see how valuable you are. Your coworkers hate you and everyone is hoping that you will quit.

When you are a high-potential, you grow at a steeper trajectory than most people do. They advise you to do this and do that, but it doesn’t work. And it fails simply because you have grown beyond the size of the work.

Often, people who go into volunteer roles are high-potentials who haven’t struck the right career trajectory. They have been working jobs that are too small for them and so go off to do something meaningful. The only problem is that when they get there, they find out that the same petty bosses oversee NGO work. They have just moved their problem to a foreign country, not solved it.

No can’t perform in a role that’s too small for very long. It’s like you are walking around hunched over. If the job is two sizes too small, it’s like crouching all day. Imagine working in a crawl space all day long. That’s what it feels like mentally. It’s exhausting, even when you aren’t doing much. Just having to be in the role taxes you.

You also aren’t going to do work that you don’t value for very long. We value work for a variety of reasons. Our personalities are different. You are wired to value certain outcomes more than others. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t do jobs that seem to be outside those values. It depends on how you reframe them.

I recently got to do an Human Patterns interpretation of a woman who was so obviously the “touchy-feely” type. She cared about people. She loved helping people. Her meaning was in helping.

And she was an accountant. A very successful accountant.

How could a human-oriented person work in a numbers field? She told me that she helped PhDs develop their grant proposals. She admitted to almost driving herself nuts for many years trying to do the job the way that other accountants would. Then she reframed the problem. She saw that by helping these PhDs with their numbers, she was enabling them to do what they loved. She nurture them by helping them do this. Notice the language: she did not do a job for them, but helped them. She is still an accountant, even though she fully accepts her nurturing personality. She can stay there because she reframes the problem to be one where she values her end goal. Accounting is simply a means to an end.

Skills and knowledge can be gained. But you won’t learn if you don’t value what you are learning.

Your time horizon (or the amount of complexity your mind can handle) is at least just as important because it sets the upper limit of the size of work you can handle. It also sets the lower bound of work role that you can comfortably handle. I should explain. The lower bound does not mean that if you are high level, you cannot do low level tasks. Although perhaps I can use that to get out of washing the dishes. “But honey! that’s too low level a task for me and my big head to accomplish without getting bored!”

Unsubstantiated statement: Anyone can do the most menial tasks. It is when you start getting into the upper levels of Stratum 1 that the work becomes impossible. It’s easier for a Stratum 5 person to do low Str1 work than to perform a Stratum 3 work role.

You can’t stay at a position that is too small. You cannot succeed. Try harder. Turn over a new leaf. You still won’t succeed.

Alan’s a great example of this. He had a position where no matter how hard he tried, he did not succeed. He kept getting farther and farther behind. I told him several things, including that he had to find bigger work. We told him that he should look for older, high-mode business people who have started several companies, and to do so through his existing customer base.

He finally started asking his customers to help him find a new job. “I just don’t want to get out of bed any more,” he said. “I need a challenge.” The confidence knocked out of him, the sails sagging. He talked to four people and the last one connected him to Sal, who was a perfect fit of our model for Alan. He and Sal met for breakfast one day to feel each other out. Before lunch, Sal called Alan with news. “Cancel the rest of your afternoon and come over. We have a job for you.”

It took a couple of weeks for Alan to finally move over. His old employer made it easy. Truth be told, they were probably glad to see him go. A great guy, but he was such a bad fit now. After starting his new job, well, it’s like a switch got thrown in Alan’s life. It really was the “over the weekend” experience: he got put into role that fit him with a Real Boss and suddenly he’s moving and shaking the world.

It turns out that Alan’s friend decided to stick here with the girl. He confessed that the reason that he wanted to join the Peace Corps was because he was bored with his job. He can now look for work that fits him, even transforming the world work, and with good prospects for a lifetime companion.

About the Author

Forrest Christian

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E. Forrest Christian is a consultant, coach, author, trainer and speaker at The Manasclerk Company who helps managers and experts find insight and solutions to what seem like insolvable problems. Cited for his "unique ability and insight" by his clients, Forrest has worked with people from almost every background, from artists to programmers to executives to global consultants. Forrest lives and works plain view of North Carolina's Mount Baker.  [contact]

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