In his sobering, yet oddly calming, blog post on finding a purpose in life, Mark Manson helpfully reminds us that “everything sucks, some of the time.” I can’t possibly be telling you anything new when I say that every job and every career comes with its weekly allotment of nonsense and drudgery. Actually, maybe I am telling you something new, because I didn’t want to accept it until I was about 27.
“I don’t want to deal with this crap anymore” can be a powerful motivator to challenge ourselves and find jobs that better fit who we are, but we should be careful. Our dream jobs, passions, and callings are all going to involve their weekly allotments of nonsense and drudgery too. What kinds of nonsense and drudgery are you more willing to put up with, and what sacrifices are you more inclined to make?
Here’s a story about my least favourite flavour of nonsense and drudgery: difficult conversations. One of my more recent corporate jobs involved regulatory monitoring of a company’s independent contractor sales agents. I kept an eye on transactions and had to reach out to the agents when something looked odd. Their primary role was to make sales and keep existing customers happy. Sometimes, the things I needed to verify or put a stop to would get in the way of a sale they were closing, or risk straining a relationship with one of their customers.
80% of the agents were fine about this; I was potentially saving them hours of regulatory and even legal headaches in the future. 10% of them were understanding and fun to the point where dealing with them was the best part of the job. The remaining 10% were unpleasant to the point of being the worst part of the job. I’ve been called a moron, spineless, and accused of sabotaging more businesses than I can count. Not fun. I used to take this emotional junk home with me on the weekends too, feeling terrible about myself, and being withdrawn and miserable around my loved ones.
There are some universal, easy to understand components to why what I just described was experienced negatively. There are unpleasant physiological responses to getting yelled at over the phone by a jerk: the most primative part of our brain detects a threat, the heart rate quickens, and our flight-or-fight response starts to kick in.
Furthermore, the power dynamics were skewed. The agents were independent business owners only accountable to themselves in certain respects. As an employee of the parent company, I, on the other hand, was held extremely accountable for what I said and how I said it. So when the flight-or-fight response kicked in, leaning too hard towards fight meant there would be professional consequences. Similarly, leaning to hard towards flight meant not doing my job properly, and that had its own set of professional consequences.
NIGHTCLUBS: THAT’S WHERE ALL THE RATIONAL, FAIR-MINDED PEOPLE MUST BE
More than anything, I wanted a job where I wouldn’t have to deal with this nonsense, “How dare people treat me this way?” At the time, I had started making small, tentative steps into the Toronto club scene as a DJ. It seemed like the cure for so much of the nonsense and drudgery of my day job: if I could make a living spinning in clubs, that would be the end of people talking down to me. Yeah… not so much.
A familiar pattern started to emerge: 80% of the clubbers, staff, and fellow DJs I dealt with were fine; 10% were amazing, and 10% were self-absorbed and actively hostile. There’s no escape, not even in the most hedonistic, escapist spaces: “everything sucks, some of the time.” You know what I did about it? I sulked. I refused to network or promote and, very unfairly, left all those responsibilities to another DJ far more motivated to break us in to the scene. The end result was bad gigs, and then no gigs, and then a few years of bitterness. I’m lucky I can’t travel back in time, because I’d slap myself so hard, you’d still be able to see the mark on my face today.
WHAT IS TOLERABLE?
I did eventually change careers and, make no mistake, it’s quite nice to no longer get berated over the phone. However, it’s not as though now that I’ve realized my dream of self-employment, 10% of people are no longer jerks. The nature of difficult conversations has changed: now I get the occasional person questioning the legitimacy and feasibility of what I do now in such a way that I can tell they already have their minds made up on the subject.
The power dynamics have shifted though: I can do my best to try and educate (share my views on coaching and clear up any misconceptions or assumptions I hear) or just flat out let someone know when I feel they have crossed the line and how. I can even flat-out disengage with someone when the other options feel too much like talking into a void.
It turns out that I am willing to tolerate difficult conversations and am getting slightly better at having them. What specifically bothered me about that corporate job was the necessity of emotionally charged conversations about things I had no control over and had only lukewarm interest in. But I had to experience those difficult conversations and gain a certain level of proficiency with them in order to realize it. I could not have admitted it at the time, but I was very lucky to stay in that corporate job as long as I did.
Knowing what I know now, I am willing to put up with a considerable amount of unpleasantness and drudgery in pursuit of what I want to be doing: I’ve put off having a family, I grapple with the occasional financial uncertainties of self-employment, and I hold myself accountable for putting in long, odd hours.
When you find yourself profoundly sick of your current job (and, let’s be real, that’s what tends to bring people to my site) before you do anything, I would encourage you to take a few minutes and write out your answers to the following. Don’t think anything through, just start writing and see what comes up.
- What are the most unpleasant conversations you have to have as part of your job?
- Why do you have to have them?
- What is the most intolerable part of them? Why?
- What have you learned or gotten better at as a result of them?
- How would your job and your life be different if you didn’t have to have them anymore?
Anything unexpected come out while you were answering those questions? I hope so. Pay particular attention to those surprises.
Interested in discussing what can be done about the difficult conversations you have at work, what can be done about them, or if they merit a career change? Let’s have a free 45 minute chat