It was one of the worst jobs I ever had…

The staff was cliquey and always gossiping and backbiting about the others, the boss was incompetent and sleazy, and the pay was crappy with an impossible workload. I was there for a year but it felt like 100 years. Sound familiar?

That was one of my “bad job” experiences from the past. We have all had them and most of us survive and move on.  But I think it’s important to mark these “bad job” experiences and figure out how they can be used for growth rather than just remaining a bitter memory seeded in our hearts.  I’m going to call this process “post traumatic transformation,” but first my artistic foray: let’s explore that bitter seed issue more deeply so you can see how I got started on this journey.

“Life can only be understood backwards, but it must be lived forwards”

Soren Kierkegaard

It was a few years ago, following a couple of jobs where I felt I had been used and exploited, that I decided to take a graduate level art research course.  I chose photography as my focus and used the last few places I had worked as my subjects.  Applying the knowledge from the course, I photographed empty rooms in one of the buildings in ways to make the viewer feel alone, marginalized, and unwelcome. Then I created a street with traffic signs to weave the “clincher” comment from one of my managers into the photos. The comment said, “We didn’t buy you a goodbye gift, because if you come back we would have wasted our money.”  Imagine how I felt.

At the end of the dead end street sentence I added a blood-red paint imprint of my hand on a photo of a brick wall. There was no title, nobody knew the context, and the organizational names or branding were not visible anywhere. As I worked on this exhibit I went through so many emotions: anger, betrayal, frustration. I almost ripped a couple of the photos in a rage. But I kept going and eventually had the thing up on about a 10X10 meter wall space.

For the opening of the exhibit, I invited several immigrant friends who were just learning English and were looking for work to see if they would understand the imagery. I also invited past colleagues, a few friends and some family members. Then I stood and watched as they went through the photos and saw the comment. Most were visibly moved. One of my immigrant friends pointed to his heart and said, “Very bad working. Me too. I know this.” My father came and hugged me and said, “I’m so sorry you had to go through this,” although he had no idea what it was about. Even a 10-year-old girl in the group said, “People shouldn’t treat their workers this way.” Everyone understood it. When the exhibit was over I ripped everything up and threw it away. And then I had an idea.

What if I had learned something from these two or three bad jobs that I could use to improve my odds now? As I reflected on my experiences I realized I had made many of the same mistakes that ended up landing me in the same kinds of bad jobs time after time. I have since corrected these mistakes and I feel appreciative of those bad experiences because they catapulted me into my current successes both as an employee and now as a business owner. Here is a list of my worst job mistakes and what I learned from them:

Mistake 1: Do your job and ignore your colleagues

When I was working at all those jobs I just put my nose to the grindstone and didn’t really try to make friends with colleagues. I figured I was paid to do my job and they were paid to do theirs and that was it. THIS IS A BIG MISTAKE. People disliked me and they had good reason to. Part of every job is to cultivate allies and friends. Doing this means you know people you can go back to for referrals and even job offers, or that you can at least call on a few sympathetic souls from time to time. And it is just the friendly human thing to do. Don’t be a stuck up workaholic loner: it totally did not work for me.

What I do now: Make a conscious effort to cultivate friendships among staff. Find out about them, do nice things for them and appreciate at least one quality about them. That way I don’t dwell on any weaknesses and I increase everyone’s likeability in my eyes and those of others. They like me better, and in the process I discover some real gems among my colleagues!

Mistake 2: Do everything your boss asks you to do – and then do more

I always did what the boss wanted and I just about killed myself doing it. When I left the three bad jobs in a row, it took two people to replace me, except for the one where they couldn’t find a replacement and they begged me to come back (I didn’t).

What I do now: Stop trying to please people in authority. Instead I negotiate things I really do not want to do and find people who would do those jobs better than me.  Oftentimes these people actually LIKE to do those jobs, so it’s a win for them too.  Because handing jobs off isn’t always feasible, I also look for collaborative ways for a group to share a little bit of the pain together so it isn’t all on my shoulders.  When I’ve got my plan in place, I let the decision makers in on it.  The result? Big respect.

Mistake 3: Accept the salary that is offered to me without doing my research

I was so grateful to have work – I did have four children after all – that I just took the job and the salary and got started. Later I found out that the men who had the same position had ALL asked for a higher salary and they ALL received it. It totally sucked to be me.

What I do now: I believe I am worth it and I ask for the fee I know I should be making WITHIN the context of the current market and the range that is acceptable.  Negotiating salary is important because you don’t want to look like a pushover, but you don’t want to look greedy and entitled either.  In my case I just didn’t know I had a choice.  I make a lot more money now and I’m happy about it.  Wouldn’t you be?

Mistake 4: As the problems increase, isolate yourself more

I just felt bad and thought that the pettiness and bad work ethic in the organization was either my fault or that the others were all monsters and there was no way to win. This led to me looking and sounding either sad or sarcastic or negative – all of which did not invite others to talk to me.

What I do now: Show some courage and have the difficult conversation with the colleague, boss or or client who is the biggest part of the problem, respectfully but firmly. AND I now keep the impossible people in the loop more regularly than the people I like. Both these strategies have worked well for me.  In one instance the person I confronted about the workplace issue actually promoted me and in another the impossible individual actually recommended me for other jobs with glowing reviews. Win/ win. It’s all good. And I feel satisfied that I have taken the high road.

Mistake 5: Stay even when the ship is going down

Sometimes the company or organization is so bad you know it is going down. My mistake was to loyally stand by to help. Bad idea. This meant I was associated with the bad organization when it went down and that took awhile to get over reputation-wise. If all the signs are there that the ship is sinking, it is time to get off and save your own life. You might be able to save a few other lives once you have escaped yourself, but you certainly won’t help anyone if you go down with the ship.

What I do now: Give a bad situation a couple of tries. If there are improvements, give it a chance to grow but watch what is happening mindfully. If there are no improvements, I leave and expect a better opportunity will come up, which it always does. There is no job security. We all make our own success. As soon as we realize this, we are likely to take a bad situation and turn it into a life lesson.

Which brings me to my final point….

Everything we experience, and particularly in our work experience, is part of the “school of life.” And it isn’t free. There is a tuition fee for the lessons we learn. Sometimes it is a small fee and sometimes it is a whopper. So if we lose time, money, joy, reputation or health over a bad job – chalk it up to tuition for a life lesson. Then reflect on what has been learned to so that you are poised to move on to bigger and better things. That way, no matter what happens, we always come out on top and I look forward to enjoying the view with you!

Want to improve your own career odds? Here are a couple resources:

Figure out how to turn job rejections into career opportunities using our FREE download: “Rejected again! Practical tips for turning job rejections into opportunites”

Grow your understanding of how culture affects the workplace using our FREE eLearning module

“Life is the art of drawing without an eraser”

John W. Gardner