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Surviving a Job You Hate

Recently I was asked by a journalist about staying sane in a dead-end job. The context was of course our struggling economy, with few jobs and the feeling of few choices in leaving work. While for some of us jumping into self-employment is an option [1], most of us need to make our jobs work for as long as possible.

The problem is, what if you hate it?

I've been thinking about this from my "life as a scientific experiment" perspective [2], and came up with a few ideas. Tell me what you think!

  • Cultivate your sense of humor. Actively look for the bizarre, the absurd, The Office-style nuttiness. It helps to record it in your personal journal. Have a daily routine: At the start: Prime yourself by asking "What funny things will I notice today." At the day's end ask, "Of today's events, what can I laugh at (if not now, then down the road)?"
  • Plan your break. Start the personal introspection self-discovery to explore what you'd love to be doing in the future, and begin putting a little energy into it. Read, start a blog, talk about it with loved ones, and make yourself the expert in a 100 mile radius.
  • Find more positive and fulfilling ways to contribute in the organization. Get creative - is the company cutting back? Offer to take on something you'd rather be doing, and make yourself indispensable. Or look for a lateral move - check out the company's job board.
  • Be social. Lots of studies show the healthy benefits of being with others. Do it appropriately at work (during breaks, say) and in the evenings and weekends.
  • Stay healthy. Stress hates exercise, so stay on top, and eat well.
  • Know that this too will pass. While it may sound trivial, everything has a beginning, middle, and end, including your current job. Nothing lasts forever.
  • Overall: BE CAREFUL what you say and record, though. You don't want to hurt feelings or risk your job. One of my TTL [3] catchphrases is "You never know." In this case, You never know... Who you might work with/for in the future. Or...?

I'm curious...

  • Did you ever have a "can't stand it" job?
  • How'd you stay sane?
  • What'd you end up doing?



Reader Comments (14)

As with so much journalism, I often find myself reflecting on the fact that author is both asking the wrong questions and trying to impose meaning on complex situations that resist simple explanations. So, "how do I stay sane?" strikes me as being the wrong question to ask when one finds oneself in a "dead end" job (whatever that is). Here are some better questions: "why did I choose this?" "What do I want?" "Am I better off quitting today?" "Why have I made choices that make quitting an intolerable situation today not an option?" "If I wanted to prevent finding myself in this kind of dilemma ever again, what would I do?" "What do I hate about this job and what three things can I do tomorrow to change them?" And so on. I notice, Matt, that you change the descriptor from "dead end" job to "can't stand it" job. They're different, aren't they? That's another question to ask, "is this job a dead end job or just a situation I can't stand?" "Why do I hate this job? Is it me or is it them?"

And I'll just say that, anecdotally, my experience is that people tend to hate jobs not because of the work but because of the people one works with.

In my situation, at the age of 22, I went to work in my dream industry and immediately hated it. Within two months I was actively interviewing for other jobs in a different industry, and after four months was close to taking a job in industry #2 when my boss died and I was offered his job. Just like that, I was promoted to what six months earlier I thought would be my dream job. Two years later I quit (concluding that it was a dead end job (I was quite mistaken about that, in hindsight)) and went into industry #3, where I still am today, quite happily, although I'm not sure I'm better off financially than I would have been if I'd changed to industry #2 rather than industry #3. Or industry #1 for that matter. I chose love over money.

I think 22 year-olds are very naive about this stuff: they just don't have the job and life experience to make smart decisions about jobs and careers, and luck plays an ENORMOUS role in outcomes at that age, as it does throughout one's working life; one skill to develop as early as possible is that of finding a way to think about and deal with very unexpected developments in one's life so that you can transform bad choices and bad luck into opportunities.

Your answers to the reporter's question are much better than mine, though, because those steps will make you happier in ANY job, even one you love.

March 26, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreenman

I wonder if not everyone is as self-reflective as you, Greenman. I also wonder about the hellacious influence of [ sunk costs | http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sunk_cost ] on such a major decision. I have friends a NASA, for example, who are (very consciously) willing to give up happines for retirement and pensions, which I can understand. And they called me a fool for leaving! Muahhh hahh ahh ahh ha [evil insane laugh].

And I'll just say that, anecdotally, my experience is that people tend to hate jobs not because of the work but because of the people one works with.

Yes! In my case I had absolutely wonderful people to work with, and a job I couldn't put my heart into. My boss was extremely patient and understanding. We still meet regularly re http://www.thinktrylearn.com/

In my situation, ... I chose love over money

I really appreciate your story - thanks for sharing it. Love vs. money - a 2x2!

It's a disaster to look back, don't you think? "Regret is a dish best dumped down the toilet." (Matt's pithy quote attempt of the day.) Trust your past self; he knew what he was doing!

22 year-olds; very naive; luck plays an ENORMOUS

Certainly in my case that was true. Another flip of the cards and I might have been a father at that time, in a dead end town, sporting a "I [heart] mom" tattoo! Seriously, I didn't start maturing until my 40s, I must say. Whether it was a midlife crisis, parenthood, or I don't know what, but I'm glad I made it this far!

Your answers to the reporter's question are much better than mine, though, because those steps will make you happier in ANY job, even one you love.


Great comment.

March 27, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

There's usually something that you can take away from any job, whether good or bad. Try to pick up a new skill which you can use in the future. Learn to channel your hate into something positive, like patience. When you do get a job that you like, try to remember how bad it was at your old job. It will make you appreciate the good job even more.

March 27, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterCorporate Barbarian

Thanks, CB

March 29, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Along with the power of compound interest, I think self-reflection is one of the basic tools for a happy life.

A lot of the tools you offer in the blog, Matt -- I'm thinking here of the TEXT file, the mistake list, the decision list, mini-experiments, TTL and so forth -- are really tools of self-reflection. You're highly focussed on finding ways of keeping track of, organizing, searching, accessing, assimilating, and making use of the knowledge you gain from these self-observation exercises. But I think it almost doesn't matter if you can keep all of that organized: what matters is the process of self-reflection and the questioning and answering that follows. Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones, Wild Mind, et al) talks about the importance of keeping a journal and then THROWING IT AWAY: what's important is the process. It's a good habit to cultivate: in any given situation which feels wrong, to ask the questions, "what am I feeling?" and "what do I want?"

One of the things I like about GTD is that it can be applied to EVERYTHING that's cluttering your head and stealing your attention. Asking yourself searching questions is a good way of triggering the emptying of your head of all these preoccupations. Commence processing, and then doing. That's the protocol I want to apply to a question like, "what do I do about this job I hate?" Sorry: what's the next action in project, "do something about this job I hate."

I love the idea of applying the concept of sunk costs to decision-making. That's fertile ground.

March 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterGreenman

Great comment, Greenman. Thanks also for the [ Natalie Goldberg | http://www.nataliegoldberg.com/books.html ] pointer.

what's important is the process

Definitely bears repeating. TTL is all about the process of inquiry and learning.

GTD is that it can be applied to EVERYTHING...

Yes, it's a general model, and I like that.

Asking yourself searching questions is a good way of...

Absolutely. Observation and reflection bring us back to the present, and this is important because auto-pilot is the default - it's a survival tactic, but one that gets in the way of growth.

I love the idea of applying the concept of sunk costs to decision-making. That's fertile ground.


April 1, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I think so much of this is dependent on your relationship with your boss/line manager (at least from my experience). How you deal with them and how well you're able to get on with them will go a long way to determining how much you can cope. A dead-end job may be boring and tedious, but that's nothing compared to a poor manager who will drive you up the wall. Issue is, how do you get on the right side of them?

One of my previous jobs was like this. Work was often boring, but the people I worked with made it tolerable. However, the manager was overbearing and I could count on my hand the number of times she said thankyou or well done, in the several years I was there.

[ Organize IT | http://www.organizeit.co.uk/ ]

April 2, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJames @ Organize IT

I think cultivating a sense of humor is an amazing key to happiness - in addition to the self-reflection and compound interest that Greenman mentions. I also make a point to walk outdoors and smell the roses (or the snowdrops or the snowflakes or the bakery or the popcorn wafting from the movie theater). An attitude of gratitude, even in the midst of a difficult work situation, changes the way I see my situation even in the worst of days.

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Good points, esp. about the people making the difference.

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

Great comment - thanks.

April 3, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

I too got very lucky with my first manager at my current company (first one out of school). It gave me such a positive attitude towards the company that I now know that if I run into a miserable situation, it's not a reflection of the company, but of the management (or the role). People who get hired in reporting to someone they hate often don't have that viewpoint.

Of course it's sometimes a deeper problem (which is where a sense of humor or more optimistic perspective can help). I know plenty of people who think "If I just had this job..." or "If only I were 3 inches taller..." or "If I can just beat a song on Expert on Rock Band..." then "I'd be happy." But the problem is that many people aren't happy once they do attain that, it's only temporary.

The focus is much more on the journey (which is where I think the journal thing is a good idea in terms of reflecting back on it). Of course if you're hating your job, then I guess that means you're hating your current journey, which then brings it back to the questions being asked.

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDrew Tarvin

Great comment, Drew.

if you're hating your job, then I guess that means you're hating your current journey

Very nicely put. Made me stop and think. Thanks!

April 7, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

While I agree with all the suggestions you made about surviving a job you hate, I just could not imagine staying in a job I hated. It's worse than being in a bad marriage. I hated my job, and then decided to "go it alone". I admit that I was really nervous in the beginning, but seeing as my startup costs were really low, I decided to just jump in the deep end. I have never looked back since. I am truly happy doing what I do. Make more money than I ever have before. Am surrounded by a community of folks doing what I do. I work from home, when and how I want. I spend time with my family. I truly could not ask for more. So while respecting all your advice...my advice to anyone stuck in a job they hate, is get out...and get out fast. Life is too short to settle for second best. Have faith in yourself and follow what you believe in. Make life what you want it to be...you will get it. It's all up to you.

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie Wilson

Hi Debbie. Thanks for writing.

> I just could not imagine staying in a job I hated. ... I have never looked back since

I agree, though for most folks I think it's not so straightforward a decision. The benefits you list are great ones - ones I very much appreciate - but striking out on your own as we've done is not necessarily for the faint of heart, or for everyone. Also, the "golden handcuffs" of health insurance and retirement hold a lot of people back, like some of my very dear NASA friends. I can see both sides...

> Have faith in yourself and follow what you believe in. Make life what you want it to be...you will get it. It's all up to you.

I bet your clients find that a strong message, Debbie. Thanks for the encouragement!

April 16, 2009 | Unregistered Commentermatthewcornell

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