"You weren't meant to have a boss." - Paul Graham
April 30, 2008 2:15 PM   Subscribe

I'm terrible at having a job, and it's making my life unlivable. Help.

I've been a flop at basically every job I've ever had. My wife and my friends will all tell you differently; they'll say I'm personable, knowledgeable, outgoing, successful and friendly. But I know the sad truth. I just don't think I'm meant to work for other people. I'm shit with deadlines, critical and ignorant of company policies, rules and management, convinced that I'm right all the time, and indignant at being compelled to help other people make lots of money and have nice vacations while I struggle to get by and commute 1.5 hours every morning.

I'm at this point with yet another job. I'm a year and a half in and I've been slack enough in all the right ways that I'm a pariah. They haven't fired me yet, but it's probably just because I'm not worth the effort. The whole situation is eating away at what's left of my self worth.

The funny thing is, on my own, I'm great. I get shit done, I'm kind to clients and I'm on time. I have great ideas and I follow through with them. There's no way I can do freelance right now though; the wife and I just signed a mortgage, my town is small and she's not going for the "feast or famine" of freelance.

So, how do I get better at having a normal job? How do I swallow my pride and stop seeing all my heroes smirk at me from behind their guitars while I work some shit job making banner ads?

This is depressing, and it's making me feel like a terminal failure. I feel unable to consistently provide for my wife, and I feel like a burden on my fellow workers (and they're not above reminding me from time to time, which makes me feel like I've just been picked last in gym class.) Help? Ideas?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 73 users marked this as a favorite
I am going through exactly the same problem and I am working to deal with it.

I try to remember that my self worth has nothing to do with a job. I try to understand that my depression and anxiety cause direct physical and cognitive symptoms which make it more difficult to work, and I will get better when these are treated.

Get treatment. If nothing else treatment of your depression and anxiety is bound to cause some improvement - even on the incredibly off chance that you are a failure.

It is worth being indignant about the system. You're 100 percent right there. Social alienation due to the pressures of our society is normal, and means you're a good person. Do works that break alienation, such as volunteering, learning, connecting with nature and art, and political participation.

Memail me if you like. Good luck.
posted by By The Grace of God at 2:23 PM on April 30, 2008

One thing you can do is treat your job as if it wasn't a job so much as a contract. Since you're blowing off deadlines and company policies, just sit down one day (like tomorrow morning!) and set your own policies and deadlines that are more stringent than theirs are. Then work toward your own deadlines and rules. That way you're not letting THEM down if you blow your new deadlines, but you are letting YOU down. And I've found that for me anyway it's even worse to disappoint myself than it is to disappoint someone else. You might also be the type of person who gets easily stuck in a rut, and perhaps it's time to move on to another place to recapture that sense of new and exciting. In the high tech industries moving around every couple of years isn't a stigma like it would be elsewhere.
posted by barc0001 at 2:26 PM on April 30, 2008 [7 favorites]

I was the exact same way for a long time.

I scoff at the notion that you need treatment. You're depressed because normal jobs suck, so find a company that better suits your unique approach to employment. Find a small company where you have lots of freedom. Where it doesn't matter if you come in around 10AM so you can avoid rush hour. Where it's OK if you have a beer at lunch. Where you don't always have someone breathing down your neck and you get to operate autonomously. Where there is no or limited red tape.

Would people like us be better suited to self employment? Yeah, no doubt. But that's a lot easier said than done. That doesn't mean you have to settle on a job you hate, and see a therapist just to make it through the day without quitting. Find a job where they need you to be a loner. They are out there, trust me. You'll be happy to work there and they'll be happy to have you.
posted by fusinski at 2:33 PM on April 30, 2008 [8 favorites]

Well, hey, you and I are very much alike in this. Since I have no wife or mortgage and my needs are few, I'm quite happy to engineer my dismissal every few years and then collect government cheese while doing a bit of freelancing.

Consider working part-time, so that you have a consistent income, and freelance full-time. Yeah, I'm talking 60-70 hours a week. You need to put in the full-time effort, at least, to get a freelance career working for you.

Once you can make a go of that, quit your shitty part-time job, smiling all the while.

And if you *can't* make a go of it, then you have to help idiots maintain their undeserved success like most people. IMHO, try to find a position where there isn't a huge disparity in wages, power and so forth betwen the peons (like you) and the managers and directors and such.

My last job stank on ice. I was the documentation guy for an engineering firm; I edited, published and produced reports and such. I viewed myself as a professional. Many other staff, particularly the senior consultants, viewed me as a secretary. With no more education or experience than me, some of them earned four or five times my salary and treated me more as a resource than as a colleague.

Fuck that.

Consider the public sector. If you're a technical professional -- even if that means 'webmonkey' -- few staff will earn more than double your wage. And the public sector tends to be more forgiving of angry slackers. I might head back that way myself.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:35 PM on April 30, 2008 [3 favorites]

Oh, yeah. I suffer from depression, social anxiety, PTSD and a couple of other less pleasant issues. Just recently diagnosed. Your attitude sounds similar to mine. Talk with your doctor; you never know. It might just be your brain chemistry fuckin' with you.
posted by ten pounds of inedita at 2:37 PM on April 30, 2008

Get into the personal challenge of getting things done for their own sake. Challenge yourself to not fuck up at all, not even once. Praise in public, scorn in private. The earlier you get there, the earlier you're done. Be nice but impersonal with everyone. Keep your opinions to yourself, always. Don't compare yourself with anyone else but identify with their strengths.

I am exactly like you in attitude, and have retooled myself to survive in what could otherwise be a toxic system.
posted by Xurando at 2:40 PM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

You need a plan to get you to where you want to be. The great thing about freelancing or consulting is that you don't have to do it 100% of the time. You don't have to go full-time.


- Work out a budget. Figure out how much money you need to feel comfortable transitioning to a focus on freelancing.
- Establish an emergency fund with six months of expenses. This should make your partner feel a bit more secure.
- Start freelancing now with an eye to becoming more dependent on this income.
- When you are ready to leave your job, get a part-time job first. Or a full-time job where you have a lot of spare time (security guard?).

My blog (in profile) is about becoming a consultant. But I am a huge fan of becoming a consultant/freelancer a bit at a time. Planning the transition works better for most people.
posted by acoutu at 2:43 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

(Here's a couple random thoughts. I hope some or all of it makes any sense to your situation.)

There is great honor and dignity in working any job no matter how supposedly menial, in order to pay your bills and fulfill your obligations. You are ultimately working for yourself, no matter who signs the paycheck.

Larry Winget ("the pitbull of motivational speakers") tells a story about showing up to give his presentation for a big corporation. His only requirement is to have table on the stage, and one for his books at the back of the room. When he arrived to do his presentation, neither table was in place. Executive after executive introduced themselves to him, telling him their important titles. He asked each one for help in getting his tables. Each one promised help, but nothing ever happened. Finally a man greeted him and asked if he needed anything. Winget told him he needed the tables. Within minutes, they were in place. When Winget asked him what his title was, he just replied, "The Guy Who Gets Shit Done."
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:44 PM on April 30, 2008 [10 favorites]

Oh I feel for you, I've so been there! Maybe it would be good to look at the similarities between all your jobs, and see if a pattern is emerging in your responses to them.

My first thought is for you to get out of the commercial world. 'Working for the man' is a lot easier when you're not 'compelled to help other people make lots of money'. You maybe need to find a job with a more meaningful value system underpinning the cause (meaningful to you at least). And in my experience, public, community and cultural sectoral jobs are way more forgiving of free spirits.

I also think a hefty commute plays havoc with your sense of worth. Even in jobs I've loved, a lengthy journey in has killed all my passion. For everything! It feels like involuntary dead time, I could never make it useful by reading proust or learning swahili or whatever, it just ate away at my soul. In fact I just had to choose between new jobs and took the one closer to home, despite the fact that the other would have been 1st choice all the way had it been in the same area. Is there any chance you can find something locally?

Good luck!
posted by freya_lamb at 2:55 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Everybody here already has awesome, useful, and targeted advice, but I couldn't pass your question by without this small sidebar:

Contract with yourself to produce for yourself every day, even if it means a certain amount of evening or weekend sacrifice. For example, I sew, and almost every evening I focus on making something--something no one told me to do, or put on my calender, and in fact puts me in the position that I have to ask for the time to do it from my partner and kid. This act of creativity that I insist on is like a reset: I remember what it feels like to be productive and talented and self-directed and so it's like practicing those feelings. It has a way of spilling over into everything--work, wifehood, mamahood, life stuff.

And proceed with everyone else's suggestions.
posted by rumposinc at 3:04 PM on April 30, 2008 [7 favorites]

How sure are you about this?
Really, you say to me you've been there 1 year and a half already, that doesn't sound like your someone who is strugling to hold down a job. You sound like someone who is holding down a job and has done for some time - just a point of fact to keep in mind.

They haven't fired me yet, but it's probably just because I'm not worth the effort

Believe me, you are a cost and there is a recession on, so if they were going to fire you, then they would have. However, it's far more likely that if you continue to feel isolated and unhappy in this job, that your working relationships with people will break down, leaving both them and you no real choice but to end your employment.

I can't help calling out the elephant in the room on this one though, why now, after a year and half has this become a problem. Or if it was a problem before, why is it no longer one you feel you can cope with?
posted by munchbunch at 3:13 PM on April 30, 2008

View your job as a means to an end - keeping a roof over your head, at the very least. Put it into whatever context you have to, but your job is an unfortunate but necessary thing. It's survivalism, plain and simple.

Then, start looking for something you actually want to do. It took me eight years to find my perfect job, and that included a fair amount of time unemployed. Keep plugging away. Really, what other option is there? The time is going to go by anyway, whether you're handling it correctly or not.
posted by eratus at 3:58 PM on April 30, 2008

I think there's also something of an issue here with our super fun human tendency to derive our self worth from our job. There may or may not be the ideal gig out there that you would be totally happy and fulfilled doing. If there is or there isn't, if what you do 9-5 every day is the only you can derive satisfaction and self worth, you're probably in for a hard road. If you cultivate an identity outside of what you do for a living, it's easier to bear it. I'm six months into a job I quite like after almost three at jobs that were the kind of soul crushing misery a lot of people in this thread described. I hated those three years, but they were really informative. I always considered myself to be a type A, high achieving, bigger, better, more kind of girl. I defined myself by my grades, my good reviews, and my expected professional prestige. When that didn't happen, I had to pay attention to what I was outside of this. My job isn't who I am, it's what I do in order to finance who I am; I found that realization really freeing.

That does not, of course, mean that those 40 miserable hours a week cease to be miserable. I think most people, for some or even most of their lives, do a job they don't love. It blows. We all want a fulfilling occupation that makes us feel good and feel worthwhile, but a lot of the time you have to be a grown up, go to work, save money, and support yourself even if it sucks. If you plan for the future (by getting more education, networking and making contacts, getting a freelancing portfolio together, whatever) then you can be working on the next step in your life, the step when, ideally, you get to do something you enjoy more.
posted by mostlymartha at 3:59 PM on April 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

What worked for me:

When I got fed up with employment, I first made sure I had a very low cost of living, and then I planned to go off on my own. The job I had suddenly became a lot more tolerable when I vowed that it would be my last.

I realized that I could learn a lot from my employer, since my own business would be in the same field, so I got more alert, and I began to ask for projects that would be good experience for my business. This probably looked like initiative when it was really just cold-blooded plotting. I also realized that petty office politics and such gave me a great opportunity to practice being professional, and it became a fun challenge to out-professional everyone else. This probably looked like sudden maturity.

I was able to schedule only 30 hours at the job, which gave me time to start courting my own clients. That made the transition easier. I'm now on my own and it has worked out great. I love most of my work, I'm paid and respected far more than I was as an employee, and I can live anywhere that there's a decent internet connection. I also (usually) work as much or as little as I want.

However, I'm comfortable with risk, and I enjoy a simple lifestyle (small paid-for house, used Toyota, etc.). Does your wife fully realize just how miserable you are? Lifestyle changes can be challenging but there's nothing more liberating than a simple home and low expenses.

Another alternative is to see if your employer will let you work from home a few days a week. You might have to clean up your act for awhile before you ask. But getting rid of the commute and the office politics could help.
posted by PatoPata at 4:08 PM on April 30, 2008

Personally, I think that you are being pretty hard on yourself. The final arbiter of whether you are a "flop" or not is your boss. Since you are still employed, you are not a flop. It sounds like you have a lot of anxiety about your job performance and are putting a lot of thoughts into other people's heads. Perhaps you are not being shunned, but people sense your unhappiness and feel you withdrawing so they leave you alone.

Look, working for other people sucks. It always sucks. But there are benefits to the arrangement, which is why many of us remain employed. At the risk of sounding flip, I would say you need to adjust your attitude. I say this because mine needs constant adjustment (sometimes daily). Go to lunch with some co-workers - stop to shoot the shit on the way to the coffee machine. Brighten someone's day by complementing either their work, their shirt, or both. Will this make your job any better? No. But it will make those hours that you spend there a shared burden, not your own personal hell. Believe it or not, many of your co-workers often feel one step away from either being fired or heading up into the clocktower with their rifle.

It may be a long time before you can work for yourself again. Viewing employment as some sort of insult to your pride isn't going to help matters at all. Why are you so much better than the rest of us shlubs? We're all in this together - no one is laughing at you and your day is only as good as YOU make it.

Now, get back to work!
posted by The Light Fantastic at 4:52 PM on April 30, 2008

I'd find a way to see working hard now as part of your journey toward being your own boss:

* start freelancing in your evenings and weekends,
* work for bonuses that help you accrue savings,
* build positive coworker relationships to get referrals or to have business partners,
* build good client relationships to take the clients with you if your employment agreement doesn't prohibit that,
* develop good technical skills and/or a real specialization,
* learn how the business side works (contracts, for example, and HR if you think you'd like to employ others),
* meet good accountants and other sources of professional services you'll need when working independently.

Alternatively, or at the same time, you could look for a job where the profits of your work accrue to you. Profit-sharing? Co-ownership? Stock options? Becoming a "partner" in the business? Getting yourself up into a leadership position so you're the one making the decisions?
posted by salvia at 6:39 PM on April 30, 2008

I Don' think being your own boss is the holy grail some people might claim it is. Contrarily, you have even more to answer for and to answer to. This is obviously just the current mood you are in. Soon you will remember just how much gusto it took to get where you are today. And should rightly be proud.
posted by Student of Man at 7:41 PM on April 30, 2008

"I'm shit with deadlines, critical and ignorant of company policies, rules and management, convinced that I'm right all the time, and indignant at being compelled to help other people make lots of money and have nice vacations while I struggle to get by and commute 1.5 hours every morning."

The crux of your problem. Realign your attitude toward this concept- they hired you to do stuff for them, and you agreed to do that stuff in exchange for money. I like the idea someone else mentioned of treating them as YOUR clients. And the clients of the business as THEIR clients.

Maybe you are right and they are wrong, but you work for them, so do it their way. And then use that as a learning tool. Would your way have actually been better? Use that when you are in charge. Or maybe they do know what they are taking about and your way has been tried and failed.
posted by gjc at 8:13 PM on April 30, 2008

I was like this until I got a job I loved. It sounds to me like you're not finding meaning in your work. You seem to have idealized freelancing, which is just a different sort of brutal, tiresome endeavor. Regardless of whether it's for yourself or someone else, you're only going to be happy with your work if you find meaning in it. If you're great at web design (i.e. can do a lot more than make banner ads), feel free to drop me a line and I'll see if I can introduce you to folks who do things on the web that are cool enough they can't wait to get to work in the morning.
posted by anildash at 8:55 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Boy are you in the right place for asking this sort of question (or maybe the very wrong place...)

Long range solution, figure out a goal, plan towards it. As long as you feel like you're working solely for somebody else's fantasy the problem can only be ameliorated, not solved. If your job is subsidizing your own fantasy it becomes more palatable. If you can at least do something else in the area of freelancing part time even better, and it will help build a nest egg for a later transition.

After a job that really ground me down, where I worked my heart out for little by way of pay or respect and ended up quitting with an overwhelming feeling of failure, I worked temporary office work for a couple of years. It had an interesting effect on my attitude: I would come into these often screwed up situations of a role that had been understaffed or unstaffed or staffed by some incompetent who got fired, and instead of getting worked up about the crummy circumstances I'd just shrug and get on with it. Not my problem, I was just a hired gun. Who cared who made the mess, I just cleaned it up. I did indeed think of my bosses as clients and it changed the way I was treated and perceived myself. Office politics just seemed like some dumb noise the dupes got invested in, again I just shrugged off people who tried to pull me into it and got on with it. I tell you, just blanking out and leaning to the grindstone is such a relief, mentally, compared to dwelling and brooding in your mind over what it all means and your place in it while you "get yours" by slacking off.

I found when I went back into full time employment that I could kind of reset my attitude and recapture that detachment and sense of uninvolved pragmatism when I started to get too wrapped up in it, though I'd say unfortunately after a couple years I kind of fell back into bad habits and ended up leaving my first full time gig feeling I'd let myself become kind of a half assed employee. The next job after that though I stuck to it harder and felt like I carried off an acceptable level of competence the whole way through, and felt right about the way I'd carried the whole thing off (I left to pursue homemaking, child-rearing and that sweet semi-reliable at-home money making a few years ago) - really the first time I'd felt this way about anything like that since I'd graduated from high school. I think there's almost always room (outside of real negligence or malfeasance) to "reset" your expectations and attitude towards a job, although a change of venue sometimes helps, and it never hurts to keep looking for greener pastures.

And try to quit mooning over your heroes unless you really want to follow some particular path, and even then, add a grain of salt. You know as well as I do that the story about them you have in your mind aren't the truth, the whole truth or nothing but the truth. Like, Henry Miller left a wife and daughter behind to go be an artist and eventually mooch off friends in Paris (where he shed a second wife). And plenty of people have done great work of all sorts while working perfectly ordinary jobs (Einstein?). If you've got some dream festering, you know, get cracking, I hear that if you just leave sitting them out they sometimes explode.
posted by nanojath at 8:59 PM on April 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

I was just like you for a long time. I am now CEO of "ikkyu2, a Medical Corporation." I work for myself and more or less set my own rules and hours.

It's actually pretty awesome. I don't know why more people don't do it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 11:02 PM on April 30, 2008

My suggestion is that you stop reading Paul Graham, or at least maintain a very critical stance on his writing. He's waxed on about the ideal state of existence for smart people, but overlooks the elephant in the room: the notion that happiness is primarily a function of our own expectations.

I joined a startup two years ago, having been in a situation similar to yours in both attitude and circumstance. I've had a void filled in my life, at least according to Paul. I now experience a heightened sense of freedom and responsibility, but an honest self-examination reveals little more happiness and even less tangible sustenance (these are lean times indeed).

Paul is good at articulating his dreams, but he uses a number of irresponsible tactics to convince folks that they indeed share the same. He's too often guilty of unfolding a for loop before switching away from bubble sort -- that is, he dictates priorities in a dangerously cavalier fashion.

Perhaps starting something on your own is right for you, perhaps it's not. I would never promote a wholesale lowering of expectations, but in our search to achieve our utmost, we shouldn't delude ourselves into a permanent state of becoming and never being. As Ben Franklin said, "If passion drives you, let reason hold the reins."
posted by kurtiss at 12:48 AM on May 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, in my early comment, I meant to link to Larry Winget's book, which I highly recommend: It's Called Work for a Reason.
posted by Fuzzy Skinner at 2:51 PM on May 2, 2008

This a delayed response, but maybe it'll be a different view. Have you considered a zen-like approach to all of this? Detach yourself from the work, and try some Taoist philosophies where the focus is on making things like work essentially unimportant in the big picture. Your coworkers and bosses will almost certainly take to a more relaxed attitude.

The issue is then that you're probably a naturally driven and passionate person. Just apply these to something else. Do the 9-5 job that keeps you alive, and leave your weekends and nights to the things make you feel alive.
posted by spiderskull at 11:24 PM on May 6, 2008

It's important to remind yourself that where you are right now is not the end of the line. There are other opportunities around the corner. However, it is up to you to create and make the most of those opportunities.

It sounds like you're making banner ads, and it sounds like you don't like that very much. You probably have a gift for sales and business development, so it might be a good idea to explore that career path. The thing about business development and sales is that it takes a lot of work, a lot of creativity, a lot of fine-tuned people skills, and a lot of dealing with rejection. Not many people like doing it.

However, business development is valued because you help your company make money. If you're good at it, they will pay you more. You can also set your own goals as opposed to having someone else set them for you.

Why not talk to your boss and see if they will let you try out business development or sales?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:25 PM on October 17, 2008

Oh, yeah, I've also recently come to the conclusion that I wasn't meant to have a boss.
posted by KokuRyu at 11:26 PM on October 17, 2008

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