Working with young adults starting their first jobs, I am often asked about disappointment at work. The expectation-reality gap of a new job can be an especially striking and confusing aspect of life in a fallen world.
About 10 years ago, a company hired me to sort some of its problems. I was eager to dig in and help. I imagined the satisfaction of helping them get to a better place through cultural and operational changes. On my fifth day on the job, I was surprised to learn that instead of the work they had hired me to do, I would be serving as the interim finance leader, taking the place of someone that had recently stepped down.
I don’t love finance. I felt ill-equipped. Plus, I knew the finances couldn’t really be improved without first changing the deeper problems I was originally hired to address. My enthusiasm for the job quickly degraded into disappointment.
Disappointment in the workplace is not uncommon. Try Googling “disappointment at work”. You’ll get a lot of results! Why is that?
When we imagine a new job, we tend to think about abstract things rather than the details. We imagine the new opportunity, the camaraderie, and the meaningfulness of the work rather than the minutiae, tedious meetings, and difficult colleagues. Our focus in a new job is more on the possibilities than the ordinary stuff that makes up most of each day.
Imagining abstract aspects of a new job is especially strong in the early career: the first 5-7 years. In that season, we have limited experience, so our expectations are primarily informed by imagination. Thus, the expectation-reality gap is born.
Simply put, we live in a society of instant gratification, one where waiting for anything is seemingly impossible. Amazon now delivers in hours, not days. A three-person line at the grocery store is interminable. A slow driver in the left lane?!? Intolerable. Yet the arc of the Scriptures does not bend towards instant gratification. Quite the opposite, Jesus came and, instead of bringing the kingdom of God instantly, grew up, day-by-day and year-by-year as a child. Then having risen from the dead, he did not bring the kingdom immediately, even though his disciples assumed he would (see Acts 1). Instead, he ascended into heaven and sent them back to Jerusalem to wait.
The waiting is what is so very difficult for us. But consistently, the Bible seems to counsel exactly that:
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches. Was anyone at the time of his call already circumcised? Let him not seek to remove the marks of circumcision. Was anyone at the time of his call uncircumcised? Let him not seek circumcision. For neither circumcision counts for anything nor uncircumcision, but keeping the commandments of God. Each one should remain in the condition in which he was called. Were you a bondservant when called? Do not be concerned about it. (But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity.) For he who was called in the Lord as a bondservant is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a bondservant of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become bondservants of men. So, brothers, in whatever condition each was called, there let him remain with God. (1 Corinthians 7:17–24, ESV)
So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:7–10, ESV)
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls. (1 Peter 2:18–25, ESV)
What ties these passages together? The realization that God may be doing more through our waiting than we could possibly know, maybe even more than we ever will know.
Dealing with the expectation-reality gap is slow; there is no magic formula for disappointment. It takes time to develop a new perspective. For Christians, it should also involve spending time in God’s Word, which is always the best means of gaining a new perspective.
Here are five specific suggestions that might help if you or a friend are dealing with disappointment at work:
- Be patient (Romans 12:12) and consider why God has you there. At work and elsewhere, we are Ambassadors of Christ (2 Corinthians 5:20). Bringing the love of Christ to a broken and hurting world is part of our role as disciples. Imagine an ER doctor that suddenly ran out of the hospital exclaiming, “Why do all of these kids come here with broken arms?!” We would be shocked. Wouldn’t we respond, “Hey, it’s springtime. Broken arms are just part of what kids do. You’re here to help them heal.” Like ER doctors, we need to expect that broken and disappointing things are part of every workplace. We should not fool ourselves that work will be perfectly blissful or the fulfillment of our dreams. In fact, we should reframe our thinking (Romans 12:1-2) by understanding that part of our job, no matter where we work, is to bring the healing, encouragement, and hope (2 Corinthians 1:3-4) that comes with the love of Christ.
- Lament the broken world and recognize the toll it takes. Just because we are called to serve a broken world doesn’t mean we need to love the brokenness. Nothing in Creation is immune (Romans 8:20), including jobs. As we love and encourage our colleagues, it’s also important to recognize our own need for rest and respite. Take time in prayer and solitude to share your burdens with God. Ask for the refreshment that comes from being known by Jesus and the promise that he will, one day, make all things new (Matthew 11:28).
- Ask what you were dreaming of. Disappointment usually arises from a vision we had – maybe not a realistic vision, but a vision nonetheless. This expectation-reality gap should push us to ask, “What was my expectation?” And, in a fallen and broken world, even dreams that we should have are not necessarily realistic. But even more, sometimes our dreams aren’t even right in a true world, much less this one!
- Do your best work. In our disappointment and frustration, it can be tempting to ignore our responsibilities at work. When the workplace fails to meet our expectations, it seems only fair that we shouldn’t have to meet the expectations placed on us either. It’s so easy to turn to complaining and gossiping in those situations as well. In contrast, Proverbs is an excellent source of wisdom on what is expected of us – hard work, diligence, and Christ-like attitude. Be careful not to let your disappointment with a broken workplace create even more disappointment for others.
- Change jobs only when God is calling you to something else. You may be so disappointed that you want to quit your job. Sometimes it’s good and right to quit. A trusted mentor once told me, though, “Don’t quit a job because you don’t like it. Quit when you’re sure that God is calling you to something else.” To discern God’s call, you will need to make wise application of God’s Word, pray through it, and seek Godly counsel (Proverbs 12:15).