Sometimes when you’re in the early stages of your career, you have to do something less than glamorous.
By sometimes I mean ‘most of the time.’ Very rarely do we get to start our careers by launching into our dream jobs. Even when we’re lucky enough to work at our dream companies, we have to start at the bottom. You have to earn trust, gain respect, and do a lot of gruntwork to get to the top.
Even then it isn’t perfect. When you’ve finally climbed your way to the top, you’ll realize that the day-to-day work in your dream job can be boring and messy. No matter what you’re doing, to be successful, you have to stay focused. It helps a lot if you enjoy what you do.
Enjoying what you do isn’t some magic thing that either is or isn’t. It’s something you can intentionally cultivate. This list will give you a place to start.
1. Remember how your work is helping you grow.
No matter what you’re doing, you’re learning — from your bosses, your coworkers, the details of your day-to-day responsibilities, the new situations you’re being thrust into, the problems you have to solve. This learning is making you more valuable. It’s setting you up for future, better opportunities. It makes you more competent in the work you’re doing right now. It’s making you a better person, and a better entity.
This growth is easy to lose in the shuffle of day-to-day life — forest for the trees and all that. Maintaining an awareness of it is very important.
2. Keep track of benchmarks.
How have you gotten better over the past month, quarter, etc.? Don’t just remember that you’re growing. Measure it. Remember when you were a kid and you measured your height with a pencil and a ruler on the closet doorjamb? If you were anything like I was, you did it often — how much have I grown since I measured last month? Apply that same dedication — fascination — with measurement to your work.
Tracking benchmarks from month to month helps you see the forward progress — the things that get lost in the day-to-day, but when looked at over a broader timespan, become blatantly obvious.
Start a spreadsheet, if that’s valuable to you. Create a set of journal prompts to work through each month, or better yet, every weekend. When you do something well, write it down. When you make a mistake, note it. When you figure something out, record what you learned.
Where you are right now might not feel impressive, but look at it in direct comparison to where you were three months ago. What things do you know that you didn’t know then? What skills have you developed? What problems have you solved that would have daunted you before? In what concrete ways are you better at your job?
3. Enjoy the day-to-day process.
Enjoy the rhythm of your work. A lot of life is about settling into a flow. Even when you’re working your dream job, there will be monotony — very similar types of emails to respond to again and again. Detail work that requires painstaking focus. Record keeping. Backend stuff.
When confronted with this type of work, you have two options. Option one is to resent it, wish for it to be over, get restless. You know the feeling — barely able to focus, desperate to jump out of your seat and go do something. It’s not fun. Option two is to settle into the rhythm of it, and take pleasure in the process.
Enjoy paying attention to the details in an email you’re sending. Instead of getting bored and restless, think about the value the recipient is going to gain when they open the email. Think of the human connection you’re building. Enjoy the rhythm of sinking into a deep focus. Enjoy the act, the craft, of paying attention to your work.
Boring tasks become pleasant when you enjoy not the task itself, but the rhythm of doing it.
4. Frame how your job moves you closer to your goals.
Not only are you learning from your job in an arbitrary way, but you’re taking an important step on your journey towards where you ultimately want to end up.
You may dream of someday being a marketing manager for a fashion company, but right now you’re stuck in an entry-level customer service role. How is that role making you better? What skills are you gaining that relate to the bigger picture? You’re learning discipline and focus. You’re learning how to communicate with people clearly and effectively — something that’s imperative in both marketing and management. You’re learning how to convey value to people and re-sell them on products — again, imperative in a marketing role. You’re learning how to communicate with your own managers, the visionaries of the company, and you’re learning how to convey your ideas to them in a value-focused way. All of these skills relate directly to the work you want to be doing someday. This is your training ground. Training grounds sometimes come in unusual shapes and sizes — they’re not always an entry-level position in the role type you’d like to end up in — but each one is an imperative part of your professional journey. Rather than getting restless, focus on capitalizing on what’s important to you.
5. Treat your work as play.
Remember when you were a kid and you were driven by pure curiosity and fun? You don’t have to lose that just because you grow up. Your work can have the same quality that your play once did. Instead of approaching work as a chore, or as something to feel pressured by, or stressed about, treat it with the spirit of play. Be curious, be joyful, be open to experimentation.
Have ideas and say, “let’s try that,” the same way you would if you were a kid playing pretend. Run into problems and get excited by them, because they’re an opportunity to solve something. Have your driving motivator (second only to ‘success’) be ‘fun.’
6. Take pride in your work. Treat it as a reflection of yourself.
You’re putting your work out into the world with your name attached to it. You’re creating content, interacting with other people, driving results. You’re creating tangible things and driving an impact on other people.
That’s a big (and exciting) accomplishment. Take pride in that. Enjoy the craft of making something you’re proud to put your name on.
Note: If you want to be working in a deeply focused state, I’d recommend combining this one in practice with #3, enjoying the process. The two of these together are a powerful combination.
7. Own your work. Do it not for someone else, but for yourself.
At the end of the day, your day-to-day isn’t about your employer. It’s about yourself. You’re in a contractual relationship, and while half of that contract is about meeting your employer’s needs, at the end of the day, you entered this relationship for your own benefit. Don’t do what you’re doing just because it’s required (and don’t do the bare minimum just to get by). Do it because you want to do it, because it’s your job and you take responsibility for doing it well. Do it like there was no one watching and you were just here because you wanted to be here.
When you take ownership of your work, you find you enjoy the process far more than you do when you do it solely out of obligation.
8. Give yourself mini-challenges.
This is a great tool for keeping yourself engaged. Don’t just work to someone else’s benchmarks. Work towards your own. Don’t just work to someone’s deadline — set your own and challenge yourself to hit it.
This works in both the macro and the micro. Anything from “I want to finish this project a day early” to “How many leads can I get through in the next twenty minutes?” goes.
Not only does this keep your brain engaged, but it also challenges you to consistently try to beat your own times and get better, the same way a sprinter tries to beat their own time on the track. It’s a fun and effective tool for self-improvement.
9. Treat the hard parts as a test of character.
People are measured not by their performance when things are easy, but by their performance when things are hard. The hard stuff shows us what we’re made of. They make us stronger.
People are fascinated by tests of character. It’s been explored in culture for centuries, from Homer to Hemingway (for whom it was a favorite theme). Hemingway wrote consistently about people pushing themselves to their limits and testing their character. That’s what Old Man and the Sea is about — a man testing himself against the elements. That’s why he was fascinated by the bullfights.
Treat your work in the same spirit. What are you made of? Do you have what it takes to push through the hard parts? Do you have the grit to stick to something even when you want to quit? Do you have the discipline to make the deadline? Persevering and emerging victorious makes you stronger. The more difficult the situation, the more meaningful the test.
10. Don’t look outside.
The grass is always greener on the other side, and looking at it is one of the fastest ways to breed dissatisfaction. It’s also a false promise. When you get to the other side of the fence, you’ll realize that the grass was just as green where you were before, and your new pasture is equally undesirable, if not more so.
Don’t look at that grass. Develop tunnel vision — focus utterly and completely on what’s right in front of you. There’s nothing besides what it is you’re doing. There are no other pastures. Your only task is mastering the one you’re in. There were others in the past, and there will be others in the future, and there may even be a concrete goal you’re working towards — perhaps you want to be building towards getting a position at another company, or a different position with your own employer. That’s fine and healthy. But don’t look laterally.
When you’re in a job that isn’t your dream job, it’s very easy to speculate about other possibilities. You don’t love your day-to-day work, and you aren’t married to the vision. So you look outside. You’re doing sales at a tech company, but one of your eyes is turned on doing sales at an education company — same type of position, same basic skills being gained and same benefits, but from the outside, it looks so much better.
Don’t even entertain the idea.
Be obsessive about mastering what you’re doing now. As long as you’re deriving value from the experience and it’s making you better, and as long as no one is asking you to do anything dangerous or unethical, stick it out. It’s one of the most basic facts of the working world — to do something else, you must first master what you’re doing now.
People will notice that dedication. You’ll open countless doors by just putting your nose to the grindstone and doing your work. People want that on their teams. If you’re focused, you won’t have to chase new opportunities down — people will come to you.