How to Avoid Being Miserable at Work

jonathanfeldman
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Your alarm is ringing. Seriously—how can it be morning ALREADY? Didn’t you JUST go to sleep? You drag yourself out of bed, take a swig of the Red Bull you keep on your nightstand, and wonder how you’ll make it through another day of treachery. Why does life have to be so hard?

Or… you wake up feeling energized and refreshed. You bop out of bed with a little spring in your step as you get ready to face the challenges and excitement of the day. A little bluebird may or may not land on your shoulder as you step outside.

What’s the difference between these two scenarios? No, it’s not any type of mind-altering drug, just what it feels like to force yourself through the day when you’re miserable at work as opposed to feeling excited and empowered by your job.

It sounds easy enough—unsatisfying job = bad; satisfying job = good. But how can you tell the difference between the two before you’ve started working somewhere?

We’ve called in Jonathan Feldman, CIO for the city of Asheville, writer for InformationWeek, and expert on workplace misery and how to avoid it to find out how you can find a job and workplace you love—instead of one that’ll make you miserable.

Where did you go to college and what did you major in?

Undergrad: State University of New York at Buffalo, BA in English, just like all technology people. :-)

Graduate: Georgia Institute of Technology (“Georgia Tech”), MSM in management of technology

What was your first “real job” and how did you end up doing what you’re doing now?

I’ve always been a little entrepreneurial. As a middle school student, my buddy and I ran a company reselling memory and printers, and writing video games for the Apple ][ and Commodore 64 platforms. I basically funded my college experience by doing “temp” work in New York City during the summer that inevitably turned into tech work.

What does a typical day look like for you in your current role? What types of tasks do you perform?

We’re pretty ambitious in our department, so it’s always busy. My days vary widely. Some tasks include: employee reviews, project review, business reporting, business planning, customer service management, vendor management, contract management, policy review, new technology assessment… the list goes on. We plan our work every quarter, and report out every quarter about what we said we would do vs. what we did.

You mention on your website that you’ve become “an accidental expert about workplace misery and how to fix it.” What are some of the biggest causes of workplace misery and some of the most effective ways to overcome them?

Let me drill down into one in particular. I really detest the over-reliance on the yearly performance review. I think it’s fantasy football in today’s light-speed business environment. And, it makes people wait a whole year to get feedback. That’s insane.

Leaders should be (a) giving ongoing verbal feedback, and (b) providing some kind of structured, written feedback on a reasonably regular basis. I prefer quarterly reviews and goal-planning. Most of us want to do a good job and be recognized for that, or have the people we work for tell us what we’re doing wrong so that we can fix it.

We also assume that we’re doing a good job unless someone tells us otherwise. A year after we do something is WAY too late for us to (a) remember the situation clearly, and (b) to fix it. That’s why environments that solely rely on a yearly planning and review cycle generally have very unhappy employees.

You also mention that you’ve been lucky to have some wonderful mentors and you’d like to pay it forward (which, by the way, is awesome!). How can college students or recent graduates seek out mentors or more experienced professionals to help them?

It’s actually harder to have a good mentoring relationship than it is to get someone to say “yes.” Pick someone who is not only “successful,” but someone whose values you admire or perhaps someone who shares common interests. It doesn’t have to be your boss.

Sometimes, you’re going to get more candor about how you’re screwing up from someone who is NOT your boss. Don’t assume that after you get a “yes, I would be happy to be a mentor,” that it’s up to your mentor to schedule time together or to figure out how you’re going to share info. It’s not.

Presumably, you have picked someone successful and therefore crazily busy. Make it easy for them by arranging times to meet up and coming prepared with questions or work samples that you want evaluated. Keep the conversation going by email or social media. Written thank you notes never hurt, either.

What is something you wish you had known about careers/the working world when you graduated?

Build your network NOW, before you need it.

One of the most common soundbites when it comes to work, especially to people in the early stages of their careers, is to “follow your passion.” What do you think of this advice?

I think that you have to enjoy your job to do well at your job. There is a relationship between quality of work life and quality of work.

But I also think that every job has boring, aggravating parts to it, just like life, and there’s no getting around that. There’s a balance that you have to achieve. Amazingly (as Cal Newport points out), once you put the work into a job and get really good at it, all of a sudden you develop a passion for it.

There’s also aptitude. Sometimes the things that we are passionate about equate to the things that we’re really good at. That’s a good fit for a job. But sometimes we’re not all that good at the things that we’re passionate about. Not a good fit.

Start-ups, government, large corporations—it sounds like you’ve experienced working in a range of settings. What are some general observations you’ve made about each type of work setting and how can recent grads figure out which environment is best for them?

Here is the truth: large organizations are like a brain that constantly gets sections of it transplanted, leading to permanent insanity. This is true of government, this is true of large corps. I have seen the same types of bureaucracy and dead wood at government and in the private sector. But start-ups aren’t nirvana either: think “feral chihuahua.” They don’t have the strength and resources of a big org, and directions can change daily. Sometimes, because there is no roadmap, it becomes a contest of wills between founders or coworkers.

The solution? Choose people, not organizations. Good people make flawed organizations do great work, and be great places to work. So when you’re going to “work for a company,” you really should be asking yourself about your future boss, and perhaps your future boss’s boss. What are their reputations as leaders and coworkers?  What are their career accomplishments? How do they handle the little things when you interview? How much have they invested in employee professional development? These things matter more than the type of organization.

Homework time! Jonathan gives you plenty of big questions to consider. Think about what you have an aptitude for and what you enjoy doing. How can you combine those two things into a job you enjoy? If you’re not sure, talk to people you know (part of building out your network) and ask if they have any thoughts on what kind of job would allow you to do those things. If you’re already in the job interview stage, be sure to pay close attention to your potential coworkers, boss, and boss’s boss to see if they’re people you’d enjoy working with.

Want to read more from Jonathan? Find him on Twitter, Google +, InformationWeek, and on his website.

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