Free Yourself From The Golden Handcuffs For A More Purposeful Career

Career Coach at David J. Smith Consulting, LLC & President, Forage Center for Peacebuilding and Humanitarian Education, Inc.

Ever heard of the “golden handcuffs” metaphor? It refers to someone who is locked in a job, not because they necessarily enjoy the work or find it meaningful, but because of the salary, benefits and prestige that come with it. 

Money, power, and status are powerful incentives for keeping our hands tied when our hearts and souls would rather not be. Reaching a specific income level (making a “six-figure salary”) or ascending to a position of importance (“a C-suite job”) are powerful motivators.

But even when our emotional and physical health — or our family life — are at risk, we are often unsure of how to break free. 

I’ve recently had conversations with clients about the curse of the golden handcuffs. One client is an older professional with many years in her field. She is at the top of her game, and though she’s unhappy with what she’s doing, with young children in a private school and a big house payment, she is handcuffed. On the other hand, I have a client who is a recently minted Ph.D. with a lot of flexibility. He’s worried he will find himself in a situation where he’s locked by golden handcuffs and separated from what he values most. 

How does one free themselves from golden handcuffs or avoid them altogether?

Imagine a new future for yourself.

Start by imagining the future you seek. This should be a lifestyle you can picture for yourself and, if it’s the case, your partner and family. What does your lifestyle look like in five years? Have you sold your house, retired or purchased an RV you can live out of? Could you imagine yourself working in some far-flung part of the world in the Peace Corps?

Try not to be constrained by the limitations of the present. If you had a magic wand and could use it to create the future, what would you wish for? Follow your muse.

Don’t break the handcuffs; slowly slip them off.

For those who are handcuffed, it’s not so much about breaking out of them as much as figuring out how to slip them off. Breaking suggests total and immediate change, like a sorcerer’s spell that is undone. It shouldn’t (and probably doesn’t) happen like that.

Rather, it should be an intentional process, perhaps even taking one off at a time until you are comfortable with both of them off full-time.

Removing the golden handcuffs will require changes in expectations, values and financial needs. Do you need to readjust your investment and retirement portfolio? What about those expected college expenses for your children? Planning and resetting financial and lifestyle expectations are critical here.

Research and evaluate options.

If you wish to free yourself from golden handcuffs in order to make social change, consider what meaningful work would look like for you. For example, while the Peace Corps is not for everyone, there is a range of options for volunteering, including AmeriCorps Seniors, Foster Grandparents or the American Red Cross. Even as a volunteer, you might be compensated with a stipend or have your meals and housing covered.

More conventional options (especially if you are mid-career) can be found by researching job boards that post purposeful careers like Idealist or B Work. There are also good books out there on meaningful careers, including Compassionate Careers: Making a Living Making a Difference and Meaningful Work: A Quest to Do Great Business, Finding Your Calling, and Feed Your Soul.

And, of course, talk with people. Identify organizations, both community-based and international, that are doing the type of work you aspire to. Reach out to someone who is doing the work you are drawn to, and seek an informational interview.

Develop a timeline you can stick to.

If you have been successful in your career up until now, it hasn’t been by chance. It’s likely that you are a planner and have strategically moved from position to position. Now, you need to put your aptitude for planning into finding purposeful work.

Think in terms of one, three, five and even 10 years out. If you want to give up an executive position to shape the future of 12-year-olds, do you need to go back to school to obtain a teaching credential? When could you do this?

In order to make the timetable realistic and something you can stick with, you might need to work with a career coach, a financial adviser, or an educational counselor. Commit your timeline to paper and share it with family and friends. Their role will be to prod you periodically, thereby keeping you on track.

Embrace the thrill of change while relying on a support network.

Change can be unsettling and lead to anxiety. But when we choose change, we can prepare for this ahead of time.

If you are thinking of quitting your job, you might consider having a conversation with a therapist to tend to your unease. When I considered a major career change, a mental health professional was helpful in assisting me through.

But just like other formative times in your life — starting college or starting a business — this should be a time when you experience the thrill of the future and look forward to the opportunities that present themselves.

Just remind yourself of what you are seeking now. Surrounding yourself with friends, family and colleagues who are supportive of your change is important. Of course, they should be realistic with you, but moreover, they are your cheering squad.

Career change is about empowering ourselves toward self-actualization. What is it that we want to contribute to our community and world? A purposeful career can bring that about. But first, it requires freedom from the golden handcuffs.


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