If your job sucks, use it to get where you want to be

June 29, 2011 · 16 comments

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.

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{ 12 comments… read them below or add one }

Peggy Frezon June 29, 2011 at 9:04 am

Love this scheming, not just dreaming.
I’m forwarding this to someone I know who could use your tips. Thanks!
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Jamie Scheppers June 29, 2011 at 9:25 am

Nice post Alexis! I never really thought of myself as scheming, but I guess that’s because the tactics you described have become habit. Right now I’m deciding between becoming a certified project manager or pursuing a PhD in higher education, but since the university I work for makes it dirt cheap to do either, I may just do both. How’s that for letting my indecisiveness set me up for future success. lol…

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Alexis Grant June 29, 2011 at 10:30 am

Jamie, You’re totally a schemer!

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SoVeryVienna June 29, 2011 at 3:28 pm

“Ignore everybody”. I love it! Just looked at his site – what a great use of words to share ideas we’ve heard before into a succinct list. I just might buy his book to read the other 75% of the list … Thanks as always, Lexi.

And “We’re right where we want to be.” Nice, Papa Grant.

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Alexis Grant June 29, 2011 at 3:34 pm

If you want to borrow the book from me, I have both of his! My review of Ignore Everybody: http://alexiskgrant.tumblr.com/post/6636436700/the-market-for-something-to-believe-in-is-infinite

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Heather Sunseri June 30, 2011 at 9:07 am

Love this post, Alexis. I think I’ve been living this post for years, and you’re right. If we use “where we are” to get “where we want to go,” our scheming works much more efficiently and effectively than complaining about “where we are.”
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Rachel July 17, 2011 at 12:43 pm

You’re so right, Alexis. At my last job, I used the opportunity of a paycheck and the bonus of living in Baltimore, one of America’s cheapest cities, to save almost a third of my income over the course of a year. It allowed me, when I became truly unhappy in that position, to take a leap of faith on a part-time job that wouldn’t pay the bills but could set me up for future success, and would assuredly make me more happy than the job I was in. It will allow me to shoulder the costs of moving to a more expensive city for the job I really want, or, if I get up the courage, it will allow me to move abroad for six months to a year like I’ve always promised myself I would.

And, beyond the money, the job I didn’t like taught me more about professionalism than any job I loved ever could have. I learned many useful skills there, but that may be the greatest.
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Alexis Grant July 17, 2011 at 12:46 pm

Do it, Rachel! Coming from someone who had to gather guts to make a similar leap, I can say you won’t regret it!

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diane July 18, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Very good advice, Alexis! I saved a year’s salary & walked away from my “safe job,” with my job being to figure out what I wanted to do. I took a big leap and discovered a career I could never have imagined for myself – a career coach. I finally figured out my BHAG (big audacious hairy goal) – for everyone to love their job. I believe you can if you want to. That leap is not as far as you might think. Cheers!

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Jeff Mazza July 19, 2011 at 8:21 am

I like the idea that you can try and use a current job as a tool even if it is not where you want to be. It may be something little but there is probably always something that you can take from your current job (I don’t mean paper clips or staplers) that will help you further your life or career in a positive way. In my case, I am supposed to be speaking with people all of the time and trying to generate sales. When I speak with customers I usually ask what they do and they are usually willing to share the details of their job. It’s not only networking but takes me out of the box of my limited world. In my case my dream is to be a writer and when noting is happening at work I can jot down a few ideas to expand on later.

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April D. Thompson September 26, 2012 at 7:33 am

I’m sooo happy I’ve gotten out of bitch and complain mode and made this my focus. Though my job can drive me crazy, it has given me credentials, experience, money and much more that will prove invaluable when I finally go off on my own. As expected, many of my friends and family don’t get it and it’s hard continually telling people no I can’t go to this event or party, but hey I have goals to reach!

Great post!
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michelle January 11, 2013 at 9:38 pm

Thank you, advice I would always give…but never hear.

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