Over a sad desk lunch at work, you surf the internet. You come upon another article about another twenty-something overachiever who built a seven-figure startup in six months with nothing more than “a laptop and a dream.” You remind yourself that, on the internet, no one can feel you punch.
You check your social media accounts. These people are your friends, you think, and they will probably have more in common with you. You are greeted with soft-focus vacation photos on Instagram and smarmy career porn on LinkedIn. Your mom just posted a link on Facebook, and it’s that same story about the smug, punchable 20-something wunderkind from before. “Why couldn’t my child be more like that handsome entrepreneur?” your mom wonders, in your imagination.
Meanwhile, you have been stuck in the same cubicle at the same humiliating dead-end job for as long as you can remember. You’ve had a stealth job hunt going for six months, but you’ve already used all your sick days to sneak out for interviews. You plan to spend your next birthday in a lifeless office, doing work you don’t enjoy, to meet goals you don’t understand, on behalf of people who don’t respect you.
I can’t say I have risen above this situation, but I know what it’s like to be in it. Worse still, I know what it’s like to identify with it. That is the killer.
I’ve learned that life doesn’t have to suck, even when work does. Here are a few ideas that may help you handle a dead-end job and still be an interesting person.
“So What Do You Do?”
Strangers will never stop ask you, “So what do you do?” If you hate your job, there is no answer for this that will sound cool. You can stammer and B.S., or you can tell the truth and seethe through gritted teeth. You can take a personal branding workshop, craft the perfect elevator pitch, and try to keep a straight face as you introduce yourself as a Guiding Light and Nascent Virtuoso.
We are not the sum of our experiences, but what we make of them. And everyone, from our families to our coworkers to LinkedIn spammers, encourages us to take our professional titles personally.
There’s a difference between what we do for a living and what we do to feel alive. The more you resent your job, the further that see-saw is out of balance.
Don’t worry about answering questions like, “What do you do?” Start asking yourself questions like, “What do you value?”
If you value creative expression, block off your own time to write, paint, or podcast. If you want to be rich, work hard, save, and invest. If you want respect, start with your own.
Time Flies When You’re Old As Hell
I’m staring down the barrel of my 40th birthday.
After some early successes, my career as a professional writer flatlined in my mid-30s. I obsessively Google writers, comedians, and entertainers I admire, and I find that almost all of them were experiencing crazy success by the time they were my age. I often feel that I missed all my chances and that all my proudest moments are behind me.
I repress that rage and put up a tight, icy front to impress the boss. That always makes me feel even worse.
So I do this instead…
I visualize what I will look like in ten more years if these shadows remain unchanged. I feel, smell, and taste the stinging regret. I bathe in it. And that gets me focused.
When I was younger, I never thought I would run out of time. Now I know that, if I don’t align my actions with my values while I have the chance, I may miss that chance forever.
The things I love now have a fresh sense of urgency. I know, now more than ever, how important it is to put in a little effort, every day, toward a larger goal.
Ten years from now, I may not be happy, but I won’t let anyone say I didn’t work hard. If I can tolerate showing up at my job every day to keep my lights on, I can stand to put in some extra effort on nights and weekends to keep my soul awake.
Who Are You To Complain?
If you’re reading this, it means you have an internet connection, which means you life in comfort and prosperity relative to many people on earth. Some people have families to feed and debts to pay and can’t even find jobs they hate. Look at you and your lack of gratitude.
You can’t appreciate how good your life is, which means that you are weak, which means that you deserve to feel bad. There — that should make you feel better!
This vicious cycle of rumination runs through my mind dozens of times a day. There’s no correct way to feel about your life. You are human, and that means you are going to be ungrateful and self-pitying some of the time. Adding more layers of shame and guilt isn’t going to help.
Complain all you want. Your job sucks. You get no respect. No one appreciates your true talents and desires. Waaah! Feel it fully. Let it pass. It will pass.
When it does, ask that feeling what it wants from you. Anger is often there to mask fear. Beneath fear, there is hope, the seed of a positive intention. Nurture that seed, and you will discover the work that matters to you, whether or not some jerkoff gives you money to do it.
Don’t Get Bored With Life
When we’re not a work, we’re usually recovering from work. We’re eating or drinking too much, watching too much TV, or otherwise numbing ourselves to the frustrations created by work.
Your boss isn’t supposed to be your buddy. It is in his best interests to suck you dry. It is your responsibility to create a life that will balance out work. It may be wise to start crafting an exit strategy. But you probably don’t need to quit or do anything too extreme.
Time isn’t just money. Time is life. If you identify with your job so closely that it dictates how you feel about your whole life, getting a sexier job title may not help you. You may need to reexamine your values, starting at the core, and take back what time is still yours. You can start by taking back one hour every day.
Here’s what I do. I write ten ideas a day. I write 750 words a day. I write pieces like this in hopes of connecting with others who feel the way I do. Any sort of action puts rumination and negative self-talk in check. It’s a daily process, like taking a shower. I take solace in doing.
Take an hour a day to disengage from work and electronic devices and do something that makes you proud of yourself and happy to be alive, whatever that might be. Take that one hour a day and make it sacred. No matter how awful your job is, they can’t take that hour from you. Make the most of that hour that you possibly can. If for no other reason, do it out of spite.
Get Mad, and Get to Work
That smug young entrepreneur is in the news because his success is unusual. Most of us don’t get paid to do the work we love. As a former tech reporter, I can promise you that we don’t know that kid’s whole story. He may be cooking the books and sitting on a little Enron. His cocaine abuse may leave him unable to satisfy his 19-year-old Lithuanian model girlfriend. None of this matters to you.
Never in human history has there been so much work to be done. Not all of it is lucrative. If you’re not right for your job, or you’re stuck in a job that’s wrong for you, you’re probably angry.
That’s good. Use that. Feel it fully, and let it galvanize you to take back enough of your time to get to work on the work that matters. It may open opportunities to do more important work, or it may not. Either way, you will discover that a good hustle is its own reward.