When Work is at its Worst We Need To Enjoy Small Things

mm Russ Finkelstein

It’s a not-so-well-kept secret that the vast majority of Americans are unhappy in our jobs. Our frustrations are kept “secret” for good reason: our professional fortunes often depend on being able to project an image of comfort, ease, confidence, and success no matter how we are feeling in the moment.

No one aspires to say we can’t stand another second at work, even when we feel like it, if we haven’t made the decision yet to walk out the door for good right then and there. I am all about professionals having space (and tools, and advice) to be able to work through doubts, fears, and anxieties. In fact, that’s why we started ClearlyNext, so that frustrated professionals can get some clarity about their next move before they have a Take This Job and Shove It moment.

In the meantime, if you are among the silent-around-your-boss flock of unhappy people in their careers, here’s an oft-undervalued piece of advice from a career coach who has no end of such advice: try to enjoy the small things that make you happy in your position, even if you can’t stand the place when it comes to the big picture.

Trust me when I tell you it will help.

This isn’t a long-term answer. It is a balm to help you just a bit when pained by the bigger issue you are looking to solve. When I have a conversation with someone who is unhappy with their current position I start by gauging how unhappy they are, how quickly they need to leave and the level of risk associated with their field and financial situation. Next, we may have a conversation about developing a plan that helps them make a next move and perhaps detachment from their current position.

In the meantime, I want to advocate for the idea that the glass might be only 10% full, but sometimes, even that residue is worth appreciating, that, as you face the week on Sunday Night, having something to look forward to matters. I am someone who stomached High School based on honors English classes and taco Wednesdays. This kind of thinking is important, when your back is against the wall. And, sometimes, upon reflection, things you like in a bad job are clues to a path you may want to pursue, the needle in your professional haystack. Although it’s worth noting that I never pursued anything taco related.

One way of looking at this is to remember that on the flip side, most people who love their jobs have some things that they really don’t like. I recently coached a group of staffers departing from the White House who were considering what to pursue next. They’d loved their jobs working for the President. But they all admitted that there were things that they would have changed.

Whether you are someone who can barely restrain their glee as you consider what might be next, or someone reasonably happy in their current position, I invite you to consider the small things that you might miss once you are gone.

Here are some examples of strange things I miss from my own career:

  • Yelling or, perhaps, “guiding.” When I was at Idealist.org, there was a moment when I was running career fairs, in particular events at George Washington University, when three enormous elevators opened simultaneously with dozens of people pouring in, needing direction. I’d speak at top of my voice to instruct them all and guide them, and they were all so anxious and hopeful, and I loved that, that these people were lost in some way and that I was able to give them direction. It turns out, I like shouting in busy rooms. While a love of yelling was not terribly useful for my career, offering guidance to lost people is a nice metaphor for why I pursued coaching in more depth.
  • Surprise phone calls. When I was working with youth at the Higher Achievement Program in Washington DC, I’d call parents every Friday night, and I’d talk with them for a few moments about how their son or daughter was doing in the program. I remember the anxiety as my students answered the phone, nervously called their parents and butchered my name, “Mr. Frankenstein” is calling. They weren’t accustomed to having an adult calling their parents to say anything that was positive. I liked being able to provide a contrast from the usual negative phone calls. So I guess I like being an unexpected voice in people’s lives, but also working hard to surprise people.
  • Sugar rushes. For one of my first jobs I was paid $350 each month. (While this was an average income for 1961, it ran on the low end of the scale several decades later). I would run out on payday and purchase a Mountain Dew and Cinnabon. I loved the overwhelming sugar bomb of my paycheck splurge. Food specials have remained a part of my motivation ever since and have grown to include, depending upon where work takes me, “burnt ends”, “goo goo clusters”, sweet tea and a certain kind of fish, available at one restaurant, that tastes exactly like very fatty pastrami. It’s not just pastrami, though, I promise.
  • Spent energy. There is the bristling energy of anticipation when you bring 50 teens to a water park on a bus, and then the absolute quiet on the way home of the same group of kids who are spent from the day. I love the calm after the storm. This is akin to how I felt after throwing a large event, and I have thrown hundreds of events around the world welcoming ten up to five thousand people. I appreciate the kind of tired that comes post-gathering.
  • Dropping the mask. As a coach, I think about the relief that happens to a client when they recognize that the mask that they hold, and have held up for so long, can drop. In particular, their realization that the only way for me help them is to be honest, and the excitement when you realize this person has essentially given someone, me, access to their true selves. And there’s often this epiphany, a realization that I’m there to shoulder their load. It really provides me with a sense of meaning in what I do. It is what spurs me on during days where I am seeing 15 people back-to-back as a volunteer.
  • Vulnerable communication. As you know because you are reading this piece, I do, on occasion, write. I just started nine months ago after 15-years of believing that I was a very poor writer. In the process of embracing writing I have learned to enjoy taking an idea and developing a blog. In particular, there is a moment when I submit to my editor at LinkedIn and hope they will believe it to be good enough to share through their channels. I have to earn approval each time and am thrilled when they deem one good enough to be shared. I also live in persistent fear of rejection that is far too reminiscent of waiting for a call after a date or awaiting the thick letter connected to college acceptance.

As I say, it’s not always about big clues to trends that might run through your entire working life. I have a friend who really likes being able to walk to work, and another who has a buddy whom he gets coffee with every day and yet another who goes all in for the communal snack closet at the office. Those are nice things, too. Whether it is the view from one window, a park two blocks away or even the really good lunch special on Thursday. These all make the harder aspects of your job easier to bear.

I suggest you look hard at your job now, and, on a daily basis, try to write down one tiny thing you enjoyed or appreciated, before you shut down your computer to go home for the day. It can be funny, or deadly serious. But try to keep the streak going for a dozen days or so, and then see if there’s anything that’s emerging consistently. It will not only help ease the daily grind, I promise, but it might give you a more sophisticated outlook when it comes to getting clarity about your next move.  

Russ Finkelstein is Managing Director of ClearlyNext, a guided online career program that helps people of all backgrounds and incomes figure out what to do next. Read more >