A good friend once wrote to me, “Complaining is great so long as it prompts action.”
That’s why I don’t mind when friends complain to me about work. What I do mind is when they complain about work and then don’t do anything about it. We all make this mistake once in a while — myself included. But that complaining doesn’t do us any good until we turn it into action.
The best form of action is probably leaving the job you’re complaining about. But we’re not always in a position to leave our jobs. It’s not easy to find another job to jump into, you need the money, or maybe the job allows you to pursue what you love on the side.
So here’s another option: Use your job to get where you want to be.
Use it for skills. For contacts. For inspiration to get off your ass and not just figure out a plan, but to put that plan in motion.
I call this Scheming. It’s more than just thinking about what you’d like to do; it’s setting yourself up to succeed. Scheming is strategic. It’s most important when you’re unhappy, but I like to do it all the time, because it makes taking a leap so much easier when I’m ready.
So here are some ways to use your job to get where you want to go:
Learn new skills. Not just the ones you’re required to learn for the job. Yes, those are great to have. But I’m talking about going above and beyond and learning additional skills. Here’s where your strategy comes in: What skills do you need for the job you want? Teach yourself and look for excuses to use those skills at work. This will also make your boss happy because she’ll see all the effort you’re putting into your job and appreciate the new skills you now bring to the team.
Make new contacts. Go out of your way to meet new people. Anytime someone suggests meeting over coffee or lunch, take them up on it. Even a contact who lacks obvious value could become useful to you in the future; that person may be Scheming his way into a new position just like you. The best way to make new contacts is to help people before they ask. Offer your contacts, your knowledge, your expertise. Particularly in the work world, what goes around comes around.
Save money. We tend to take advantage of a regular paycheck, spending every nickel and dime. But what if you lived below your means for a few months? How much could you save? I saved enough money while working for a newspaper in Houston that I could afford to travel in Africa for six months and then take off a year-and-a-half to write my book. (Though I did make other sacrifices, like giving up my own place and living with my parents.) Yet after traveling frugally, I realized, once I was paycheck-less, that I probably could’ve saved twice as much. Getting out of debt and saving money is the absolute best thing you can do to help get yourself where you want to be. You’re far more likely to take your leap if you have a financial cushion to fall back on.
I love saving money as a strategy because it’s so cut and dry. To take some of these other steps, you have to know what you want. You have to know what job you want to learn the skills you’ll need for that job. You have to know what industry you want to work in to build your contacts in that industry (although generally building your network is always a good idea, too). But to save money, you don’t have to know exactly where you’re going. You just have to realize that it will be easier to get there if you have savings, and then figure out how to cultivate those savings, either by cutting back on spending or making more money. Saving money seems like it’s the most difficult step, but in many ways, it’s the easiest.
Buy time. Spend your evenings building your own business or doing pro-bono work to bolster your skills or network into a new industry. Everyone will tell you you’re working too much. Ignore them. While they’re watching television (the biggest time-waster ever), partying and sitting still in a job they don’t like, you’re setting yourself up for your next big thing. And when you’re Scheming, work doesn’t feel like work.
Build your portfolio. Building your skills is one thing, but having something to show for all your work is another. What can you produce on your own time that will showcase your skills for the job you want? This is another opportunity to take on a volunteer gig; the organization gets your awesome product, you build your portfolio, and no one ever knows you weren’t paid to do it.
Figure out what you want. Sometimes we stand still because we don’t know which direction we want to go in. Take this time to figure out what you want. Do that by trying different things, talking with people who work in professions you might be interested in and discovering what you’re good at. Here’s where you’ve got to make sure you’re taking action, because it’s so easy to think about what you want to do next. Do something to move toward a decision.
Keep your options open. Part of the reason I’m working so hard right now to succeed at a full-time job and build a side business and sell my book is because I don’t know which of those things I want to pursue in the future. When I have a family, I will not be able to do all three. But by doing all three now, I’m keeping my options open, and seeing which one best suits my lifestyle and interests. Doing all three is my way of Scheming.
When I was a kid, my dad always used to say, “We’re right where we want to be.” He used it both figuratively and literally; he said it when we really were where we wanted to be, and when we weren’t. I most remember him saying this when my softball team, which he coached, got seeded in tournaments to play against the toughest teams. “We’re right where we want to be,” he’d say. What he meant was, “This is gonna be a challenge, and we’re ready for it.”
Which is exactly how you should approach working a job you don’t like. If you’re using where you are at this very moment to get where you want to be, then you are right where you want to be. You’re on your way to something awesome.