Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


What’s Missing at Work

Personal Perspective: Finding the path to your true self.

Key points

  • Though we spend most of our time at work, we might settle for unfulfilling employment.
  • Pursuing what we need might be a better strategy to find meaningful work than what we think we should do.
  • Self-awareness and discovery can help us uncover the work that feels truly rich and rewarding.

On average, we spend more time at work than we do at any other activity besides sleep. While we often attend to sleep hygiene, for many of us, work may be either a means to an end or a stepping-stone to something better, which might be retirement, possibly decades away.

I find it troublesome that so many of us want to fast-forward over how we spend the majority of our days for a large portion of our adult lives. I was in the same boat for most of much of my early career, where my main goal was to have a dream job where I could save enough to semi-retire at an early age. This strategy, while sensible on the surface, ended up destroying my life. I sacrificed everything for this ideal that left me with chronic pain and illness and a crumbling marriage. (See Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.)

As the daughter of two refugees from the Chinese Communist government, I’ve known my whole life that to achieve happiness I had to delay gratification. I was a Woman With a Plan: first college, then graduate school, then a postdoctoral fellowship, then a tenure-track position, and then tenure as the piece d’resistance for happiness. Anti-climactic was a gross understatement to describe how it felt when my formula for success provided nothing but misery.

It’s not that I had a bad life. In fact, many things about it were objectively great: two amazing sons, an interesting job doing meaningful work, a strong body, a beautiful home, and a good (in many ways) husband. But something was profoundly amiss, though I could not put my finger on it. I was able to ignore the cognitive dissonance until it felt like the train that was speeding towards my prescribed life destination came permanently off its tracks with no help in sight.

Turns out I was going the wrong way, so that wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, that time-out was just what I needed to figure out what was missing from my perfect, complete life.

I knew the culprit was my job. On the surface, it was a Chinese American dream: a tenured position in a scientific discipline in a major research university. I had attributed the sense of the Herculean effort that was required to do my job as the nature of the tenure track, but the push towards the next goal—professor—felt as doable and desirable as sprouting wings and flying to the moon.

It's not that I did not find the professor pursuit meaningful. It just wasn’t for me.

“Motherhood,” I thought. A three-year detour into mostly full-time mummying, part-time teaching, and nonprofit volunteering was initially wonderful, then painfully and evidentially not-for-me either.

In hindsight, this was the turning point of my 40-year debacle: the moment where I had to wonder “What now?” with total openness, my mind devoid of additional options and ideas. The Woman With a Plan finally gave up the pretense of knowing what to do and surrendered to the universe.

Opportunities started to show up on my doorstep. First, an administrative position that grew back into full-time work, an invite to facilitate leadership development, a pathway to go back to school to study my newfound passion, coaching credentials, a new full-time position in a dream university doing the work that I discovered to be my calling, and kudos galore while doing my job with ease.

Over the course of this three-year period, Woman With No Plan became Woman With a Calling,

In other words, what was missing from my perfect job was the real me. The egoic me, the one who had to be A, B, and C (ironically also an acronym for American-Born Chinese) on some level believed that I was protecting tender me from becoming wounded by life. In reality, ABC-me was choking the life and passion out of the one who deep down wanted to follow her heart.

Hitting rock bottom is what cracked open ABC-me to my more authentic reality.

I learned a hard and valuable lesson that I should never go to work without my heart. In today’s cutthroat world of academia and business, we have been socialized to hide our feelings, be drones that churn out widgets or graduates, and feel rewarded by the trappings of success, affluence, and prestige.

It’s a cold, dark comfort to curl up each night with diplomas and resumes; I ended up in bed with nothing but migraines, fibromyalgia, and a deep sense of dissatisfaction with my life.

It can feel treacherous following your heart in the real world, but I know that it’s only my egoic ABC self that is wounded by that kind of feedback.

My heart decides how I feel, and it is the one whose opinions matter the most.


Duffy, R. D., & Sedlacek, W. E. (2007). The presence of and search for a calling: Connections to career development. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 70(3), 590–601. doi:10.1016/j.jvb.2007.03.007

Rivera, G.N., et al, Understanding the Relationship Between Perceived Authenticity and Well-Being, Review of General Psychology 2019 23:1, 113-126

Wrzesniewski, A., McCauley, C., Rozin, P., & Schwartz, B. (1997). Jobs, careers, and callings: People’s relations to their work. Journal of Research in Personality, 31(1), 21–33. doi:10.1006/jrpe.1997.2162

More from Susanna Wu-Pong Calvert Ph.D., MAPP, RPh
More from Psychology Today