Oh Shit, You Mean This is Forever?
November 10, 2010 8:36 PM   Subscribe

Why do I get panicky and want to quit right after getting full-time work? How can I stop this from happening?

I just finished my master's degree and am entering the world of grown-up work. However, today I was offered a full time office position and am starting to panic again. I like temp work. I like part time work. I like anything that either does not require me to sacrifice my daytime hours M-F to a job or has an end date in sight.

The job I got today was a typical office job and thinking about doing Excel spreadsheets and copier stuff and scheduling meetings day in and day out with no foreseeable end has me anxious and looking for an escape.

How do you deal with a 9-6 office job? What is wrong with me? Is this a normal thing to be so afraid of, and do I just suck it up and deal? I would love to hear personal anecdotes about getting over this problem.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 36 users marked this as a favorite
All work is temporary.

No, seriously. All work is temporary. You can quit if you have to. It's more fun to quit if you keep this in mind, and prepare for the act of quitting (by saving money, scouting for jobs you'd like better, etc.) If you don't quit, you'll eventually get fired. (Laid off, whatever.) Or, you know, you'll die. But the first two are more likely for any given job, in this economy.

I know exactly how you feel - I feel that way myself, every time, usually about 4 months in. But I've also realized that if it gets to the point where I need to leave, I can leave. And I will, and have.
posted by restless_nomad at 8:41 PM on November 10, 2010 [16 favorites]

I'm going to assume your job is in a field related to your degree.

With that in mind, why did you study that knowing that you'd end up in an office job?

All that aside, I'm not sure there is any way to get over your "problem". You may grow to like it but I think the chance of that is extremely slim - if you feel this way already, I have a hard time seeing you ever be happy with it.

Bottom line: You should be excited about your first big job/career, not dreading it before you even start.
posted by _DB_ at 8:46 PM on November 10, 2010

One other thing...

If you create the right lifestyle, it is completely possible to live well on temp/part-time pay. You will have to be good at budgeting and have a bit of willpower but that may be the answer to your situation.
posted by _DB_ at 8:50 PM on November 10, 2010

I see two separate problems here.

#1 is that you don't seem to care for clerical office work, the type that people often call drudge work or busywork. The way to solve this is to not take a job like that. There are thousands of other careers that require no part of Excel or making copies.

What was your master's degree in? Presumably you stayed in school for 5+ years pursuing something that you could then take as a vocation.

#2 is that you don't seem mentally prepared for the transition from a long career in college to a "real job." You say you don't want to give up all your daytime M-F hours... what exactly do you fancy doing with that time? Sleeping? Lounging? Walking the dog?

Academia's relatively lazy carefree days, summers and long breaks, flexible schedules, low-key dress code, and all the other great things that make school fun... well, sure, it sucks to lose those.

How you can stop this from happening is to mentally just get your head around the fact that if you want to be able to pay bills, establish credit, establish yourself as a professional, own a home, and all those other markers of adulthood... you're going to have to obtain and hold down a real job.

There are trade-offs for committing to a full-time job: security, money, pride, intellectual growth. It could be that you aren't giving a full-time job a real chance to demonstrate those benefits, because you keep skipping out for P/T or temp work.

But I'll go ahead and point out the obvious: if you are independently wealthy and don't have to work, then don't. Sleep all day.
posted by pineapple at 8:51 PM on November 10, 2010 [3 favorites]

What I think you're describing is a normal and common feeling. After I graduated from university, I bounced from job to job, none of them a very good fit. In one place I had to deal with a hostile work environment, at another place I quickly became disillusioned with the work I did. These were all entry-level positions with a lot of turnover, so it didn't feel unusual to leave one job for the next.

I didn't like going to work, I didn't like the work I did, I didn't connect with my coworkers (who told me I asked too many questions). Basically, each day felt like I had walked into a stranger's house and was sitting around, waiting to be shown out.

Luckily, none of these jobs were the sort of thing that follows you into your leisure time. I was able to unwind by developing and pursuing a bunch of hobbies and interests.

My way out of the cycle was stumbling upon a job that I enjoy doing. What I do now is pretty varied, occasionally challenging, and gives me plenty of opportunities to learn new skills. I find that if I enjoy the work, I get along much better with colleagues, form working relationships with supervisors, and, most importantly, stave off that feeling of existential dread.
posted by Nomyte at 8:52 PM on November 10, 2010 [2 favorites]

Without knowing your exact situation, think about your mental framing. If you wake up in the morning and think "I have to make copies and answer stupid phone calls for eight hours" you will probably never be happy in your work. But if you can think of your office's larger mission and see yourself as a contributor to that, even a small one, you might feel a lot better about yourself and/or your situation.

And go by yourself some nice clothes and set up a nice vacation for yourself. Grad. school was fun for me, but I don't miss the subsistence living aspect of it.
posted by bardic at 9:06 PM on November 10, 2010

You might want to check out a book called How to Be Useful by Megan Hustad. She noticed that 20 and 30 year olds are having a hard time surviving in the corporate hierarchy, so she distilled 100 years of "success literature" - all the way back to Horatio Alger and up to Donald Trump - into one quick, easy to read book. It's subtitled A Beginner's Guide to Not Hating Work.

There are a number of reasons why the office hierarchy doesn't work for young people anymore - particularly because they don't have much in the way of expectation. The first chapter, which focuses on "just be yourself" (it's crap advice, apparently) is a gentle way of telling the reader that they are not a special snowflake. When I use "you" and "yourself" here, I'm just echoing the author's thoughts btw.

So don't be yourself and do your best to conform for the first few years of your working life. Build up a reputation as reliable, hard working and polite - and then when the time comes, you can slowly undo all this when you have greater ambitions and don't want to be the office gopher. This is discussed in a later chapter as well, and one I found the most useful. It seems people start feeling discontent around the 4 year mark.

The second chapter on politeness was a hoot. It seems most people should know this, but I guess it needs to told. Don't snipe others as you never know who's listening. That old guy in the elevator - maybe he's the CEO - but they probably have power over you. Cut down on cynical remarks - they can come back to haunt you when cool jobs get passed to someone else - you just might be building a reputation for hating things.

There's a chapter on dressing for success, and a chapter on how to tell deprecating stories well. Everyone likes a good story, and if you're going to tell one, it's a good idea to practice it for flawless delivery. Know when there's a right time to not be too "smart" - it's usually better to make your boss look smart instead. I don't know how applicable all this advice is, perhaps it depends on how rigid the office hierarchy is, but like any self-help books, there's always some useful gems.

Good luck! My office is pretty flexible and not too regimented, so I think I'm just lucky. But being polite, and remembering the names of co-workers pets, kids and hobbies seems to have worked for me. It could be that there is nothing wrong with you btw - some people are just not suited for offlice life and that's OK too :-)
posted by Calzephyr at 9:08 PM on November 10, 2010 [7 favorites]

Totally normal. I was underemployed (I hate that that term exists and that I know it well, but ok) for a few years. When I did find full time work, I was relieved. Along with that relief came a teeeny tiny bit of grief too because OMG I had to be somewhere everyday? At 9am? Really?!?

To answer your title question: no! It's not forever! I'm guessing you did the straight from high school to college to masters to job thing. I took a different route, but I PROMISE you, it's not forever. I sometimes feel that way too (both of my parents worked in the same place for 25+ years so it's like, "THIS IS YOUR JOB AND THATS IT!" not, "this is what you do for money right now".)

Re: DB's comment: My day job is in my field, but it's definitely not what I thought I'd be doing a few years after I graduated. But I get to see another side of the industry and I've met a lot of people that I'll have contacts/be friends with for a long time. Not all degrees lead to the Perfect Dream Job right out of school. OP - the job is in your field? Cool! If it's not - well, at least you can pay the bills this month. Figure the rest out as it comes.

You do what you do. If you want to change that in a few months or years or never, you're allowed!
posted by AlisonM at 9:09 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have no solution, but want to point out that what you're feeling was exactly how I felt. It wasn't the job I didn't like, it was this never-ending expanse called "the future." All throughout your life, up until you graduate college/grad school/etc., you have timelines and goals. School starts in September, ends in May. I have 3 years to go, 2 years to go, 1 year to go...goal! Your life is structured with dates and deadlines.

I wandered a bit right out of school (at least mentally), and it wasn't until I realized this was I then able to look at my future not as this endless horizon, but digest it in smaller and smaller chunks. Goals, regardless of how grand or small, are still important. Best of luck.
posted by Sreiny at 9:09 PM on November 10, 2010

After further thought, I do agree with you for the most part. What I was mainly getting at was if OP has settled on this particular job, he should be satisfied with it. I see no point in taking a job right away out of grad school unless you either love it or need the money. And in the latter case, your secondary job should be finding that job you love.

As far as the OP's original post - if you don't want to do this job forever, awesome, at least you've decided that already. It takes some people a lifetime to realize they hate their job. Take what you can from it and use it to get yourself where you want to be, whether that is another field, another company, or PT/temp work.
posted by _DB_ at 9:25 PM on November 10, 2010

with no foreseeable end

This is your problem. You can accept a full-time job, then go in the first day, work for one hour, and announce "you know what? This isn't working for me. Later, gator." So there, the end is foreseeable.

So, knowing you can pull the plug any time you want, you have to stop focusing so much on the job, and concentrate on what the job gets you. Does it enable you to go to school? Then the foreseeable end is finishing school. Does it enable you to buy your first car? Then the foreseeable end is buying your car and banking enough to pay for gas and insurance.

However, a foreseeable end isn't even necessary -- think of what it enables. Does it enable you to get out of your parent's house? That is its' own reward! Does it enable you to move to another city closer to the things you enjoy doing, or help you pay for travel, or buy the things you love to collect, and so on? Hell, does it enable you to eat and have clothes? Then the job's a great means to that end.

At the end of the day, what you seem to be afraid of is a hopeless, pointless existence. And yes, jobs like you describe aren't enough to build a life around until/unless you find a job you love -- and that won't happen without experience and training. This job will get you some of that, so it's a means to that end, too.

And hey, yeah, this job may suck -- so if you're worried about hopeless dead-end job-ness, just keep looking for a new job, even as you work. Spend three months to nine months working your ass off, learn as much as you can and see if there's room to advance, and if there is, great -- and if there's not, start looking for a new job after those three to nine months are up.

Everybody goes through the process of having some crappy full-time jobs to get to the good ones, but not everybody stresses out so much. You don't have to, either. This job isn't your prison, it isn't your life, it isn't who you are -- it's a means to an end. Just make sure you know what the end is, and don't lose sight of it.
posted by davejay at 9:32 PM on November 10, 2010 [8 favorites]

Why do I get panicky and want to quit right after getting full-time work?

Just to answer that first little bit of your question. It's because you suddenly have a whole lot less free time to do all the other things you consider necessary; suddenly ramping up how much work you do is tiring or even exhausting; it's stressful having to learn new tasks and routines; you're dealing with new people who you don't know and while that's easy enough if you think you only have to deal with them in passing it is much harder when you know you'll have to get along for quite some time; and because of all the other minor new job stuff (will I get paid the right amount on time, has my tax documentation been sorted properly, my boss smells, etc).

It's totally normal. It settles down. If it doesn't, consider approaching your GP about anxiety before you consider throwing away your source of income.
posted by Ahab at 11:11 PM on November 10, 2010 [1 favorite]

>>Why do I get panicky and want to quit right after getting full-time work?

There may also be some element of fear-of-failure. People don't expect much of temps. You can exceed expectation as a temp, but you have to be phenomenally bad to fail. With a permanent position, you may feel like, "Oh God, this counts." Some of that's just normal settling in jitters. Go in, put your best foot forward, and do your best. You'll probably do just fine, and who knows what the future will bring?
posted by Ys at 6:05 AM on November 11, 2010

No personal anecdotes for a 9-5 job but for the painful meetings I recently devised a plan for myself. Instead of the automatic thought that "Gawd, can we get started already" or "Gawd, this is soooo painfully boring" or "Gawd, I can't stand you guys anymore", I tell myself, "Damn, you guys suck. I know the meeting is for an hour but you guys suck so much that I am going to tolerate you just for the next five minutes and see if gets any better". At the end of the next five minutes (and this is an estimate, I don't watch the time), I push it for just another five minutes. And then for the next five. So far it has worked. You really have to trick your mind here. Your mind is playing games with you!

...Excel spreadsheets and copier stuff and scheduling meetings day in and day out with no foreseeable end...

When this thought comes to your mind, actively stop thinking about it. It takes practice but you can say to yourself that I have to complete X task right this moment. I will think about excel and the copier at Y time for Z minutes.

And when you do think about it at the scheduled Y hour, you should also tell yourself that its true the work sucks and you are correct in feeling that way BUT think about the paycheck at the end of the month, the free time after five. What is the pay-off for working 8 hours a day? Make a list. It doesn't matter what you have to do in those 8 hours. Its just 8 hours of work that you can do.

I think one can get into this mode at entry level or higher levels of jobs and getting anxious is not abnormal. The key is to learn to change that thought of being trapped in this forever to having some control. But you will need to make a list of things that are in your control at work and especially about things outside of work that you are able to do just because you have this full-time job.
posted by xm at 6:37 AM on November 11, 2010

Thinking about how difficult it is right now for people who don't have jobs, helps me appreciate my job a lot more and not get too hung up on my loss of free time. A lot of people are having a tough time finding work and the fact that I've got a place to go everyday and a pay check every other week helps me feel a bit better about answering phones, making copies and messing around with Excel all day.
posted by smirkyfodder at 6:56 AM on November 11, 2010

I like my job, but I still really miss my former academic schedule.

One thing you can try to do is look for a workplace that's relatively flexible about having you actually sitting at your desk from 9-6. Carve out a little time in your day to go out for a walk, or sit in the park and have lunch. Maybe multiple times a day. If it's not the kind of workplace where people depend on you being at your desk during those set hours all the time, occasionally think about coming in early and leaving early, or coming in late and leaving late.

Also, this may be obvious, but it helps a lot to have coworkers that you like and look forward to hanging out with. You could try to look for a place that has people you like, and once you get there, make an effort to stop by people's offices and chat once in a while or go to happy hour after work.
posted by chickenmagazine at 7:27 AM on November 11, 2010 [1 favorite]

First thing to do is reframe the situation. Feeling good about your job is a learned skill. The people around you have learned to do it. You can learn to do it too.

Look at it this way: by the time you've finished an advanced degree you are really good at school. But in particular, you're really good at enjoying school. Student life is full of shit that's just as dull as spreadsheets and meetings; but you've spent the past several decades of your life learning how to make it fun — or to ignore it if you can't enjoy it, or to cope with it if you can't ignore it.

Unless you're truly and completely Wrong For a desk job (some people are) you'll find ways to enjoy it too. It'll just take time; but it'll go faster if you're deliberate about doing it, and willing to learn from the people around you. Quick tips:
  1. Put pictures of people or places you love on your desk. This isn't some inexplicable middle-aged-person thing. It will work on you too (unless you do not love anyone or anything, and then you have bigger problems).
  2. Don't pretend to be friendly with your co-workers. Actually be friendly with them. Tell dumb jokes. Shoot the shit. You can be just as genuine with these guys as you can with college classmates who you don't know outside class — which is to say, not that genuine, but enough to keep from dying of loneliness and boredom.
  3. Find work clothes you think you look good in. This isn't exactly the same as "dress for success"; it's more like "dress to avoid self-loathing." If you've got to wear a suit, find one that makes you all "Hey, motherfuckers, how ya like me now? I'm in a motherfucking suit." If your office is "business casual" and you're a dude, you might want to overdo it a bit, because I don't know anyone who feels badass in cheap khakis and an old baggy polo shirt.
I can sort of picture you rolling your eyes over these. ("Really, he wants me to put up pictures?") I think a lot of people our age get culture shock over this stuff when we first encounter it. We write it off as Old Office Drones Being Pathetic. ("Isn't it sad how that one lady won't shut up about her grandkids? And she's got pictures of them everywhere...") And so it doesn't occur to us that it's actually just human beings, finding ways of feeling human in a sort of dehumanizing situation — just like we had to do all through school.

I blame the Onion, sort of. I mean, it sure didn't start with them; but you'll notice that every single issue has at least one "Area Grown-Up Pathetic For Finding Small Moments Of Happiness" article. Fuck that. Find some small goddamn moments of happiness and don't worry if they make you uncool.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:08 AM on November 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

I know how you feel too. My mom's boss asked me to come in and help out at the office stuffing envelopes for a couple of weeks, and it turned into a job falling right into my lap. I like to tell myself that it's not a job and I don't really work there (even though I do get paid), that I'm just there helping out for the time being. "Yeah, I come in to the office and help out a few times a week."

It helps that my boss doesn't care what time I come in as long as the work gets done by Friday. Being able to get there whenever I want is a huge help in making me feel like I have control of the situation and has kept me from calling in sick on more than one occasion. If I had to answer the phones, for example, I'd have to be there when the office was open. But my work is not so time-dependent. Would you be able to negotiate a similar situation in your new job?
posted by IndigoRain at 9:55 AM on November 11, 2010

For what it's worth, I, at 26, feel pretty much the same way about desk jobs. I've worked two, for periods of one year, each (I knew my tenure at each job would end, for life-change reasons, before I was hired), and by 2 months or so in was always counting the days. I acknowledge that it might have been these jobs, as much as office work, generally, but I know this: any attempts to take ownership over or pride in my work invariably failed. My best ideas were committeed to death or overrided by people who would openly admit that had less expertise than me. I watched decisions of dubious ethics be enacted in the workplace. I had to spend my relatively low wages on clothes that made me feel uncomfortable. I had friendships with coworkers, but they were mostly built on the foundations of talking about how unhappy we were. The people in these offices stuck around for a long time, but none of them cared. I'm a person for whom pride and passion are important; I was happier waiting tables, or tutoring, or teaching, had fewer problems with the work itself or even the bullshit attached to the work when I could come in, do a good job, and go home. My white collar jobs were mostly all about looking busy enough to avoid getting in trouble, not just for me but for my coworkers, too.

About six months ago, I moved, and left a job where I was unhappy. And my first instinct was to apply to new office jobs. I got a few interviews quickly, and even had a job offer. But I was having bad dreams about the prospect of taking it--of consigning my life away in that same way. So I looked into Other Options. Right now, I'm working for an educational testing company grading essays from home, supplementing that with freelance, and focusing on my writing. It's an odd job (I can't tell you how many times my mother has expressed surprise that I'm "really working all day"), and it's involved some sacrifices--with the cost of health insurance factored in, I just barely break even with what I'd be making at a desk job, and it's not completely regular work, not guaranteed in the same way that my office work was.

But I'm happy doing it. I'm good at it, and work hard on the days that I work, but the work doesn't feel inherently wrong to me in the same way that those bored days at the office did. I sit at home, in a space where I'm comfortable, with my cat, wearing jeans, listening to music. I'm well rested and emotionally centered. I go for walks around my neighborhood during my breaks and have the time and the energy to nurture my friendships that I'd let go, didn't have the time for, when I worked in an office.

I think it's okay to decide that this kind of work, or life, isn't for you. It's a hard decision to make, and even harder to justify to people who don't get it. But for me, letting myself make that decision has been nothing but awesome.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:54 AM on November 11, 2010 [5 favorites]

Another book that might help, which my co-worker lent me to, is Making Peace with Your Office Life which has a history of how office life developed, why it's so crappy and a big Q&A section on how to overcome problems.
posted by Calzephyr at 9:15 AM on November 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

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