Of the seven years I spent in my first job, the last one-and-a-half were brutal. I remember coming home every evening frustrated with the work, particularly that I wasn’t doing something I considered more meaningful. On top of that I felt completely stuck there and unable to bring myself to leave. I was on a team that was experiencing a whole host of issues, many of which I can now see in hindsight that I contributed to.
While I often kick myself for staying so long at a job that I had long since become unhappy with, especially when I had other opportunities present themselves along the way, that’s not my biggest regret from that time.
What frustrates me most about my behavior in those final years was that I had become entrenched in my belief that I was a victim of all of the issues I was facing at work. I spent so much energy feeling right and justified, thinking about how everyone around me wasn’t doing a good job, was dysfunctional, etc., that I missed an important opportunity.
When I look back on that time and how unhappy I was, I wished I had asked myself what lessons I could have learned before leaving. What I’ve since realized is this:
The toughest times at work are some of the ripest for us to learn and grow, yet we often miss them by not seeing them for the opportunities that they are.
This simple shift would have changed my outlook from one of victim (”this situation is happening to me”), to one of being an owner (”I’m choosing to be here for now, so what can this place teach me?”).
At the core it was still necessary for me to leave, that remains clear even in hindsight, but I had shut down during that final leg of the journey and closed myself off to learning anything new.
If you think of the greatest stories, they always involve overcoming adversity. In a work context we want to hear how someone fixed a team, or brought back a failing product, or healed a relationship. Those are the stories we are drawn to, the come-back stories, and those are only possible when someone went into a place of brokenness and began to learn.
This can take on many forms. It can be learning how to deal with a difficult coworker, picking up a new piece of technology, self-motivating when there is a lack of direction from leadership, etc.
Those are all experiences which you can draw upon later in your career, so if you know you’re on your way out, have fun and experiment. This will better equip you for the next time you face those situations and you do actually want to stay with your employer.
I’m not advocating staying in a bad situation for the learning experience, but rather leveraging the situation you’re already in as a means for growth.
Looking back on my career there were so many opportunities for me to grow and experiment, especially when I knew that I was leaving. I wish I had taken stock of my situation, picked a problem I wanted to tackle, and seen if I could have solved it.
The reality is that I’ll likely encounter the same elements that were frustrating to me in other forms during the remainder of my career. I’ll experience a toxic coworker, a broken product, or frustrating period of work, and I’d rather only have to learn how to deal with those situations once, rather than again and again.
Taking stock of what’s frustrating at your current work situation, what are the lessons available right now for you to learn from?
Samuel Mandell is the creator of The Little Yes, a blog focused on the topic of work satisfaction.