Updated on 08.08.17

Life Lessons Anyone Can Learn from a Lousy Job

If you’ve ever worked in a job that feels unrewarding, you already know how draining and soul-sucking it feels to spend hours wishing you were somewhere else. Perhaps you’ve stared out the window, wishing you could walk out the door just to feel the sunshine. Maybe you’ve hid in a break room and cried, or been cussed out a time or two.

You’ve probably asked yourself, “How did I get here?” at least once, while pondering your choices in life. The thing is, it’s quite possible you did nothing wrong to wind up in a job that steals your soul. Actually, I would even argue that challenging jobs are a part of life – a part of our transition into who we were meant to be.

Heck, it’s possible you even like your job for the most part. Maybe you just want some time away from home, and find that a simple retail job lets you earn extra cash without too much hassle or stress. Or maybe you need to work nights and find that waiting tables is the most lucrative option available. Maybe you’re just happy to have any job at all, so you approach your job from a place of gratitude instead of contempt.

I feel like I’ve experienced all of those feelings at one time or another. I’ve worked in unrewarding jobs that were actually fun, along with terrible jobs I couldn’t wait to escape. I’ve also worked in plenty of jobs I hated, but which I had to drag myself to, because I desperately needed the money.

In the 20 years since I entered the working world, I have cleaned houses, cleaned hotel rooms, worked as a telemarketer, waited tables, taken care of adults with disabilities, worked in fast food, worked in professional jobs that were overwhelming and unrewarding, and become self-employed.

Fortunately, I can look back now and see the value in each of these jobs. While I hated cleaning houses sometimes, it was a great way to earn $25+ per hour during my spare time. And while I didn’t enjoy waiting tables every moment, waitressing was a flexible job I could do while in school.

Five Lessons Anyone Can Learn From an Unrewarding Job

Once you have some runway behind you, it’s a lot easier to stop being angry and start seeing your worst job experiences as miniature learning opportunities. Here are a few lessons anyone can learn from a job they don’t love:

Lesson #1: You control how you treat other people.

Some of the worst jobs require you to work with people you’d rather not be around. If you actually liked everyone you worked with, it might not be so bad. But, alas, it seems like all the cool people must be working somewhere else.

Fortunately, co-workers we can’t stand tend to impart some of the most important lessons – like how we should treat other people.

Awful co-workers are memorable like that — just not in a good way.

When I worked at a Subway restaurant during high school, my “boss” was the worst. I was only 16 years old, yet I distinctly remember her trying to extort $30 from each Subway employee to replace a stolen food scale.

I didn’t steal it, so I wasn’t giving her a dime. That pissed her off big time, and she took it out on me by berating me every chance she had.

Even though I was only a teenager, I knew it was wrong to ask a kid to pay $30 to replace equipment. I was making less than $5 per hour, after all (this was in 1996)!

It’s been more than 20 years since this happened, but I still remember the resentment I felt at a time when I was working hard to earn spending money. And I vowed that I would never treat someone else that way.

Lesson #2: You learn to set boundaries for how other people treat you.

Crappy co-workers + service job = negative work experiences. When you hate your job and everyone you work with feels the same, pretty much everyone is crabby and ready to snap.

While you might have to endure bullying and a less-than-stellar work environment when you’re barely scraping by, you can learn a lot about yourself in the process.

An intentionally hateful boss can teach you what you’re unwilling to put up with at your next gig. That co-worker who constantly makes fun of your hair or clothes? They’ll make you want to stick up for yourself so bad that, next time, you’re prepared.

But you can even learn how to let other people treat you in a good way.

Case in point: One experience that has stuck with me is the time I was cussed out while waiting tables at Outback Steakhouse. I accidentally screwed up two people’s orders, and they both received their different steaks (prime rib and filet) cooked the opposite way they wanted. The husband and wife tore into me, making a scene big enough to attract my manager over.

I still remember my manager’s words. “Get out,” he told them. “We don’t serve people who treat our employees this way. Leave and never come back.”

The surrounding tables of guests, who were overwhelmingly appalled by the couple’s outbursts, started clapping.

I learned a few valuable lessons from the ordeal. For starters, I would never let anyone yell at me the way the couple did again, no matter the circumstances. Second, I didn’t deserve to be treated that way, as evidenced by my manager’s stellar response. And third, voicing support for a fellow coworker or employee can go a long way.

Lesson #3: Learn how to hustle.

It can vary from job to job, but some extra hustle in certain jobs can absolutely pay off. If you work in food service and wait tables, for example, you can boost your income by upping your game. The faster and better your service – and the more tables you can turn over – the more money you’ll (usually) make.

But, even if there’s no financial incentive to work hard, many jobs still require you do anyway. Bad jobs are usually grueling or uncomfortable in some way, right?

The good news is, working harder can make the time pass faster, which can help you get the hell out of there that much sooner. And if you work hard enough for long enough, you can improve your work ethic so much that there’s no going back: You’ll be a hustler for life.

So, when you move up into a better position, you’ll really be able to shine.

Lesson #4: Hard work + education = options.

Working a mind-numbing job can be fun enough when you’re young, but it gets o-l-d when you get into your 20s and 30s and realize nothing will change unless you do. There’s nothing like hating your job and realizing you have at least 30 more years of it ahead of you before you can quit.

The good news is, most terrible jobs are short-term positions – the kind you take when you’re young, inexperienced, and need to learn how to survive in a traditional work environment. You schlep in every day, learn all you can, then try tirelessly to find something that will leave you happier and more fulfilled.

If you work hard, apply yourself, and improve your career skills, your time spent in a job you hate should soon be in the past. The more valuable you can make yourself to an employer, the less likely you’ll have to work in a job that makes you absolutely miserable.

Stuck in a crappy job? Keep working hard and absolutely keep your head up. With enough time and some luck, you should be able to graduate to something better soon.

Lesson #5: You can make a difference.

A recent article in the Harvard Business Review by Emily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning: Crafting a Life That Matters, shared details on how virtually any job a person can hold can have meaning if they want it to. As Esfahani Smith notes, the four most common jobs in the U.S. are salesperson, cashier, food preparer/waiter, and office clerk – all jobs that many would deem trivial.

The thing is, any one of these positions can absolutely carry meaning if the person who holds it approaches their work in a thoughtful way. Why? As Esfahani Smith notes, these jobs – and many like them – exist to serve others.

Esfahani Smith says one of the best ways to find meaning in any job is to connect with customers on a deeply personal level. For example, as a waiter, consider that you may be helping a couple celebrate their anniversary.

Another tip is to constantly remind yourself of your company’s mission and the role you play within that greater purpose, however ancillary it may be:

“There’s a great story about a janitor that John F. Kennedy ran into at NASA in 1962. When the president asked him what he was doing, the man said, ‘I’m helping put a man on the moon.'”

Adopting a service mindset that fosters positive feelings can also help you enjoy your work more, no matter the job. “Not everyone finds their one true calling. But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to work meaningless jobs,” writes Esfahani Smith. “If we reframe our tasks as opportunities to help others, any occupation can feel more significant.”

The Bottom Line

Soul-sucking jobs don’t have to last forever, nor should they. If you’re not happy with where you’re at, the best thing you can do is invest in yourself and learn new skills so you can try something new, take a chance, or just have more options altogether. But you can improve your outcome in the short-term, too, if you learn to look at your work in a different way.

While some jobs can feel awful at the time, they can still teach us a lot about ourselves – but only if and when we’re willing to pay attention.

Holly Johnson is an award-winning personal finance writer and the author of Zero Down Your Debt. Johnson shares her obsession with frugality, budgeting, and travel at ClubThrifty.com.

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What lessons have you learned from a crappy job? What would you add to this list?

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