I thought I was in a great place. I was grinding out code like a horny teenager grinds out you know what. If I had been born in the 70s, I would have been walking to Stayin Alive.
And then, I was called into a meeting with a senior manager, almost at vice president level. And he basically told me that I was the lowest performer in the company, because “he hadn’t seen my name at all in any of the progress reports.” He didn’t bother to ask my direct manager, because in the world of senior managers, what isn’t written in email reports doesn’t exist.
Sort of like the quantum world, where particles only exist when you observe them. You know, Schrodinger’s cat and stuff?
So because some middle level manager had forgotten to put my name on email reports, I didn’t “exist”. If you have read Catch 22, this happens to the doctor. He dies on paper, and the people stop talking to him because he is officially dead, even though he is standing right in front of them.
I joke about it now, but at the time I was quite hurt. I had never felt so humiliated in my life
I thought about quitting, but couldn’t because of some legal / finance issues. Basically, the company had sponsored my visa, and if I quit, I’d have to pay them thousands of pounds I didn’t have. Besides, for other, personal reasons, I couldn’t move city, and there were no jobs in my city.
So I had to swallow my humiliation, and go back to work at a place I felt sick. And I mean this literally. That year, I took something like 7-8 sick periods, each lasting 2-3 days. I was put on an official HR checklist, as even in our relatively relaxed environment, that was too much.
But I survived, and as the cliche goes, what doesn’t kill you makes you the President of Azerbijan.
If you too are stuck in a job you can’t leave, here are some tips that may help you survive.
Surviving a work place you absolutely hate
Take stock of your life
The first thing to do is take stock of your life. Until then, I had been cruising along in life. I didn’t have any savings, even though I was single and living in a cheap house. I wasted my time playing games, and didn’t do anything to improve my career. As soon as the incident above happened, I decided to reevaluate my life. This is a very personal process, and will be different for each of us. But take a blank diary, and write down all you feel is wrong with your life. If you don’t want to write it down, sit in a quiet place, and just think about it. You won’t have to think hard. Your subconscious already knows whats wrong: You just have to acknowledge it. There is no need to take action on this list yet. That will happen automatically when you are ready to move to the next step.
Second, decide what you want to do in life. Do you want to be a top notch contractor, charging hundreds of dollars an hour? Do you want to start your own software company? Get a job at $Big_Company? You don’t need to be certain at this stage, and you can even have multiple options. But do think about the details. So if you want to become a startup founder with your own web based business, do you know how to create and run websites? Do you know how to sell on the internet?
Next, start looking at how you can improve your skills. Don’t blindly change a job. That’s my advice. Because whatever problems you face now, you will carry them to the next job. Changing your environment will not change your situation. There is a reason you are in the mess you are in, and if you just move job, you will end up in the same situation again. So that’s why I say, look to improve your skills, so you can move on to something better, not just more of the same crap.
Why you should not quit a job you hate
This will fly against everything you have been told: If you hate your job, quit immediately! Walk in, give the finger to the boss, and storm out. But that will not accomplish anything.
This point is very important. Just changing your job will not improve your life, unless you also change the thinking that got you into this mess. What thinking?
- If you think all managers are evil and working for Da Man, you will never take on responsibility. Which means you will never get promoted, no matter how many jobs you change.
- If you think capitalism and business is evil, you may never think of selling that app you wrote, and that many people would be willing to pay good money for. You will be stuck blaming evil bankers or foreigners for your problems.
- If you think (like 90% of programmers) that being technically good is good enough to get promoted and get pay rises, you should be prepared for a good bitch slap by Real Life. Don’t worry, I’ll be there to laugh at you, and then pick you up, and welcome you to the club. We all been there, and the sooner you get slapped down by life, the sooner you will be ready to face life as it really is, and not how you want it to be.
If you accept you are responsible for your own life, you must also accept that your current circumstances, the ones you hate so much, are partly (or wholly, depending on how honest you are) your fault. So if you change your job, the bad habits, the wrong thinking patterns that got you into the mess you are, will carry with you to the next job. Changing your environment will not change your circumstances. Read that line again.
Edited to add: Based on comments on Hacker News etc, let me add this:
If you are facing bullying, racism or sexism (or indeed any other -ism), then yes, leave immediately.
But for most of us, it’s not outright bullying, but the constant grinding down, the non-stop requests for overtime, the occasional “helpful comments” that are actually insults, the constant interference, that really gets us down. Individually, they might mean nothing, but over time, they build up, and make you feel as small as the full stop at the end of this sentence. If you are facing this constant humiliation, that’s when you must plan your exit.
End of edit
So what should you do?
Find out which negative patterns are holding you back from your goals. You may need the help of loved ones, friends, or even a therapist. You can do this by yourself, if you can be brutally honest, but I found it easier to get help, to see my own blind spots. And then, change your thinking (and no, it won’t happen overnight). You may find that you no longer hate your job. Or you may find that you are now skilled enough to do better. Either way, you will be in a better position to move forward, than if you had just given the finger and moved on.
Start building your skills
Which skills? You should already have a rough idea of what you want to do. Start with the skills required for that. Luckily, some skills are common. No matter what you do, learning to sell yourself will come in handy. Other than that, you might want to learn things that you find relevant, or even interesting. Don’t dismiss interesting, as you more likely to stick with things you love. These might be making a website, learning a new programming language, making professional looking video casts, or even improving your writing.
Start to take control of your life. Most depression is caused by feeling helpless, a victim of fate. If your work won’t allow it, trying taking initiative outside. Write a game, build a electromechanical Dalek using Lego and microprocessors, anything that will make you feel good about yourself. Just one thing: Do something that you can finish in a few weeks. Finish, so it is good enough to put online and show to others. Don’t choose something like writing the next Lord of the Rings, which will take you 27 years to complete. Choose something from what you want to accomplish, and start making small progress daily.
This point is very important. The reason you are doing this is to build self esteem. Small, regular accomplishments will really build your self esteem.
How to move on to a better job
So how does all this help you?
Simple. You are working on improving your skills in the background, aren’t you? Once you feel that you are confident, resign quietly. Don’t throw a tantrum, don’t give it to them or show them their place. Say “Thanks for everything, but I feel I must move on now.” You will come across as very professional, and will certainly get a good reference.
The difference now is that you have built yourself up. You will not just changeD one crap job for another. It might take time, but no one said fulfilling your dreams is easy.
Remember that there is a price to pay if you chase after your dreams. But also remember that there will be a bigger price to pay if you crush your dreams and do nothing. You have to pay the price either way, but at least one path leads to happiness.
Of course, moving jobs and taking a new plunge, one that will cause you extreme fear and doubt. I will address that in a future post.
I have written a followup to this blog: How to overcome mind numbing depression
Part of the Programmer Masterclass series.
PS: Hate your job? I'm writing a book that shows you how to survive work. Stop hiding in the cubicle and do something with your life. If you are interested, sign up below to be notified. Subscribers will get special offers and discounts.