How do I find a job where I'm useful?
September 13, 2011 10:47 AM   Subscribe

I've found what bothers me about my office job -- my position and what I do is utterly useless. What I do has absolutely no effect on anyone, nor does it increase my employer's profit or success in any measurable way. I've realized this is what leaves me absolutely drained at the end of the work day, though I've spent the day sitting at a desk. It also makes me dread going to work in the morning because I could not feel more like a cog in the machine. What are some jobs where I can actually feel useful or needed, or feel like I'm contributing to society?

Here is some more info about me, if it helps narrow down jobs/careers:

* I'm 29, live in the western U.S.
* College degree in philosophy
* Have worked as an EMT, barista, dogsitter, video editor/videographer, and now excel office drone.
* Limited financial means to take up another college degree and I have terrible GPA so grad school is not really an option

I guess there are the classic "helpful to society" jobs like police, firefighter, etc. but I am not really the right kind of person to be a police officer and firefighting doesn't interest me too much.

posted by allseeingabstract to Work & Money (25 answers total) 34 users marked this as a favorite
Keep an eye on Idealist for jobs in politics and non-profits. I don't know what skills you have as an excel drone, but data nerds are always in demand there.
posted by munchingzombie at 10:50 AM on September 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I have favorited your question because I am in the very same boat. But what munchingzombie says speaks truth -- if you are an excel drone for a financial firm (like me), simply making a shift to supporting a different industry can help. Doing exactly the same stuff won't feel as "drone-like" when you're going from "this spreadsheet will help finalize the profit margin for the second quarter" to "this spreadsheet will help our soup kitchen figure out whether we need to order more ground beef".

Also, check out what other job boards are out there in your area for non-corporate careers.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:59 AM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Non-profits can be fantastic for making you feel like you are part of something larger. However, they are often understaffed and soul-sucking in a completely different way than corporate life is. Also, they often pay significantly less. They aren't all like that (the one I work at now is fully staffed and has fantastic hours), but I wish I'd known that when I started working in non-profits.
posted by Zophi at 10:59 AM on September 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Working in a non-profit is slowly crushing my soul in ways I shudder to describe. Just throwing that out there.
posted by elizardbits at 11:03 AM on September 13, 2011 [11 favorites]

Response by poster: Adding to the dilemma -- I'm making more money now than I ever have, yet I hate the actual job I do (my title is very different from my actual responsibilities). I hate Excel and working with numbers and I figure formulas out via Google. I'm not exactly an Excel whiz who can take my skills elsewhere.
posted by allseeingabstract at 11:06 AM on September 13, 2011

You didn't feel useful/needed as an EMT? Seems like a pretty important job to me.
posted by missmagenta at 11:19 AM on September 13, 2011

So is there any way in which you can actually rework your job to increase your employer's success or profit? Someone's hired you. Someone decided that the work you're doing is valuable to the company. If that isn't the case, can you figure out why they're wrong?

It sounds like the problem isn't necessarily that you'd be doing better at a non-profit, but that you're being wasted in what you're doing. So the question then is: How can you bring value to the company you're in? This may require some job risks, stepping on toes or what-have-you, but navigating that is a set of skills you'll want to develop anyway, and if you hate your job as it is it's not like you're risking more than your income.

So I'd start with making a list of all of the reasons why your role was deemed to be important in theory, and another list of what your job requirements actually are, and take those into a third list of where those two disagree. Distill those a bit and start shopping them around the people up the org chart to figure out how you can be doing actual productive work.

If you want to go further, try to figure out what the value you bring to the company is and could be. My guess is that understanding your role in the company well enough to be saying "I'm currently contributing $50-100k a year to the bottom line of the company, here are some responsibility changes that would allow me to contribute $250k to the bottom line" is both one hell of an education for you, and would tell those higher up the chain that you're serious about and capable of contributing to the value of the company.
posted by straw at 11:19 AM on September 13, 2011 [3 favorites]

I quit my last job almost completely because of this. I'm more or less a programmer, but I was absolutely sure that the code/work I was producing was actually draining value from the company, which was the first time I ever felt like that in my career. I'm at a different job now, doing largely the same stuff, but because the company and people are competent, it makes a world of difference. And it's not a non-profit.

You say you hate the job you do, but maybe you wouldn't hate it if you saw that it was making a difference to the company or people you work with.

On preview, if you want to stay at your company, take straw's advice. If you don't think you'd mind doing the same thing at a different place, consider that.
posted by thewumpusisdead at 11:23 AM on September 13, 2011

As the resident "not an Excel whiz" in a non-profit for many years, you a) know more than you think you do and b) know more than plenty of other people working at many non-profits. Not that working for a non-profit is a preventative against soul destruction, necessarily.

If you're not working insane hours, can you treat the job as the thing that you do that enables you to be useful and needed elsewhere? Would you be able to volunteer somewhere to make your contributions to society?

Has the salary you've been making added up to a savings cushion, or do you need to maintain the level you're currently at? If you've got the freedom, I've founding temping to be an interesting way to build on various work-related skills in periods where I didn't know what I wanted to be doing, or didn't care what I was doing so long as I had some kind of job. Pretty much every place I ever temped expressed an interest in keeping me on, and I could've had some interesting jobs if I'd felt like they were the right fit.
posted by EvaDestruction at 11:26 AM on September 13, 2011

Response by poster: Missmagenta: Unfortunately being an EMT in my area doesn't pay a living wage. It was a job I did in college.

Straw: My employer is a massive multinational corporation. The culture here is so restrictive and bureaucratic that reworking my position isn't really possible. The reality is, most of my position could be replaced by a well-written Python script.
posted by allseeingabstract at 11:26 AM on September 13, 2011

What do you like to do? Do you spend your not-work hours on a particular hobby or pastime? Maybe you feel too drained to do that. But if you did have the energy for it, would you like to cook, or draw, play soccer, paint miniatures, or cultivate a cactus garden? Lots of people with soul-sucking jobs think of them purely as the means to getting to do the other things they like to do. But they might also give you an idea what you might be good at or like to do in your next job.

No matter what you decide, try to sock away as much cash as you can right now in case you end up taking something that pays less.
posted by Glinn at 11:28 AM on September 13, 2011

What do you, personally, feel is worthwhile? And what do you like to do?

You can work at the most noble nonprofit and not enjoy it if it's just not your thing (you love people and you spend all day in front of a computer, etc.) You can work at the most money-grubbing place and enjoy it. And the thing is, if you enjoy it, you may find a way to see it as being worthwhile. One barista might be biding her time until she can do something worthwhile, and the other might be totally satisfied at providing a service and product that improves each customer's day.

I'm a corporate lawyer, not something I ever thought I would do. My college-age self would be horrified to know I ended up being a corporate lawyer. But I see it as being worthwhile because I like my clients and I think they do interesting and useful things, and I'm happy to help them.
posted by chickenmagazine at 11:51 AM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Most of my position could be replaced by a well-written Python script.

Maybe it's time to teach yourself Python and then a) amuse yourself at work with good-for-the-universe things like teaching yourself the spoken language of a refugee community in your area, playing FreeRice, reading, blogging and retweeting about issues that are important to you, etc etc, hippie-guerilla "Office Space"-style; b) tell your employers, "I just wrote this Python script that is going to save you $XX/year, I would like to become a consultant who finds other places to save money with a Python script OR I would like to become the company's resident Python guy"; c) take your newfound Python skills elsewhere and get bank at a cooler, more interesting and more useful job.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 11:57 AM on September 13, 2011 [6 favorites]

Best answer: The reality is, most of my position could be replaced by a well-written Python script.

Can you write such a script and spend the time you save at work doing other things?
posted by Juffo-Wup at 11:57 AM on September 13, 2011 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I am going to suggest a different track. Why not take the time you have not at work to help out? A lot of jobs nowadays are not great, but you do have the option of using your off-time to make yourself feel more useful. You could do this even while looking for another job, if necessary.
posted by annsunny at 11:58 AM on September 13, 2011

Start by sitting down and determining if there is *any* true value or profit you're driving. Include any indirect impact you have (such as supporting teams that directly create value or profit.) Make a list, and categorize direct and indirect.

Now, make a second list of things you'd love to be involved in within the company, things that would allow you to contribute more directly.

Next, go to your boss. Let them know you really like working here, and you've been looking at the impact you've had -- tick off the most impressive-sounding stuff on that list you made, don't go into detail -- and you believe that, given the opportunity, you have the capacity to more directly create value or profit, doing things like [tick off a few of your second list here, again, don't go into detail, and pick the ones you like most.] Let your boss know you're not complaining, and you're not particularly enthusiastic about the prospect of leaving their team...but if there are opportunities around now or in the forseeable future that will allow you to contribute more directly, especially within your boss's larger team, you'd love to hear about them. And of course, if there's nothing, you'd love to get unofficially involved in such activities to help train you for future opportunities.

In short, be a proactive, enthusiastic employee, and see what opportunities present themselves.
posted by davejay at 12:16 PM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

Like many of the replies above, I too found my niche in the nonprofit sector, as a development operations wonk. But when I was spending eight hours a day as a depressed office drone (with a philosophy degree!) I had to change my way of dividing my life.

Take your three basic needs, paraphrased: gotta earn a living, gotta be happy, gotta stay healthy. For most people, time at work plus time outside of work plus sleep covers those things well enough to get by. Then scramble it a bit: some people who love their job can cover earning a living and being happy in one block of time, leaving some time to spare. That's ideal. Some people's hobby is jogging, and those people cover happy and healthy in one block, so that's great. It's a bonus when you can knock out more than one need with just one activity. But that's not the case for everyone. You sound like you'd really like to earn a living and be happy while doing it, which is a great goal but not everyone does that and that's okay. For some people, they focus on earning a living for eight hours a day, and then go home and enjoy life for the rest of their waking hours. That might need to be your strategy until you've saved up enough to quit your job and/or take another job.

In other words: stop assuming that your job has to be the thing about you that creates value in society and makes you happy. You are applying teleology to your work (hey, philosophy major) when you need not be.
posted by juniperesque at 12:23 PM on September 13, 2011

Best answer: The reality is, most of my position could be replaced by a well-written Python script.

As someone who has done literally this (well, ok, it was PHP), I am piling on that you should make it happen.

It's the information age, brother.
posted by trevyn at 1:20 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Can you move somewhere where EMTs make enough money to live on?
posted by brainwane at 2:13 PM on September 13, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks for all of the advice, guys. I think I'm going to spend my time learning how to be as efficient as possible in this position, then use my time to develop skills that I can leverage into a job at a better organization. I appreciate all the replies.
posted by allseeingabstract at 3:58 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

Looks like you got it worked out, allseeingabstract, but your question reminded me of something I saw Louis CK say the other night. He was commenting about morose 20-somethings who had shitty attitudes while doing their shitty deadend jobs.

Ahh, here.

And the takeaway, "You're the one standing there doing that thing, so just do it. Do the shit out of it. Why wouldn't you?"

Good luck!
posted by notyou at 5:00 PM on September 13, 2011

The reality is, most of my position could be replaced by a well-written Python script.

Before I started working as a school netadmin, I wrote code for a living. My previous view of netadmins had been pretty negative; now I'm doing it for a job, I've found that just like any other job, it can be done really badly or really well, and doing it really well is both difficult and fun.

If your job really truly could be done by a Python script, then you absolutely owe it to yourself to learn enough Python to implement that script, and then spend the rest of your working hours white-anting corporate rigidity. If you can manage to get the sack for being competent, you win.

posted by flabdablet at 5:28 PM on September 13, 2011 [2 favorites]

^Yes! What flabdablet said! (Though I had to Urban Dictionary "white ant.")
You owe it to yourself to have fun during your cubicle bondage, either above or below board.

"What I do has absolutely no effect on anyone, nor does it increase my employer's profit or success in any measurable way."

Now, don't fret too much about that. You never took an oath on your first day, vowing to increase bossman's profit or success. That's his lookout. You? Learn that Python like crazy! I don't even know what Python is, but if it increases your web-surfing, 2nd language learning time at work, do it!
posted by BostonTerrier at 5:38 PM on September 13, 2011

In the meantime, maybe you could make yourself happier by learning to make your coworkers happy - do little experiments, from finding ways to smile non-creepily, telling just the right joke at the right time, empathizing, or secretly leaving cookies in strategic places, whatever. Use your brain. You might learn stuff that you can use later, and in the meantime, supporting people whose work matters for whatever reason (even just supporting their families, or being happy and energized enough to listen to their kids talk) is a valuable, albeit underappreciated, contribution.
posted by amtho at 8:44 PM on September 13, 2011

(Nearly) Every job is one that is needed or useful. You feel useful or needed when you find a job that is a good match for both your abilities and your inclinations, and use that job to make life easier, better, happier, etc. for others.

For years I kept trying to escape a life of being a programmer. I wanted a job that was meaningful, that helped others. Turns out it was programming. It took me a long time to realize this. Then one day, I'm going to work and I'm reading a book about programming, for fun, and I think...this probably is what I'm supposed to be doing. The trick was, I needed to be doing it for the right reasons.

I'm really really happy with my current job. I work as a programmer for a smallish non-profit educational organization. I help people connect with one another; I help a little bit to keep their information processes going smoothly. Through projects I work on I'm in touch with students and teachers who are excited about what they're doing. It can be tiring and stressful but also rewarding.

Also: if you're being paid a lot of money, that means the work you're doing is valuable even if you yourself don't value it.

Like amtho said, can you think of ways to make your work environment more enriching outside of just what you do? In one of the offices he worked in, my brother did things like hold an apple tasting in the fall where he'd set up a bunch of different varieties of apples sliced up in the break room and have his coworkers try them out and rate them. That always sounded like fun to me.

I'll add two more things. First, it's incidental that the place I work for is a non-profit. One of my least pleasant jobs was at a different non-profit where I felt completely drained. Second, it's not the work per se. I'm doing the same kind of work (web programming) that I did in the job that wasn't a good match. The big difference is that in this job I can see the results of my work, and that I am a good match.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:50 PM on September 13, 2011 [1 favorite]

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