At the request of a great many friends, and a vehement recommendation from my sister, I have finally completed Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's incredible novel Americanah. In the past several years (read: once the Harry Potter series concluded) I haven't found much use for fiction, and have instead filled my mind and bookshelf with biographies and advice for my real life. And yet, as I read Americanah, there was so much that I found familiar, I found myself wishing for many, many more books like it
Defining the career you want to pursue with your life can seem daunting and limiting. From a very young age, our parents, teachers, friends, and elders ask us the same mundane question: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”.
The question is never “Who do you want to be?” or rarely “Where do you want to live?” or even more infrequently “How do you want to impact the world?”. We are expected to decide what we want to be before we even experience real life.
From children, to adolescents, to college graduates we are cradled by society’s comforting protective hands. The rules and regulations we are expected to abide by to maintain order is a small price to pay in exchange for meeting our basic survival needs and the comfort of life in the 21st century. We adapt to a way of life that shields us from raw adulthood. Up until the moment we graduate college, sign up for the military, and/or enter the workforce, we are gifted with a sense of freedom. It is not until we turn the ripe age of eighteen that our reality begins to change.
Eighteen is a milestone age in our nation. It is the age we are deemed adults and independent contributors to society. We are less protected from comforting hands and now must graduate from dreaming up our potential careers to actually living them. We are told to attend college, join the military, enter the workforce; to do something because that is what’s expected. It is the path into our twenties that becomes the defining decade of our professional course.
The pressure is real and unwavering. How are you supposed to know what you want to be when you grow up at age eighteen, twenty, twenty-five, or even thirty? How you feel here in this moment is no indicator of how you’re going to feel in twenty years. For this reason, and so many others, it is significant to your employment satisfaction that you choose wisely. You must define your niche now to ensure you won’t be disappointed or unfulfilled later.
Follow these five core ways to define your niche and navigate yourself to employment happiness:
- Take a personality check. What type of person are you? Does giving back to the community by helping others invigorate you? Do you enjoy crunching numbers under time sensitive deadlines? Are you happiest in an isolated office space working alone or do you prefer collaborating in large groups? Understanding your personality will aid you in finding the ideal niche to share your talents, skills, and experiences.
- Network. How are you supposed to successfully discover what you want to do for a career if you haven’t experienced the possibilities? Networking is a great tool to overcome this obstacle. You must direct your efforts to identifying the key players in industries and organizations you believe you identify with. Look to these figureheads for guidance. Do you agree with their professionalism? Is their work reflected in your own professional values and goals? Strategize to build meaningful partnerships in niches you believe you could work in someday.
- Volunteer for your niche. Everything might seem perfect on paper, but before you sign employment contracts or accept a position it’s wise to really experience your decided niche. Explore the industry or organization that appeals to you. Do they offer internships or shadowing appointments? If so, seek those opportunities. Even a brief taste of the daily routine will give you a better idea of what’s to come than reading a summary of the job on paper or electronically. It’s your due diligence to explore before committing.
- Remind yourself this is the “real world”. It’s challenging for some young professionals coming right out of college or grad school and entering the workforce. We have these illusions of what careers are like based on our school experiences, and most of us end up floored by the “real world”. You don’t work for a few hours and take the rest of the day off. There’s no schedule of five week vacations plus summers off anymore. You don’t get to call out sick every week and get away with it. Real work equals real responsibility and accountability for your actions. Consider this when defining your niche. If you can’t sit at a desk for eight hours a day, working in an office might not be your best match. If you’re the type of person who constantly needs to have variety in your day, working a strict routine of completing the same tasks day in and day out probably isn’t for you. These are important factors to consider when you begin defining your career niche.
- Remember, you’re not stuck. Even if you think you’ve found your professional niche in your twenties or thirties, you aren’t trapped there until retirement. Our interests and goals change all the time. You might realize you want to teach or be a career coach during your youth and find out as time passes that you’d like to try working behind the scenes in administration or make changes on a political level for your organization. We aren’t ever immovable. That’s the beauty about work in our generation. There’s fluidity and we have ever-growing opportunities laid before us. Your niche may be one thing now, but could become another down the road. Don’t be hard on yourself or feel limited if you change paths. We all have the power to change our minds to redefine our niches.
Defining your niche is possible, but may take you some time. Even if you thought you had your whole life figured out, it could change paths right before your eyes. We are constantly moving, growing, changing, and adapting. Every age is a new milestone that brings with it new purpose and possibility. Defining your niche isn't as simple as telling your parents you want to be a doctor when you grow up. You might want that at age six, but discover you want to teach at age twenty-five. Life is unpredictable, but that's what makes it so fun! Be aggressive in your search, truly take action to find your niche, but allow yourself to enjoy the journey. Defining your niche comes from within and needs to be about discovering who you are at your core. We believe in you!
(1) I am a reader. I am a library-loving, constant tome-carrying, unapologetic bibliophile. (2) If there’s anyone you will meet who can connect what she’s reading to the world around her, it’s me.
As such, I want to dedicate my time in this space to sharing with you what I’m reading, and how it could inform a budding professional’s daily life.
This month’s post covers one of my more offbeat reads of the year to date. In a book that aims to tear asunder our conventional wisdom about Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Dr. Richard Saul’s ADHD Does Not Exist examines a variety of other ailments that could account for the hallmark behaviors of ADHD- inability to focus, impulsivity, and decreased lack of achievement in the classroom or workplace. I’ll be honest when I say that I didn’t like this book, and had a hard time completing it. Many elements of it frustrated me, but I knew there was something to learn so I pressed on. Although I struggled with the methods Saul used to arrive at his conclusions, I did agree with much of his central argument: ADHD, as we understand it, is a symptom of an actual ailment, not an ailment in itself.
As I talk to friends and peers struggling in their workplaces, a similar thread emerges among the unhappier members of that cohort. Have you ever heard someone say, “I hate my job”? Have you ever said it? In my estimation, saying “I hate my job” is akin to Dr. Saul’s struggle with the diagnosis of ADHD- chances are, you don’t hate your job; something else is causing that final conclusion. My goal is to examine some of those symptoms and dig deeper into what might be causing them, just as Saul did in his book.
Definition of Terms
First, let’s dig into the terms that are being used to define our predicament. Dr. Saul’s primary argument is based in how ADHD is defined in the DSM-V, the seminal document that classifies and describes mental illnesses. He claims that its definition of ADHD is an incomplete and inaccurate one, one that sets those seeking diagnosis up for failure in the first place.
When you think about it, couldn’t our definition of “a job I’d love” (especially early on in our careers) be the same way?
Lots of factors contribute to how we might believe our early career experiences should be: expectations from parents and other family members; media and pop culture depictions of outrageously successful people that seem to be years younger and impossibly brighter; and even social comparison of what our friends are doing and how their lives appear as a result. Sifting through all of these factors, I urge you to dig deep in your heart and think: what’s important to me? What do I want? What do I need? These considerations can and should be made with loved ones in mind, but only you know what factors in a job are important to help you succeed in it. Honor those factors as much as you can.
So let’s say you have your definitive list of what your important factors are…and you’re still unhappy. What might be causing that unhappiness? Let’s dive in and see.
I Hate My Job Might Mean…I’m Having Issues With A Supervisor
We see excellent examples of bad bosses in daily life all the time. The clueless and misguided Michael Scott on The Office, the tortured and enigmatic Don Draper on Mad Men, the trio of ill-fated supervisors in the film Horrible Bosses. When looking for examples of what we don’t want in someone guiding us through our early professional experiences, we have an embarrassment of riches. However, it’s harder to know what will work for you professionally until you’re in it. A supervisor’s ability to meet your needs is particularly difficult to discern in an interview scenario, when a need to make a good first impression may (intentionally or otherwise) mask traits or shortcomings that could affect your comfort and success in the office.
If you find yourself in a situation where you and your boss aren’t meshing well, don’t pull a Half-Baked or Jerry Maguire and storm out of the office just yet. First, see if you can identify specifically where the concerns lie, and find a way to express your issues to your boss. The list I referred to earlier about your non-negotiables and essential needs can inform this conversation, so keep them on hand! None of us have (to my knowledge) cultivated the ability to read minds; it’s entirely possible that the needs you have could be addressed or fulfilled if your supervisor is simply aware of how you’re feeling and what you need. Be as diplomatic and specific in your approach as possible, ensuring that associated emotions don’t overpower your central message. Emails, letter, face-to-face…pick an approach that works for you and speak up for your needs.
Should you express your concerns, and see no change (or if your boss outright refuses to accommodate your needs), then you may need to either adjust your expectations and approach (more on that in a bit), or explore other professional options, ones that can provide the support and environment that you need to thrive.
I Hate My Job Might Mean…Issues With A Coworker
For so many of us, work is not done in an isolated environment. The people we work with and around are essential to our success, and we are integral to theirs. So when problems arise with coworkers, it has a significant impact on our ability to successfully complete and enjoy our work. Perhaps you are having a hard time coping with different personalities in your workplace- people who are territorial, overly political, or just plain mean. Or perhaps you are having a bigger issue, such as outright bullying or victimization in the workplace. In either case, there are ways to attempt to navigate these challenges without throwing in the towel altogether.
If you don’t get your coworkers, take some time to learn more about different personality types, and think about how you might be able to work alongside people who differ from you stylistically. Finding common ground with different people can be a great way to put personal dissimilarities aside. A great book for this is Pat Lencioni’s Silos, Politics, and Turf Wars- a quick read with a lot of helpful information on how to understand and collaborate in an environment with many personalities. Further, remember that everyone involved is a real, live, human being! Get to know these people- see if you can initiate opportunities to spend time together as a staff, talk to them about their families and interests, create an image of them that supports their status as a human rather than an adversary.
If you are being bullied, know that these circumstances are not normal and must be addressed. I am far from an expert in this area and don’t wish to give ill-informed advice in this realm, but there are a few resources I’d like to direct you to. First, the Workplace Bullying Institute has a series of resources that can help you cope with a bullying scenario. Karlyn Borysenko is a leadership professional doing great work in the area of diagnosing and confronting bullying in the workplace. I encourage you to read her article on the characteristics of workplace bullying, and explore her website (Zen Workplace) to learn more about how to cope with these concerns.
I Hate My Job Might Mean…I Expected This To Be Different
In a prior piece I wrote about Questlove’s Mo Meta Blues, he talks about the danger of expectations and how they can sometimes contribute to disappointment and frustration. At the end of the day, we all have expectations for what we’d like our present circumstances and future aspirations to look like. And those expectations can color how we see our current station. Maybe you feel like you should be making more for the work you’re doing, or are convinced that you deserve a promotion, or can’t believe that you’re being asked to do that task. When these feelings consume you, I return to the counsel I provided in the Questlove piece: the only competition you should ever be in is with yourself, with the person you were yesterday.
If you end each day a little better professionally, a little stronger as a person, and a little more experienced than the day before, you’re doing fine. And if you are in a sustained situation where this is not the case, look closely at that. How did you get there? Where would you like to be? And what can you realistically do to get yourself there?
A Final Note On That Job You Hate
It was important to me to write this piece because I’ve been in jobs I “hated” and want to help others avoid that experience. However, I should also say that this is a fairly long piece…based on a book I did not enjoy. I point that out because it’s important to recognize that something good can come from everything. Even the jobs that challenged my ability to stay at the office all day, left me crying under my desk, and caused stress that made my hair fall out (all true, by the way), I use lessons and skills from those jobs every single day. You may be frustrated, feel beat down, and suspect that you’re wasting your time in a role you’re not happy in. This is not an okay state to be in for long periods, and you’re right to get angry about it. But I promise you you’re learning. You’re growing. You’re getting better. And when you get where you’re headed next, you’ll find that the time in those jobs you hate is the reason you can find, appreciate, and excel in those jobs you love.
Since I was six years old, I knew I wanted to be: a history teacher. However, a common thing I have heard over the years from teachers is "don't go into teaching." Not only is this discouraging and frustrating, it’s also sad. I have read blogs from teachers, families, administrators, and students telling me to ignore it.
But what I haven’t read are the reasons myself and all of the future teachers in the world who believe we will be the ones to make change should follow our passions - but these are the reasons.
1. The potential impact is worth the risk of not changing the world. Maybe changing the entire world is not possible, but I can change the life of one child (or adult). There are flaws in the system of education, we know this. We need educational equity; we need to find a happy medium between having standards and not teaching to a test, we need to do a lot of things. Can one teacher change all of these problems? No. But, those who give up on it are perpetuating the problems. This idea goes into every career - there are problems, and we are imperfect beings. But then we should actively decide to be part of the solution and don’t add to what is already messed up.
2. An individual can radiate a message that can shift a system in the right direction. As an RA in undergrad, I had an interaction with a student the first few days of the year that was less than positive; she was angry that I wrote her up for a policy violation. Every day following she would advert her eyes or roll them when I would pass her. And every day I would smile and say hello. I would ask how she was doing and she would ignore me and keep walking. But, I never stopped saying hello. On the last day of the school year I found a card on my door and inside that same student had written "thank you for never giving up on me." I made an impact on a student that needed to be shown there are people who won't give up on her, despite mistakes, and despite circumstance. As an individual I radiated that message and perhaps as she continues in the world she will remember it when she has the choice whether or not to give up on someone else. I caused a shift.
3. Because I have people that believe in me, I can believe in people I haven’t even met yet. I truly believe that no one gets anywhere alone. Everything in your life is determined by others and by their perceptions. Somehow, I’ve had many people who have believed in me and because of that I am determined to believe in other people. So I give advice when I am asked, I say kind words about others, and if I see someone upset even if I don’t know them I stop and ask if they are okay. Most of all, I root for people to be successful. I think anyone, in any career, can search to find people to believe in. One small action causes a reaction. Return the favor and the world will change, becoming better than it was before.
4. We have gotten this far because there were a few people that believed that changing the “way things are” was not only possible, but it was their responsibility. The history buff in me really stands by this one. If you paid attention at all in history classes, you know that throughout history there have been really awful times and events that someone thought had to stop, and so they caused the world to change. Can everyone be a major historical figure? No. However, you can view it as your responsibility to take active ownership in making things better and refusing to accept the “way things are” if they are not working. Why are historical figures like these remembered? They changed lives. If you take ownership like this, I’m sure you’ll change someone’s life.
5. Because I love what I am doing. I love inspiring people, I love teaching them something new. I love teaching them how people no one thought were going to amount to anything have completely changed history. Basically, I am going to spend the rest of my life teaching kids that people like them can change the world, so I guess it’s a good thing I believe I can change it, too.
So let's pledge to not discourage young professionals from making an impact. When we tell someone that they should not go after their dreams what you are really saying is that their ability to make an impact is impossible. Michelle Obama has said, "we've got a responsibility to live up to the legacy of those who came before us by doing all that we can to help those who come after us." Let's allow them the space to take risks and to have a niche.