It may seem counterintuitive, but the secret to finding that dream career path may actually be happily accepting any and every opportunity that comes your way—even the ones you don’t really like.
by Lindsey Donner
I’m going to let you in on a secret.
If you want to be happy in what you do, stop complaining. Do the opposite: do more things you don’t think you want to do. Try anything. Accept minimum wage—other people do it every day. What makes you so much better?
Above all else, work, work and work some more. Chances are, even at the most dismal job, there’s something to learn: bookkeeping, or customer service or how to write a good HR employee manual. Who knows?
You don’t—you’re too busy complaining.
I’m amazed by how many people my age complain about their jobs (or joblessness). I have written more than one article . Because no matter how on the fence I am about working for free, I am not on the fence about work. And college grads would rather intern than wait tables. Which is okay, but you have to go out and do it. The menial stuff included.
I am about to turn 26, and I have had plenty of terrible jobs. (I’ve been working since I was 14.) I probably learned more about work from blowing up balloons at a party store than I did in a year at a non-profit, because I was right there in the mix of things: a little customer service, a little management, a little suffering (no air conditioning), a little salesmanship (upselling the party planners to patterned plates) and a whole lot of sweat, workplace camaraderie and funeral luncheon decoration decisions.
Seriously. I learned a lot. I would never take it back. And because I was focused on learning, I had fun—I really did. Not only that, but I learned to figure out when I had outgrown a job. (This is a skill you should never underestimate.)
In all honesty, I had no idea that shutting your mouth and taking whatever job you can get as a career tactic was a secret until recently, when I moved back to the U.S. after spending almost three years in Mexico.
When I moved to Mexico, I sold all my stuff on Craigslist, packed it into a few unwieldy suitcases and hauled down to Mexico with my new fiancé. I had no idea what was going to happen. I was fine with that—really.
That’s because I had grown up believing life owed me nothing if I gave it no effort. That is to say, if I didn’t look for adventure or opportunity or work, I certainly wouldn’t find any of those things—and that was the impetus for everything I’d ever done up until that point, from taking my first drink to studying abroad in Prague to asking men out myself (and having them say no) to publishing a bitter poem about my mother when I was 16 that won a small literary prize.
(Note to other 16 year old girls: this is not a great way to shore up the mother-daughter situation.)
But seriously. Mexico taught me even more than the balloon-blowing job. It taught me that the only people who get anything done anywhere are the people who make it happen. And it also taught me that there’s no stupider thing on earth than complaining, something Americans love to do—at least, not if you’re not going to do something about it.
Finally, it taught me that no one deserves anything. And most people in the world take it for granted that they’ll never have anything.
So I come back to the U.S., hyped up on the opportunities of my native land, glad to be back in a place where I believe I could raise children, where myself and my husband can succeed. And I’m confronted with the deep-seated delusion in this country among a certain class of people about college degrees and what they mean (read my thoughts on this and Anya Kamenetz’s book on the subject ). And I’m tired of hearing straight-A students or grads talk about what they deserve and how professional they are and blah, blah, blah.
I went to two great schools and studied my a** off. Yes, so I’m proud of that, but it’s not what makes me a valuable employee. Employers like to see it, but they don’t really care.
They want to know if I can adapt to change, if I’m a fast learner, if I can manage others, if I can get along with my colleagues and if I can meet deadlines. They really, really don’t care how I fared in that survey on Eastern religion. Because unto itself, it proves nothing about who I am; my mind is only as good as its application.
And you know how I reached the point where I felt I could say, confidently, “Yes, I can do all of those things for you?” By working jobs other than the jobs I thought I really wanted. Flipping burgers, so to speak. (Or, in my case, scrubbing toilets at a dentist’s office.)
It sounds like I’m contradicting myself here. I’m someone who thinks it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a Saturday night reading a book, who dons DJ headphones to analyze each second of her favorite band’s latest output. For all intents and purposes, I’m a sloppy liberal humanist poet. I believe in ideas.
So then what’s all this crap about doing?
Simple: if you don’t go out into the world and try it on for size, you’re no good to anyone. Not even to yourself. How can you love? Travel? Work? Run a business, a home, an empire? Hats off to you if you get a brilliant job that you love straight out of school. Chances are, that’s not how it will work.
You’ll work menial jobs, or jobs that seemed great but aren’t, and you’ll suffer at the hands of menacing colleagues or overbearing managers. You’ll wonder how the hell you got there. You’ll quite jobs gracefully and ungracefully.
You’ll pack up and move to Mexico, maybe, only to find out that the grass is always greener and admitting your mistakes is the best lesson of all.
The point is, you need one skill in your working life, other than a good work ethic, and that’s the willingness to try everything and fail anything. It’s impossible to teach. Lucky people have parents who made this clear—maybe by action or words, I’m not sure.
But everyone can do it.
Remember this when you’re slogging through a job you despise. Stop thinking about how your feet hurt or how great you are or all that work you did in college and who’s doing what on Facebook right now.
You are the only person living your life. Think about what you could be learning if you’d just stay focused.
Take on a project. Ask for a raise. Mentor a lost coworker.
And then, then, tell me how it feels to go to work.
© 2010 Lindsey Donner. All rights reserved.