Paying Our Dues
Recently, my best friend Katelyn confided in me that she had decided to switch careers and industries because for her, it seems like the best opportunity at this time. Her boss was understandably devastated, as she’s a hard worker and she’s been with the company for years. I asked her what pushed her so far over the edge to not only leave the company, but completely change her career path and industry focus.
You’d be surprised by her response. She answered with one word: “happiness.” She said that she wasn’t happy at her job, and it was starting to affect her personality outside of work, with her family, and with her friends. For a while, she felt like she wasn’t fully herself and for a long time she wasn’t sure why.
One may say that if you have an issue and it’s inhibiting your daily life, then there may be a problem. For instance, if you were jumping on a trampoline at the indoor trampoline park with your niece and suddenly hurt your back, and now it’s been hurting for two months and you can’t sleep (secret’s out, this is about me), there may be an underlying problem. Not sleeping is a problem, and having back pains that keep you from not sleeping, that’s also a problem. It was interrupting my life and I had to address it. Turns out I just hurt some muscles in my back and I’ll be fine… and never jumping on trampolines again. Similarly, I had a therapist once ask me about my anxiety and if I thought it was interrupting my life. No, I didn’t think it was interrupting my life; I was still living and breathing wasn’t I? But I was making excuses for the fact that my anxiety was interrupting me many times a day, and it was something that needed to be addressed. So if we are so unhappy by something, and it starts to interrupt other aspects of our day or our life, shouldn’t we address it?
Changing careers, career paths, and industries can be challenging, and is probably not encouraged for everyone. But Katelyn knew there was a problem and she knew she could make herself happier elsewhere, and I supported her and her confidence. I then asked her why it took her so long to realize she was unhappy, and how did she know the unhappiness came from her work and not from something else in her life. She surprised me with her answer again. She said she thinks it stems from the belief that we have to “pay our dues” as young professionals.
Historically, “paying one’s dues” referred to covering your financials. You had a financial obligation to live up to and you owed someone that money, and you had to pay up, or there would be consequences. That phrase seems to have morphed into multiple meanings, as it now also means that within your job, especially if you are a young professional right out of college, you must “pay your dues” before you start complaining or demanding anything. This does make sense to a degree, as young professionals should take some time to learn how the working world works and to see how other professionals communicate what they want or what they need (and also to see what are reasonable requests) before expressing their wants and needs. Maybe this is not everyone’s experience, but it took time for me to transition from my college life, goals, expectations, and schedule. And it definitely took some time to adjust to a full-time job, full-time responsibilities, meeting goals and deadlines, and letting my work speak for myself. In college, I let my work speak for myself, but I was an “A” (okay, sometimes I was a “B”) student and I did all my readings and all my homework. But in the professional world, reading and doing homework doesn’t always bring in the results. I quickly learned that unfortunately, there will be some politics to be aware of and avoid, there would be opportunities I learned I had to jump on to show initiative, and uncomfortable situations I had to endure to put myself out there and make myself known. For a young professional, at least for me, the working world was a tricky place.
And along those lines, learning how to be professional was just one piece to the extravagant puzzle of a job. The word “job” is pretty simplistic. But everything surrounding a “job” seems to be far from simplistic. Our parents brought us up as hard workers, people who should not complain and people who need to “pay our dues.” To a certain extent, I do agree with this theory, and that’s why I have learned to be a hard worker. But at the same time, does the stress of “paying one’s dues” actually keep some of us from opening up? How long does a young professional have to “pay their dues?” Is there a specific time frame? Katelyn said she must have subconsciously kept reminding herself that even at 28, and being in this “working world” for six years, that she still was not good enough, and that she still should be “paying her dues.” She said because of this, she kept quiet even though she was miserable. She kept her head down, got her work done, was at work on time, left work after her boss, and just got stuck going through the motions of what she was told she was supposed to be doing.
Katelyn told me that she wondered if she would be this unhappy if she had actually said something at work. Where would she be if she didn’t let it get to this?
According to “Increasing Happiness in the Workplace,” a study done by Liberty University, they found that, “Employers should be aware of the benefits of creating an environment that promotes happiness because their companies will benefit from increases in productivity and employee retention (Proudfoot et. al., 2009). By understanding the balance of stimulation and productivity, as seen in the study by Etkin and Mogilner (2016), employers can leverage tasks to promote employee happiness.” Katelyn truly felt like her company did not care whether she was unhappy or happy, because ultimately, she was replaceable. And although that sometimes can be true, and really anyone can be replaceable in a job setting, no employee ever wants to feel that way. That could actually lead to high turnover rates, which then never allows a team to have stability. If employees are always moving around and leaving and joining, how can a team provide extraordinary and expected results if they haven’t been stable in a year?
The article continues, “Davis (2016) and other various researchers have given support to the idea that happy employees run productive organizations. Engagement and meaning are parts to the puzzle of work-related happiness. These pieces begin to fit together to demonstrate the importance of measuring happiness in employees today.” Now I do think that a fair question would be, how do we know it’s the company that is leading to Katelyn’s unhappiness. We really shouldn’t be “blaming” anyone or anything else aside from ourselves for how we feel. The fairer thing to say is that Katelyn was making herself unhappy, because she was under-appreciated at work and she was made to feel like she still owed co-workers something because she was younger than them.
I don’t have all the answers, and I don’t truly know where I stand with all of this. I support my best friend and I know she is making the right decision for herself. But if that were me, would I do the same? It’s scary and it’s risky to leave a job for another one, especially for a new company or a new industry. I would want to make sure that if that were me, that I was doing this to benefit myself and not secretly running away from something. I do also believe it’s important to instill hard work and work ethic into kids so that they know what is expected of them when they grow up. But is the thought of “paying one’s dues” a bit outdated?