From Surviving to Thriving: Seeking Job Satisfaction without the Guilt


When we think of the term “survivor’s guilt”, we typically picture those who somehow escaped a tragic car accident that claimed others’ lives, or who lived to rebuild their lives after natural disasters like the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile. Over the last two and a half years, however, a new and growing breed of American survivors has emerged, with guilt firmly intact: those who have kept their jobs despite endless rounds of layoffs, closures, and foreclosures.

As a coach, I have supported countless professionals in managing the despair they felt as they watched their friends, colleagues and loved ones pack up their personal effects in corrugated cardboard boxes and turn in their badges. Is the pain of remaining comparable to the agony of being let go? I don’t know. But what I do know is that dealing with the grief and guilt of survival is only one part of coping. The next step begins when those left behind can start to shift their thinking from job survival to job satisfaction.

Finding vocational fulfillment is a lifelong, ever-evolving pursuit. I learned several critical lessons about this quest from my other job – being a mom. My nine-year old son Jacob is long on wants (LEGOs, comics, plastic superheroes) and short on cash. He is also short on marketable skills, which is not surprising, since the New York State third grade curriculum is light on teaching those.
In a burst of inspiration, he decided to use his God-given gifts for financial gain, and opened up a massage parlor in his bedroom. He’d been giving great backrubs for years, and, buoyed by generous tipping from benevolent grandparents, he decided that this was how he would make his livelihood — for now.

Why "for now"?

The job does not stimulate his intellect. (I think I caught him reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets while he worked on my shoulders).

The job does not provide a dependable income. (Some nights, we were out of time, patience…or quarters).

The job does not offer opportunities for advancement. (There are no open positions above him.)

But Jacob wasn’t focused on the "nots" while he worked out my knots. He concentrated on these work-related benefits:

His job allows him to help people directly. (As a direct beneficiary, I vouch for this.)

His job pays him a reasonable wage (25 cents a minute is good income for a kid!).

His job affords him good work-life balance. (He’s closed for school hours, Shabbat, Little League games, and… whenever he wants!)

Most of us want to be recognized for making a difference doing something we love, with flexibility that allows us to pursue other passions — and get fairly compensated to boot. What could be more ideal? Of course, most jobs don’t meet every single expectation we have, and most of us are willing to accept getting some needs met, and not others. We may feel satisfied working outside of our “calling” as long as we advance and get proper recognition. Others are happiest working in a flexible environment that allows time off for Jewish behavior (like leaving early on Fridays for those 3:45 pm winter Shabbats) even if it means we have to sacrifice a bit of fame and fortune.

No matter what motivates us at work, it’s critical to our overall job fulfillment to understand what we need and expect from our jobs. Naming what we want helps us see what’s missing, but it also allows us to see a glass half-full. The key is to shift our focus from the parts that are subpar to those that do satisfy us.

Here is the category list that I use with my clients to review how well their job is meeting their needs, and with their managers to prompt those imperative-but-infrequent employee satisfaction conversations:

1. Money

2. Stability

3. Advancement

4. Recognition

5. Making an Impact

6. Calling

7. Autonomy

8. Teamwork

9. Creativity and Expression

10. Physical Environment

11. Relationship-Building

12. Work-Life Balance

No job offers it all. No job could. And seeking satisfaction in the job we have doesn’t mean that we’ve forgotten those to whom we’ve said goodbye. As Elie Wiesel said, “I marvel at the resilience of the Jewish people. Their best characteristic is their desire to remember.” We will continue to remember those who are struggling, but wanting more from work is a strong signal that we’re ready to move past the secret shame of surviving, and take a bold step towards thriving. And that’s nothing to feel guilty about.

Deborah Grayson Riegel is a certified coach, speaker and trainer who helps individuals, teams and organizations achieve personal and professional success through her high-energy workshops, presentations and one-on-one coaching. Visit her online at or

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