Remember the day you got your first job offer out of college that you eventually accepted? For many of us, the daydreams of pitches, important conferences, promotions, raises and bonuses, quickly gave way to reality. You’re in a cube. If you’re at a pitch, it’s probably to take notes, and only the company “thought leaders” get to travel to ridiculous places just to bloviate. So here you are, wondering how six months or a year could seem like a decade. You get it. You have to pay your dues, which could take a while, but you’re still unhappy in your job.
Something just doesn’t seem right, and you’re having trouble figuring out exactly what that is. So, now what? As I told you in my post about choosing the right career, your next move should be to do nothing. Take a deep breath. Relax. Understand that the idea of a dream job is a mirage. In the right job or career, you’ll have more good days than bad, hopefully many more good days. But if that’s not the case, it’s time to bring back your trusty pen and notepad and get busy thinking.
There are plenty of other posts about how to “showcase your transferable skills” on your resume and in your cover letter, so I’ll focus on your thought process and also what you should or should not do.
Unhappy at your job? Assess the situation
First, you have to figure out why you’re unhappy. Assuming you came to the job with realistic expectations, ask yourself these questions:
- Is it the nature of my day-to-day work? If the work you’re doing doesn’t match your skillset, and you’re not in a situation where there are training resources, people willing to help, or patience from the employer, you may have to consider that the situation will only get worse. If you’re bored and don’t have any opportunity to spread your wings, perhaps a smaller company in your sector would provide chances for you to grow more quickly. Some people prefer the slow climb up the ladder, while others want to run at full-speed from day one. Which type are you?
- Is it my co-workers? A great group of co-workers will help you through the tough days. But if you can’t connect with your co-workers for whatever reason, it’s hard to look forward to going into the office every day. You don’t need to be BFF with people on your team, and you don’t need to socialize outside of work. But if you’re getting hives at the thought of another meeting, birthday cake in the conference room, or lunch in the kitchen, it’s a bad sign.
- Do I hate my boss? Your manager isn’t interested in being the most popular person in the company. She is focused on the bottom line. Keeping in mind that we all have our personality flaws, a good relationship can be totally professional and work-focused. Sometimes, you’ll get an after-hours text or email you need to handle. That’s all fine, and consider yourself lucky if that’s all you’re dealing with. But if anybody who manages you or your team is treating you in an emotionally or verbally abusive way, that’s not ok. There is a fine line between “Type A” bosses and abusive bullies, habitual credit-stealers and after-hours stalkers. Even if you go to HR to report a completely unacceptable incident or pattern, things may not change all that much.
- Is it fixable? Maybe you can get re-assigned to another team, project or department. Perhaps you’re not the only one who has complained about an office bully, and that problem will soon go away. Some problems are temporary, so you have to trust your instinct. Other problems are not. A company with a long-standing culture of people working well into after-hours; an ingrained “star system” that rewards cut-throat behavior; a framework where juniors are expected to perform a fixed set of tasks; and a creepy CEO who is known for hitting on subordinates; these all represent situations that “are what they are.”
Want to change jobs or careers? Ask yourself these questions
With the benefit of some workplace experience under your belt, you have a data set that should help you more accurately understand what type of job and working environment will suit you. If you have identified a company or type of position, it’s time to hit the informational interview circuit again. Hopefully, you’ve nurtured your LinkedIn network and carefully cultivated your brand, so lining up meetings with the right people will seem a little bit easier this time around. If you haven’t figured out your next career, ask yourself these key questions:
- What do I enjoy most about my current job? Setting aside the unfixable problems that have led you to this point, there must be specific job tasks you’ve done well, even if you haven’t gotten the recognition you deserve. No matter where you work, who your co-workers are, and what your boss’s personality type is, one of the key ways to be happy in your job is to do something you are really good at. Think about your go-to skills.
- What motivates me? Some people have fun co-workers they want to please; for others, it’s the challenge factor, money, or opportunities to advance quickly. Again, be honest with yourself about what gets you going every day. A motivated you is a happy and productive you.
- What saps my motivation? On the flip side, some people are demoralized by colleagues who take themselves too seriously, the inability to spread their wings, eating ramen noodles night after night, or living with five roommates. Demoralization can lead to depression, which leads to poor performance and bad health. Stop the vicious cycle in its tracks, but embrace the need to accept imperfection in any situation and expect some trade-offs for professional happiness.
Looking for a job while employed? Mum’s the word
It’s critical that you err on the side of caution. You don’t know how long it will take you to find a better situation, and you still want to have that paycheck coming in. It’s also a lot easier to find a job while you are employed; you can be pickier and you have less explaining to do. If you get caught looking, there is a good chance you may have an accelerated exit.
- Do most of your heavy-lifting outside the office. Maybe your gym or your church or synagogue, if they’re nearby, have quiet rooms to which you can sneak off for follow-up calls and phone interviews. You can tweak and send off resumes from your home computer in the evening, and you can run LinkedIn searches on your smartphone or tablet. There may be times that you have to make a call from work or send an email. In these cases, use your own mobile device and find an empty conference room or office. While not ideal, you have to do what you have to do.
- Put your best foot forward. As hard as it may be, you are still being paid to do your job, and you have an ethical obligation to do it professionally. At some point, your co-workers and bosses will join the ranks of your professional network and you can’t have too many friends. People don’t need to know that you didn’t like working with them.
- Be gracious about your current employer. As you interview and network, you should remember that you’re representing your personal brand. There are ways to communicate that a job isn’t the right fit without slamming your employer. Adding fuel to the fire will make others wonder what you’d say about them behind their backs. You don’t want your brand to reflect anger, bitterness, bridge burning, and dirty laundry.
I should add a world about your internal network, now that you have one. There may be somebody at your company who can help you. And it will be tempting to discuss your situation in confidence. Only you know whether he or she can be trusted, so you have to listen to your instinct. I’m not going to say never, ever do it, but walls have ears. It’s a high-risk play, so proceed with caution.
Patience and open-mindedness light the way
Years ago, I began my career in the music industry. Because of my strong passion for music, a career in music seemed like a dream come true. But, for me, it didn’t turn out that way. I couldn’t relate to a lot of the people, many of whom seemed ingenuine. I also got the sense that the only way to succeed would be with a cutthroat mentality. That isn’t and never will be who I am. So I had to ask the tough questions before I realized that I love branding and marketing as much as I love music. With some effort, I networked my way into a job in consumer product marketing that allowed me to continue doing what I was good at, while working with people I respected. One good job led to another, and there were always new challenges to inspire me.
A year or two may seem like an eternity when you are starting out, but it’s such a small fraction of the 50 years you’ll be working. This is the time in your life to figure things out. If you board a plane at the South Pole that is pointed toward Paris, and then the pilot turns the nose of the plane just 10 degrees to the left before taking off, you’ll eventually wind up in Alaska. Part of the adventure is knowing that where you’ll be in 20 years may be a lot different than where you think you’ll be. Each experience along the way will give you more data along your path to fulfillment. So harvest that data, cultivate your network, and enjoy the trip.