The worst job I ever had was as an account manager at a third-party logistics firm, although “account manager” was really a euphemism for data-entry-drone-slash-cold-caller-slash-truck-driver-liaison.
For those unfamiliar with the exciting world of third-party logistics: Companies would hire my firm to move a load of goods for them — anything from perishable foodstuffs to raw metal to the syrup used in soft drinks — and our firm would then hire a trucking company to move those goods from place A to place B for a lower price than our firm was paid by our clients.
I learned a lot at this job, most of it trivia like how to pronounce small towns in rural Pennsylvania. (The “Barre” in Wilkes-Barre actually sounds like berry.) And did you know paper is stored in huge, cylindrical spools before it’s gradually cut down to size by a giant circular saw? I learned that touring the paper factory of one of our clients, and no, it was nothing like Dunder Mifflin.
The most important lesson I learned, though, was that the key to professional development is — for a short while, at least — to work a job you hate.
“Work a job you love, and you’ll never work a day in your life,” the saying goes. But the problem with this aphorism is its presumption that the “secret” to obtaining that dream gig is actually not a secret at all, but just a truism, trite as a maxim posted to your basic friend’s Instagram. If working a lucrative, fulfilling career were as simple as doing what you already enjoy, the workforce would be flooded with professional pastry chefs, video game beta testers and small-batch craft brewers. And more than 1 percent of daily fantasy sports players would net a profit and live entirely off these earnings.
Anyone who believes a dream job doesn’t require a sizable amount of work probably lacks the work ethic to excel at any profession, let alone their dream one. It’s best if the job you hate comes early in your career, and even better if your hate-job is the last one you hold before embarking on your passion. But what’s important is that you toil at a gig that affords you zero joy and makes you seriously question the importance of work in your life. Not a job you merely tolerate because it affords you a comfortable living; I mean one so unbearable that not even tripling your salary would assuage your disdain. A job so bad that you lie awake Sunday nights, racked with dread about the workweek that lies ahead. A job that has the capacity to bring you to the verge of tears while you work at it.
You should work a job you hate so much that you’re willing to suffer through any sort of circumstance for a job you enjoy. And until you experience the former, you’ll never really understand the value of the latter.
At the logistics firm, work started at 7 a.m. in a far north Chicago suburb, which meant I had to wake up at 5:30 each morning to be on the road by 6. I’ve been going to sleep at 1 a.m. or later since I was 12 years old, so this adjustment short-circuited my circadian rhythms. You don’t know sadness until you’ve weathered six months of Chicago winter, going to, and leaving from, work in total darkness each day. The only time I saw the sun during that stretch was when I would scarf down a $5 footlong for lunch at the Subway across the street.
The work was no better. The firm, was, by its very nature, a middleman. Anyone who has worked in sales can tell you how miserable clients are — they need constant reassurance, have terrible ideas and a knack for impugning on you at the most inopportune of times. Being a middleman is doubly terrible, though, because you have to cater to two sets of clients simultaneously — in this case, the people who hired us to ship their goods, and the trucking companies we hired to actually do the physical moving. And those parties almost always had conflicting interests.
The job managed to be both monotonous and stressful. A quarter of the job was putting load details — weight, item carried, length of the shipping container, etc. — into the company’s software system, and I’m convinced staring at that ghastly interface is what ruined my vision and forced me to get glasses.
The other 75 percent was cold-calling truck drivers and seeing if they’d be willing to move product for less than we bought it for. That is, we were selling the stuff for below market rate. And if we were unable to sell a trucking company on this tantalizing proposition, the onus was still on our firm to ensure the shipment made it on time. This inevitably led to being screamed at by the managers.
Meanwhile, the office culture was as if Boiler Room and Animal House had birthed an unruly bastard lovechild. Nearly all of the employees were 20-something Michigan transplants who, being new to Chicago, clung to one another for friendship. Swearing was common in the office, as was dipping tobacco. Happy hours occurred often, and it was frowned upon to skip them. Management not only tolerated intra-office dating, but encouraged it; no one cared if an employee was fucking a fellow co-worker, even if that person was his or her direct superior. For most, it was less a job than a lifestyle; a one-stop shop that provided employees with friendship, orgasms and a paycheck. And management liked it that way because it reduced churn.
My biggest frustration with the job was that I was terrible at it. I just couldn’t muster the energy needed to do my job well, and I walked into the office everyday secretly hoping I’d be fired and put out of my misery. It was depressing knowing I was underperforming. So depressing, that I vowed to never work a job unless I found it interesting enough to at least try to excel at it. It was then that I, like so many others, set out for that elusive dream job.
Here’s the thing, though: Reaching your dream gig will almost certainly require far more work and involve far more frustration than that boring office job you were emotionally unattached to.
The road to your dream job is littered with the shattered dreams of people who couldn’t accept these sad realities. And even then there’s the very real possibility that your supposed dream job actually sucks.
My first writing gig was an internship at a magazine in New York I took at 24, old by intern standards, and it rendered me broke as shit. I rented a room in a Brooklyn flophouse where I shared a kitchen and bathroom with a fashion student from Trinidad and another girl whom I never once saw. My bed was a cot. I barely made enough money to feed myself, let alone go out, so I spent all my free time either working or aimlessly walking the streets. My standard of living was lower than it had ever been — and I was shocked to realize that I was infinitely happier than I’d been when I worked in logistics.
Which is a why a truly shitty job is so valuable; it gives you a benchmark against which you can compare your current work-life situation. You’re willing to endure so much more in the service of your dream job when you’ve worked a job you hate. You learn that there’s a certain degree of tedium, bureaucracy and politics at every job, and to tolerate that bullshit if it allows you to do work you find meaningful.
At the magazine, I worked alongside a fellow intern who frequently turned down assignments from editors because she was “too busy.” The rest of us were more than happy to take on this work, though; partly because we were eager to impress, but also because we were paid by the hour and desperately needed the extra cash. In what was a shock to no one but her, she was not offered a full-time job once her internship was up. And I can’t help but think she would’ve been well-served working an unglamorous, soul-crushing white collar job prior to taking on a writing career.
So I advise you to work a job you hate, but with one important stipulation: stay in it for only a short while — just long enough to fill yourself with resentful energy, but not for so long that your spirit breaks, and the job you once hated becomes the one you grudgingly accept. Because hating your work can be a slow death. Each day wears down your sense of purpose. You slowly let go of whatever ambition you once had, until one day you’re so defeated that you convince yourself that this is the job you deserve, and you let go of your silly, childish pipe dreams.
Don’t get me wrong, I still complain about my job a lot. But I don’t take for granted that I get paid to do something I find fulfilling, and I secretly enjoy the frustrations of being a writer. Every job is ultimately a process, and if you don’t enjoy the process, you don’t enjoy the work.
A dream job doesn’t not involve work, it’s actually a “labor of love.” That’s another tired, basic axiom, but at least it’s an honest one.
John McDermott is a Staff Writer at MEL. He previously wrote about how Adderall is the only keeping some men interested in their jobs.