Dissatisfaction Breeds Success

I’m still thinking about Julie’s post about gender, recognition, and other tricky issues. I am thinking of it now in light of Val Forrestal’s brave post about how she was almost named a Library Journal Mover & Shaker.

Last night I read this post, also over at Library Journal, about enduring recognition, which seems like it’s a commentary on everything in Julie’s post and those posts which then were inspired by hers, but it doesn’t have any sort of attribution or crediting. The LJ post linked to a piece over at the New York Times about the secret ingredient to success that I’m not entirely sold on but have appreciated thinking about quite a bit.

Over the last few weeks, these posts have continued to pop up, and people have written their own responses, especially to Julie’s thoughts. Read the comments on her post to get a sense of what people are walking away with. More than that, look at how she’s being responded to.

What I’ve pulled away from this entire discussion of recognition and of gender in a grander sense is that many people are uncomfortable with dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction sounds like sour grapes, like you’ll never be happy until you get what it is you want. And while it’s true that dissatisfaction is about not being satisfied (until you get what you want), it’s not about sour grapes at all, especially in terms of this discussion.

Rather, it’s composed of a couple of things: it’s expression of a desire for things to change, whether from the inside or from the outside, and through that desire for change, dissatisfaction breeds motivation.

The responses to Julie’s post have fascinated me because many of them have been bits of wisdom and advice from those in the field with more experience or who have had success in achieving their own goals. There’s an entire comment to her post about how to structure a web presence for maximum visibility and how to then leverage that to achieve more recognition.

That’s not what is at the heart of her post, nor is it at the heart of the larger discussion. I think people are not okay with someone expressing dissatisfaction.

People are not okay with a woman expressing dissatisfaction and doing so without apology. Maybe a large part of this has to do with the fact women are told to be nice, and because, well, it’s always been a man’s world so ladies should man up and deal. Women already are told they can’t dress how they want to because they’re inviting certain things by the mere act of dressing a certain way. So, to express dissatisfaction in the work place is to further push back against the norms of what is and isn’t okay within this gendered sphere.

It’s through those sorts of responses — the “just do it this way” or other pieces of advice born out of a genuine place for wanting to help someone — that I see this discomfort with another’s dissatisfaction. It’s not that the responses aren’t from a place of kindness or from a place of truly wanting to help someone else. I do think many of them are. But lost in that is the fact that sometimes it’s simply okay to be unhappy. 

Seeing that this is a discussion that’s permeated social media for weeks now, it’s clear that there isn’t just one person or two people who are dissatisfied with how things are in the field of librarianship. Of course it’s not just librarianship, either: this discussion is relevant to so many fields and interests: reading, blogging, writing . . . whatever the arena, if people are at the heart of the work, then there are going to be feelings and thoughts involved.

What’s at the center of all of this and what is being overlooked in light of talking about things like better tailoring a resume or choosing another path on which to go is that these posts are discussing larger, more problematic issues in the system as a whole. Why does there need to be help through the holes? Or rather, why is it people continue to give tips and tricks for getting through the system rather than stepping back and considering that maybe the greater system is itself broken? Why is dissatisfaction and frustration, especially when expressed thoughtfully and without malice, so uncomfortable to read and think about?

We want things to go smoothly, we want to achieve each of our own goals on our own terms and through our own merits. We also want everyone to be happy and we want everyone to have a chance to achieve what it is that they set out to achieve. But it’s impossible. There will always be people left out and there will always be ways of improving an organization or a system or an institution. It’s by having these very uncomfortable and very open discussions through which change can occur.

There’s nothing wrong with saying that the system is wrong, that it wronged me personally, and that maybe it’s time to reevaluate the whole of it. These discussions aren’t actually about the individual writing them. They’re about a grander problem that needs to be discussed, dismantled, and changed from the inside by those who have a stake in it.

Dissatisfaction and frustration aren’t things that require any sort of apology. It’s when you’re unapologetic in what it is you want and what it is you think should be different that you can be instrumental in getting the ball rolling. Being critical isn’t ever wrong. It’s being critical. Being a voice for change, you’re being an advocate for not only yourself and your goals, but you’re being an advocate for making the goals and dreams of other people in similar situations achievable, too.

Thinking about Bell’s LJ post and in the NYT piece he points to, it sure sounds like the way to success is through changing your own goals. But I disagree completely — why is it when a bigger system is broken that it is the individual who has to suck it up and change what it is she wants?

Unsolicited advice and suggestions are ways of quelling dissatisfaction. And when we quell dissatisfaction or allow others to do it for us, we allow the system NOT to change. We inadvertently validate the system itself and the ways others have identified as “getting through.” “Getting through” is not the same as changing the system. Learning the tricks doesn’t allow for thorough examination of the grander problems at hand. Rather, they allow the system to continue running as it has.

If you are dissatisfied, it’s because you’re thinking. You’re considering the means of how to get from the point you’re at to the point you want to be. Expressing dissatisfaction is okay and it never requires apology. Sometimes it’s not about a solution or a helpful list of methods to try to make things happen. Sometimes, it’s simply through dissatisfaction the motivation to change emerges.

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  1. says

    I needed to read this as I'm in a new job and a lot of these posts about speaking about, getting recognition and support keep resonating for me. I'm being a librarian in a school that hasn't had a full time librarian for a while and the school is one that gives a lot of freedom, which I love but hate as well. Its hard to find that balance between asking for help and saying this isn't working. So thank you.

    • says

      I'm glad this resonated with you, and I completely get the stress/strangeness/tough balancing trick that comes with having freedom. Best of luck — the key is to speak up, push where you have to, and do what you think is best for you (and, obviously, for the school/kids).

  2. says

    People seem to like to blame dissatisfaction on the dissatisfied person. I was unhappy in my last job, and fairly vocal about it. People told me privately that I shouldn't complain or that I should try harder to be happy. While complaining can make you look bad, the truth is, it's better than giving up and becoming complacent in a bad situation. I felt that by being openly vocal about my situation, I was putting myself in a position where I *had* to act, lest I get called out for whining and not changing anything. And if my employer saw it, I viewed it as a way to spark a conversation that I had already tried to have through more conventional means. I was forcing my own hand, as well as my employer's. Dissatisfaction really is just a sign that you genuinely care, and want to make things better, and is not the same thing as just being a whiner or a complainer. I wish more people would understand and allow for that distinction. You can't be happy all the time, and pretending to be happy when you genuinely aren't, isn't helping anyone. Get as angry and unhappy as it takes to motivate you to change what's keeping you down.

    • says

      The whole notion that you can simply "be happy" when you're not is part of the problem — it's being given a "solution" to a problem when it's the problem itself needing to be looked at more closely.

      I think you and I have had some similar work situations and I agree with you completely: sometimes you have done exactly the conventional thing and that doesn't work. So it's through vocal expression of dissatisfaction that things can get done.

      And obviously? I'm still super freaking bitter about what happened to you with LJ. I think it's great you took it as a chance to point out yet another problem going on and how it made you feel to be slighted.

  3. says

    I read this when you first posted it, but it wasn't until tonight that I made the connection between dissatisfaction and innovation. When people talk about experimentation, invention, or creativity in design (for example), the causal factor is often "filling a niche" or "dissatisfaction with existing examples." In the days and weeks following Steve Jobs' death, thousands of hagiographic articles described his demand for better, scratch-resistant screens for the iPhone prototypes. What is this if not dissatisfaction?

    Dissatisfaction and critical observation are necessary partners for any kind of improvement, though, as with my past use and misinterpretation of the word "critical" here, it is word that comes with some baggage. If someone wants to dismiss your good idea, s/he can label it as "dissatisfaction" and write it off as whining (cheap rhetoric, but still used).

    All of which is to say, I guess, that how we frame and phrase our dissatisfaction is the next hurdle to overcome so that we can figure out how to implement a useful change – or, as you suggest at the end, how to get a useful conversation started.

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