The Value Of A Crap Job

Cubicle farm

When talking to entrepreneurs, it seems like everyone has a ‘crap job’ story: the tale of the a job so bad that it forced the person telling it to decide how to get out of a situation she absolutely hated.

I have held a few crap jobs over the years. They all had their own part in driving me away from situations in which I would have to work to someone else’s expectations. I’m not the only one, either: I’ve talked to plenty of entrepreneurs who reached their breaking point in some awful job before they struck out on their own; for some of us, an awful job is bit like a mother bird pushing us out of the nest. We can see the ground coming and we know we have to figure out how to fly before we crash into the ground.

And we do. When I worked a summer wearing a tomato suit, I figured out pretty quickly that not only was a walking tomato a less-than-perfect marketing tool, but also that I needed to develop some serious skills so that my time was too valuable to force me to dress up and walk around a neighborhood.

A Case in Point: Ramon de la Fuente’s Incredibly Bad Boss

Ramon de la Fuente, of had one of those ‘crap’ jobs that did lead him directly to his own endeavors. He notes, “I started a web development company — and in my old job I was a PHP developer.”

But to get to the point where de la Fuente was ready to launch a new business, he had to go through an incredibly painful process first. “I got asked by a friend, to join him in a new job he landed. He knew the owner from a previous business arrangement and he felt it was a good opportunity. I think we both had no idea what we were getting into.”

The new company processed internet payments, primarily for the adult industry — an incredibly lucrative opportunity if handled correctly. That’s why de la Fuente joined the company, along with another tempting opportunity: “…the owner was planning to retire so we would have the opportunity to take over the company within ‘a few years of hard work.’ I’m not sure if the intention was ever there, but needless to say that didn’t happen.”

The job turned out to be problem after problem:

  • The employer was both paranoid and a workaholic. When de la Fuente and the rest of the team were working twelve hours a day, the employer felt comfortable calling them at midnight because “he felt something was off.”
  • The employees working for the company didn’t consider themselves members of a team, because they were constantly in defense-mode to avoid being blamed for any problem.
  • When the company hired an outside consultant to address the morale issues and set up team-building sessions, one of the employees was secretly ordered to record the sessions for the boss.

Talk about a poisonous culture! Luckily, de la Fuente didn’t take the brunt of the pain, because the company’s developers were somewhat insulated from the rest of the team. But the situation couldn’t last: “In the end, the company went down a dead-end path. They chose immediate cash instead of future stability, against our advice at every turn. The owner’s son was put on a fast track to ownership. My friend and I refused to work with him for various reasons, and that was the end of that. I did get the opportunity to fire the people I had worked with (the company was in financial trouble by then) — also not a very happy moment. Quitting was such a freedom… that last month was the longest one ever.”

But it wasn’t the horrible environment that causes de la Fuente the most regret today. It was one particular result of that ‘pass the blame’ culture: “There was no innovation. Anything new was suspect, and for any change there was the possibility that you’d have to go back to some version 3 weeks ago when ‘the numbers started getting weird.’ The less you changed the better.”

As he explains, “What pains me, more than anything, is that I have nothing to show for three years of super hard work besides a little cash. I literally learned nothing new (technically), I wasn’t stimulated to seek out community or better myself in any way. Just production-production-production.

That was the real cost, I think.”

But de la Fuente did learn something important (beyond how not to manage a team): “If you watch something going wrong for long enough, you inevitably start to think ‘I can do better.'” He’s never going to work for a boss again and that decision is going to benefit him and his career in the long run.

Working In the Moment

When you’re in the middle of a crap job, seeing past the awful environment can seem impossible. But if you can’t rise above the situation, at least a little bit, you can wind up stuck for what will feel like eternity.

Part of the problem is that most of us don’t have the option to just walk away from a pay check. Even if there’s a little suffering attached to the money, we all have bills to pay. If you have the luxury of leaving an awful job without having to worry about money, you should do so. For the rest of the world, it’s more practical to think about the options.

First, you need to understand the value of your current situation. Even if it’s highly stressful, there are benefits to pull out of any situation. Start with the easy stuff — the financials. Keep going deeper after that, though. Sit down and list out everything you’re getting out of the work you’re doing that you may be able to leverage later on.

  • Income and benefits: If you’re sticking with a stressful situation, you better be benefitting financially. If you haven’t already, go through the entire list of benefits you get from your employer and make sure you’re taking full advantage of them — if you’re eligible for tuition reimbursement, for instance, make sure you’re taking those classes.
  • New abilities and responsibilities: Whether you have a newly honed ability to keep calm in a crisis or you’re doing the work of two employees, a crap job can turn into some serious resume candy.
  • Opportunities for autonomy: In my experience, crap jobs tend to involve either obsessively controlling managers or managers who give you absolutely no guidance at all. If you’re in the second situation, grab that autonomy with both hands — you can take advantage of that lack of guidance to experiment with your own work and learn more on your employer’s time. And while I would never recommend you do something unethical, you might also be able to come with some other ideas to fill your unobserved time.
  • A clear picture of where you don’t want to work again: Not only are you gaining experience to help you narrow down the employers or customers you’re willing to work with in the future, you’re getting some clear motivation to improve your overall situation so you won’t find yourself back here again.

Even now, when I’m working with a difficult client, I’m a fan of counting my blessings. Running through that sort of information reminds me of why I need to bother sticking with a tough project — and it helped with the crap jobs I’ve had in the past. If the list is short, that’s motivation in and of itself: a short list is a reminder that you need to be spending all the time you can towards improving your current situation.

Next, you need to consider what resources you have to make those improvements. Going home and doing anything else you can think of besides work may be what’s currently keeping you sane, but it’s probably not moving you towards an exit strategy. You’ve got to decide where you want to head and then take action to get there. You may be considering a path that leads away from ever working for someone else again (including spectacularly bad managers) or you maybe more interested in any other job you can get right way. Either way, set aside time to actually take action.

If your crap job includes the problem of an employer who doesn’t respect your time outside of work, that process is a lot harder. Attempting to set new boundaries with an employer can be a way to find yourself without that crap job faster than you were intending to quit. In most states, you can’t collect unemployment insurance if you’re fired for calling in sick too often or for refusing to work overtime. The best advice I can offer is to take advantage of every minute away from work you can; even if you go a little crazy with both work and the effort you’re putting into reaching a point where you can leave your current job, getting out probably needs to be a priority.

Photo Credit: mikecogh