How do you find more meaningful work to do AT work?
January 28, 2011 10:15 PM   Subscribe

How do you find more meaningful work to do AT work?

Just for context: I graduated in May 2010 from USC with a B.S. in Business Administration and a minor in Piano Performance. I currently live in NYC and would like to find work here or in Los Angeles.

For the past 6 months, I have been working in a position that I would more or less describe as temp work. I currently make $14/hour doing mostly administrative work at an arts non-profit organization in New York City. Occasionally I am assigned some challenging projects, but there are only a few accomplishments I am really few proud of.

Over the course of my time at work, I feel like every part of my life has atrophied to the point that I feel rusty and diffident in everything I used to pride myself on being good at - writing, music, socializing, sports. For example, I looked over some of my old English Literature papers from college the other day (when I thought about pursuing a third degree in English) and couldn't help but feel wistful when I saw the level of eloquence and thought I used to put in my writing. I feel like I've regressed, and sometimes feel like I've given up so much potential... and the thought of that erodes my sense of self-worth and energy levels. Thankfully, I managed to pull myself out of complacency and resignation before they took over my life.

I have concluded that "gruntwork" - both the duration spent on mindless drudgery and the subsequent burnout - is one of the main reasons for my disillusionment. There’s very little sense of accomplishment; I hardly feel like I’m improving on any skills that would be useful in a personal or professional context. This is especially hard for me to deal with, because I flourish in activities that involve intense focus, skill building, and increasing levels of difficulty (for examples - playing piano, writing, skating).

I want to do more meaningful work, work that involves a high level of concentration and achievement. I don't mind doing gruntwork for a portion of the day (which is therapeutic from time to time), and I realize there's a certain amount of "paying your dues" before your supervisors can trust you to take on bigger projects. But after you've demonstrated you're skilled, dependable, and quick with the most basic tasks, how do you get to do more complex assignments? As in, work that actually takes more thought than figuring out where to insert merge fields?

I’ve worked at both large and small offices, and seem to experience the same dilemma – a constant stream of filing, data entry, minor editing, and mailing, often with no specific deadline, but the expectation of being done within a reasonable timeframe. I usually play a game with myself by setting a timer and trying to beat the clock (finishing as many envelopes within a 30 minute span), which gets me motivated, but eventually wears me out due to boredom and lack of physical activity. How can I ask for more meaningful work when (a) I’m told I can’t help my supervisor(s) with anything; (b) my supervisor(s) tell me there’s more “gruntwork” I can take care of (I dread this THE MOST); (c) there’s always “research” to be done on the web; (d) my supervisor(s) prefer to keep their work to themselves because it’s their job?

Like most people, I don’t want to do “gruntwork” all day. True, it’s relatively safe, it’s “easy,” but the fact that it’s a total under-utilization of my skills and knowledge makes me feel like crap physically, mentally, and spiritually. I want to apply to my skills, talents, and knowledge towards solving problems (both big and small) for the people I work for, rather than simply fill in time.

As I look for and apply to more jobs, I’d like to know how you developed the skills and expertise you needed to move up into your current positions.

1) How did you get to the level you are at now? What specific actions did you take? To what extent is it your supervisors’ responsibility to determine what kind of work to give you?

2) What are the best ways to learn new skills that will help me advance within an organization, or that would make me qualified to do more than just entry-level work if I apply for work with another company?

3) How do you convince your supervisors to give you more important responsibilities? If successful in acquiring more responsibilities, how do you raise the issue of being properly compensated for your work?

4) How do you stay sharp, intellectually and skill-wise, while working at a job that does not require those skills?

Your insights are appreciated as always; thanks!
posted by matticulate to Work & Money (14 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
Ask everyone around you, consistently and non-annoyingly, if they need help doing anything, anything at all. Look for ways to make things better and proactively just make it happen. Don't draw undue attention to yourself - just get shit done and you will be noticed. Bonus points if you can make your supervisor's job easier.
posted by hapax_legomenon at 10:55 PM on January 28, 2011

Best answer: The biggest thing that I see with the recent college graduates at my job is that they expect to be given high-level important projects immediately, and they complain if they don't get them. I feel like an old lady yelling about young people (I'm only 30), but it seems to be a common character trait of younger people at work.

You need to do the entry-level work because you are at an entry level (having just graduated). Here is what I look for from the people I manage and what I did to get promoted and assigned more meaningful work:

1. Do the work faster than your supervisor asks you to do it.
2. Ask for more work.
3. Suggest improvements to current process - if you find yourself doing a repetitive task that seems to be useless or unnecessarily time-consuming, question the process to your supervisor and suggest improvements at the same time. Don't complain about a problem without offering a solution.
4. Do more work than anyone else and document what you do and how well you do it. Share this information with your supervisor.

If you are just taking the assignments that your supervisor is giving you without asking for more work, you're doing it wrong.
posted by elvissa at 11:02 PM on January 28, 2011 [15 favorites]

What elvissa said. You do the time and you pay your dues. A college degree qualifies you for - an entry level job. That's it. It doesn't teach you to remain calm under pressure, or how to get the impossible done, or how to deal with a difficult client. Take every opportunity you can get to learn from others, and do all your grunt work cheerfully, and eventually they'll come a time when they need something done that's not gruntwork, and you're the only one available to do it. This is referred to as an opportunity, and hopefully when it comes along, you'll have enough experience to know what to do with it.

And be aware that it could take years for that opportunity to come along. Welcome to the real world.
posted by MexicanYenta at 11:53 PM on January 28, 2011

This is one thing that worked for me early on when 80% of my work was grunt work.

Are there other skill sets that you want to learn there? Look around and really watch what everyone else does. Now start interacting that person more about what he or she does and at some point share that you would like to learn more about whatever the task is and volunteer to help if you have down time.

I'm going to guess that some pole will read this and not like it as an answer and YMMV, but that approach usually worked for me (I learned those tasks and even got larger projects doing X). Note that it I never approached a boss the level you are describing, at least.

Don't know if this will help, but I always used grunt work time to listen to a lot of NPR /BBC, whatever...and it really helped.

I also suspect you May have to leave the job if it is as you describe. I would start doing info interviews with former classmates who live in your area ...someone may be doing something a bit more interesting. You may want to check out employment at a college/uni ...those jobs offer benefits like free classes and typically you can get some project towards a publication, whatever.
posted by Wolfster at 12:14 AM on January 29, 2011

Best answer: In a lot of organisations, there is simply no movement between the administration level and the people who do whatever the core mission of the business is. E.g. if you are working for a software company, the company just doesn't consider shifting someone from receptionist/office temp to software designer or programmer, no matter how awesome that person is at their job. If a job becomes available, they advertise and appoint someone from outside. An administrator who pushes for software coding tasks (just to continue with that example) will just be seen as a BAD ADMINISTRATOR because she/he is slacking off the tasks he/she is employed to do, which are actually pretty damn essential.

If this is the case in your organisation, you might need to look elsewhere for fulfilling work, and that might mean you have to reevaluate your skills and change your resume dramatically, and/or upskill by doing some sort of internship, volunteer work, or further training in your own time.

One possibility, if you can handle it financially, is to cut back your work hours and use the spare time to do more fulfilling volunteer work or a part time job in another industry. Perhaps your boss would be open to you working one day fewer a week? Or even job sharing with someone else?
posted by lollusc at 12:46 AM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Look around and try to understand how others in your company have gotten where they are. Because yes, some amount of gruntwork and dues-paying is necessary but it doesn't necessarily lead to anything else. As lollusc just suggested, some organizations do things in such a way that you can't get ahead by simply doing what you're asked to do.

I used to work for a company that didn't promote anyone who wasn't either a member of the owner's immediate family or a member of the owner's church. If you had neither advantage then you could do gruntwork there forever. I have one friend who still works there and has done very well, but it's required a great deal of initiative. He got good at doing a sort of work the boss didn't know much about, and cultivated relationships with customers whose needs the boss didn't understand. My friend made his own promotion, because none would ever have been offered.
posted by jon1270 at 1:32 AM on January 29, 2011

It's very difficult to get out of admin work within the same organisation, unless the organisation is large. People get pigeon-holed.

OTOH you only graduated last year. If it's still like this in 18 months time, then it's a problem.

I think you're going to have to find the challenge you need outside work. What us it you want to do or learn? Find ways to do that.
posted by plonkee at 2:06 AM on January 29, 2011

Best answer: There is always grunt work. Often, the easiest way for resource managers to deal with this stuff is to hire a temp. Temp roles are meant to fulfil those non-development duties that MUST be done to keep the machine rolling. A high rate of temp turnover is much easier to handle than having salaried workers chafe at you for having to do the grunt work.

College rewards you for innovating without risk. There's a lot more at stake in the real world and managers are not professors, they don't exist to help you grow. The best employees are those that create solutions, not problems, and your desire for more meaningful work can be a massive headache to someone who is trying to get their own work done (and yes, we'd all love the time and space to learn new skills - but that's not what work is for in the main part).

From now you are responsible for designing and managing your own development opportunities. The posts above have great tips to help you demonstrate potential to current and future employers, but ultimately your time as a temp is a brilliant opportunity to study how the world of work works. Being observant and proactive, developing good professional relationships and doing the work asked of you better than expected without fuss - these are the skills you should be learning now, and demonstrating them consistently will grant you more responsibility, either in this job, or as a springboard to employment elsewhere. Diligence is a hugely underrated virtue these days, develop it now and you'll be golden.
posted by freya_lamb at 3:06 AM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Apply your mind to figuring out ways to eliminate / automate / streamline the gruntwork and improve your speed at getting it done, then use your free time to do more interesting work.

I was originally hired for a gruntwork administrative/bookkeeping position but through a series of process innovations over the past 2.5 years I've managed to reduce the time it takes me to do the duties in my original job description to less than 25% of my time. This freed me up to take on a bunch of new, more interesting responsibilities, which I found by looking around, finding something that needed doing that wasn't getting done, and doing it until it became an accepted part of my job. Eventually my boss realized that he should be paying me a lot more (although it's an ongoing struggle to get HR to agree so I'm still not getting paid what I'm worth, but he's working on it on my behalf).

So, don't wait for someone to tell you what to do -- take some initiative!
posted by Jacqueline at 4:57 AM on January 29, 2011

Best answer: Also, you work at a non-profit? Learn grantwriting! There is pretty much an infinite amount of work to do in fundraising because whatever your organization's mission is, it could always use more money to do it. If you are able to free up some time and apply it towards bringing in more revenue that's a pretty fast track to being valued more at work.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:03 AM on January 29, 2011

Best answer: I agree with the comments above.

However, one way to fast track your way past the grunt work is to get a job at a small company. Out of necessity, small companies generally need staff to have the ability to do many different types of jobs. In addition, there may also be more room for creative suggestions.

I worked for a small company directly out of college. Not only was I quickly promoted, but I was also given opportunities to complete tasks that challenged my skill level and forced me to grow.

YMMV, this scenario is not for everyone. But, if you are motivated and like big picture work, this may be something to consider.
posted by WaspEnterprises at 6:25 AM on January 29, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Apply your mind to figuring out ways to eliminate / automate / streamline the gruntwork and improve your speed at getting it done, then use your free time to do more interesting work.

This. This is how I got into database development. We were doing a stupid amount of grunt work on paper and in spreadsheets when it could be automated and made more efficient. I taught myself most of what I know and when I don't know something, I ask.
posted by desjardins at 8:09 AM on January 29, 2011

desjardins is right. A lot of careers have been launched by the mailroom person figuring out a better way.

How do you find fulfillment at work?

1. You don't. Every job in the world is created because some other person doesn't want to do that work and is willing to pay good money to just not have to do it. Working is grunt work. Getting to work on a project that is meaningful, fulfilling and awesome is part luck and part doing a lot of grunt work to develop the skills and experience to be able to handle the challenge.

2. Then again, depends on how you are defining meaningful? What's meaningful to you is probably not meaningful to the people paying you. So, when you are on the clock, learn to get fulfillment from doing your job the best you can. "I did my best today" is far more fulfilling than waiting for someone else to hand you something meaningful.

3. As you are working, take an interest in what is going on around the office. Who has the coolest job? Find out what it takes to get that job, and work on that.

4. Don't look at paying your dues as "paying your dues". Because that will often lead to disappointment when you believe you are paid in full and someone else doesn't. Look at it more like waiting for your turn, or being on standby. Whether in the same company, or in the industry. There are X "cool" jobs, and Y people who want them. And X < Y. So work to prepare yourself so that when one of those cool jobs or projects becomes available, you have the qualifications and experience to step up.
posted by gjc at 9:03 AM on January 29, 2011

Response by poster: Thank you all for your wonderful answers! They have definitely helped me realign my perspective towards my work (which I have been trying harder each day to appreciate and do more efficiently). The general consensus seems to be that the best way to move up is to persist, observe, work hard, and learn as much as you can, while keeping a positive attitude.

I like the suggestion of optimizing the amount of time spent on gruntwork, and spending the resulting downtime trying to learn new skills.

How do I learn skills from a coworker or superior, though, particularly one who is frequently busy? Especially if "your desire for more meaningful work can be a massive headache to someone who is trying to get their own work done," as freya_lamb mentioned?

I have an awesome boss, but he's very, VERY busy most of the time and it's hard to find a good time to even talk with him when he's in the office, which is presumably the best location to learn how he does what he does. I'd love to observe, analyze, learn from people who have experience, and work seems to be the most logical place for this, but being shooed off as a nuisance/distraction is obviously a big barrier.

Also, I have been actively looking to learn and develop skills outside of work, which has been a difficult task but something I am committed to doing for my own sake. I'll do what I can to maximize the amount of learning I can do during the day given my current schedule (I will consider lollusc's idea of cutting back my work hours) and finances.

One of the reasons I asked this question was to find out how I might be able to expand the pool of jobs I can qualify myself for. I often come across job requirements that look like this:

o 3-5 years minimum experience (# of years varies)
o Ability to report on and utilize the analysis of a variety of sources of data to develop solid, actionable recommendations that address specific program goals/objectives
o Actively test programs and implement new initiatives using A/B testing (keywords, copy, offer, landing pages, and positioning)
o Manage daily, weekly, monthly and quarterly dashboard to meet budgeted projections
o Ability to manage marketing yearly budgets for the best return on investment for the company


Intimidating stuff for a young college grad (which obviously serves to filter out overeager but underqualified people like me!), right?

I'm interested in figuring out how people transitioned from entry-level duties to responsibilities like these or at least demonstrated their candidacy for such work. Granted, I know it will be a while before someone fresh out of college working in an administrative role will get these kinds of assignments. But the question then is:

How do you get these skills, which are related to the field you want, when as an entry-level worker you are expected to take care of specific projects and stay out of the way?

The advice so far has been very helpful! My apologies if there appears to be any redundancy in questioning. I'm happy to read more responses if you have any.
posted by matticulate at 11:44 AM on February 1, 2011

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