Having personally responded to over 50,000 emails from workers and bosses, as you can imagine, I’ve received screenfuls of emails about awful workplaces—or should that be screamfuls of emails?
A few examples from my inbox—there was the guy who got a daily soaking trying to spray clean dumpsters with a pressure washer, the woman who had to work next to the guy who would have loud, long conversations with his wife totally in baby talk, the guy who had to inventory used underwear after fashion shows, the guy who wrote to me that he just goes to work hoping that he’ll come home with all of his body parts intact and the woman who worked for a boss who asked his assistant to type her own termination letter.
Woody Allen once said that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. And I think this is also applies to work. For every horrible, outrageous, over-the-top and borderline cruel workplace like the ones above, there are millions more that are miserable. Note I didn’t say “merely” miserable, because I believe that miserable workplaces have a way of building up in your system, like mercury in a fish. Over time this buildup can be just as toxic.
Still not seeing the distinction here? I like to think of horrible as a meteor that crashes to earth destroying everything in its path. Miserable? That is the pebble in our shoe that most of us must walk around in day after day after day. After being miserable for twenty years, admit it, there are times where you wish that meteor would strike, if for no other reason than to put you out of your misery.
Examples of miserable at work would include the boss who is always looking over your shoulder and second guessing everything that you do. The coworker who always manages to go AWOL so that you have to answer the phone or cover their work just when you are facing your own big deadline. The customer, who even after they’ve bought your product, is still pushing you for a discount or some swag. The accounting department that rejects your expense reimbursement requests on average three times. The coworker who is an expert on all parts of your job but dumber than a rock about doing his. The company that announces that it will be laying off thousands of workers, but not saying who for another six months. You get the drift, heck, you have your own stories of misery and woe at work.
So how do we survive? I’ve developed a simple litmus test. Are the problems that you’re facing the “right” kind of problems or the “wrong” kind of problems? Sorting out that distinction, to me, is the key to a satisfying career.
At least a couple of you out there are asking, why all the focus on problems? “Sure, work has it’s downside, but it also has a lot of virtues too.” And to that line of reasoning I would say, sure, life is good when you have a parking spot right next to the building, an expense account, a fancy title and a corner office. Yes, work can have its privileges. But for the overwhelming majority of us, work is a minefield of problems.
What are the “wrong” kind of problems? Demeaning bosses, unsafe working conditions, crying on a regular basis, getting lied to—yes, when people write to me describing any of these circumstances, I always say the same thing, start networking and cleaning up your resume.
The right kind of problems? Being frustrated because your bold new idea isn’t quite ready for prime time. Having to scramble each day because you are always learning and adapting to new situations. Feeling the weight of the responsibility and authority that your boss has entrusted in your hands.
If I had a magic wand I would put everyone in a position where they had the right kind of problems and a nurturing workplace community that would provide support during the search for solutions. But since I don’t have a magic wand, it’s up to you to escape the horrible and the miserable in search of the right stuff. Good luck in your journey.
About the Author: Bob Rosner is a best-selling author and award-winning journalist. For free job and work advice, check out the award-winning workplace911.com. If you have a question for Bob, contact him via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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