Drop pity and sentiment and take control of your career

By Jim Bright

The new year has greeted me with a dose of COVID. My short-term plans disappear like droplets onto a rapid antigen test. I wander around my place as lonely as my fellow positive-tester, Matthew Renshaw, outside a changing room. Unlike him, I do not feel prepared to face the music right now. However, my summer has taught me a good lesson in the dangers of falling into self-pity.

Matt Renshaw isolating at the SCG, a deck of cards his only companion.
Matt Renshaw isolating at the SCG, a deck of cards his only companion.Credit:Getty

A couple of years back I wrote a piece that touched on pity. A colleague in the medical world wrote to me, urging me to read Stefan Zweig’s book Beware of Pity. Zweig was a famous Austrian writer in the early part of the 20th century.

Zweig’s masterpiece reminds us that pity is a powerful emotion that can significantly alter our relationships and career paths. He believed that pity typically is driven by the desire to help others and to alleviate suffering. This is a very commonly expressed motivation when people are asked about their career choices. It is fashionable now to ask people what problems they want to solve as a way of exploring their career thinking.

But, as Zweig masterfully describes, pity can be a source of weakness. It can make us vulnerable, and not in the Californian guru fashionable way. We become vulnerable because pity can be such a powerful emotion it can cloud our judgement, and lead us to making decisions that are inconsistent with our aspirations. It can also lead us away from a path of happiness and well-being. Of course, it can also motivate us to pursue fulfilling careers in helping occupations. It is a double-edged sword.

Nurses and others in careers seen as altruistic often report compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or even burnout.
Nurses and others in careers seen as altruistic often report compassion fatigue, secondary traumatic stress, or even burnout.Credit:Kate Geraghty

For those working in careers seen as altruistic – nurses, doctors, social workers, counsellors, aid workers, and the like – there are the well-documented issues of compassion fatigue or secondary traumatic stress or even burnout. People can become simply exhausted by giving, or can become embittered and cynical if they feel their work has come to naught or if in their own time of need, their lifelong caring was not reciprocated. Others, like Hofmiller, the young Austrian cavalry officer in Zweig’s book, become drawn into a web of wrong moves and tragedy as a result of their pity.

Zweig makes this distinction: “There are two kinds of pity. One, the weak and sentimental kind, which is really no more than the heart’s impatience to be rid as quickly as possible of the painful emotion aroused by the sight of another’s unhappiness, that pity which is not compassion, but only an instinctive desire to fortify one’s own soul against the sufferings of another; and the other, the only one that counts, the unsentimental but creative kind, which knows what it is about and is determined to hold out, in patience and forbearance, to the very limit of its strength and even beyond.”


I question whether it is advisable or downright reckless in most situations to advise a person to hold out to the limit of their strength, or even beyond. However, it seems to me that Zweig’s caution about acting on the impulsive aspect of pity is valid. We can do without 2023 being clogged up with yet more trite retweets and reposts designed to salve our consciences on some emotive matter. In 2023, we can do with unsentimental but creative solutions to our career problems and the bigger problems we all confront. I’m feeling better already!

Jim Bright, FAPS is Professor of Career Education and Development at ACU and owns Bright and Associates, a Career Management Consultancy. Email to [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @DrJimBright

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