The business world is fantastic. It's also challenging. Over the course of your career, you'll face ethical, cultural, political, and personal dilemmas in the workplace. You'll work with difficult people. You'll find yourself in compromising situations. You'll have to balance who you are as an individual with what your employer asks of you.
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A Miserable Job

"Well, I wouldn't exactly say
I'm miserable, but..."

You may not use the word miserable 
to describe your job, 
but you probably feel miserable on occasion.
Here's what to do.

If you're reading this article at work, you may want to tilt the screen for privacy. I mean, you wouldn't want your boss to walk up, see what's on your screen, and start asking questions. Like that doesn't happen enough already.

This article was inspired one morning when I woke up waaayyy too early. The moon was still shining in the sky as I sat down at my desk. I had a steaming hot cup of coffee and a strong desire to avoid work of any kind. What a perfect excuse to let my mind wander. As I looked around the room, my eyes settled on a bookshelf literally stuffed with books by wonderful authors. I walked over to take a closer look and one of the books practically jumped off a shelf into my hands: "The Three Signs of a Miserable Job" by Patrick Lencioni.

I had a similar experience the day I bought the book. I was drawn to the title from across the bookstore. I bought it immediately. I devoured it the same day. Then I bought copies for every leader on my team, and had them read it too. We were leading an amazing and talented group of people. We just had one problem: our work was killing us. Our people were losing the spark that made them so special. It was as if the burden of responsibility was depriving our collective fire of oxygen. I was worried that the team was well on its way to being full-on miserable. 

At the time, I was sure that our leaders could "fix" it. We'd address these mysterious "three signs" of a miserable job and everyone would feel better. Easy, right? I'll share what happened in a moment.(Spoiler Alert:  Surprise. Awkward silence. A completely new plan. In that order.) Here's what I've learned since that day. The level of misery at work can definitely be helped or hurt by leaders of an organization. But misery is really best solved at an individual level... by the person who's miserable. 

Maybe the word miserable feels too dramatic for your current situation or maybe it feels right on. Either way, here's how to avoid the things that can make your job miserable, or "miserable-ish", without your boss's help.

Misery Defined

When people say they're "miserable," it's so dramatic. They usually emphasize or draw out the word "miserable." They scrunch their noses and roll their eyes. It's a broad and sweeping statement made with just one word.

It's no wonder, all that drama. After all, here's how Merriam-Webster defines miserable:
  • being in a pitiable state of distress or unhappiness 
  • causing extreme discomfort or unhappiness  
That really is dramatic. I'm sure very few of us are "pitiable" as the definition suggests, but I do think most people are a little miserable some of the time. I like how Patrick Lencioni describes a miserable job:
"A miserable job is not the same as a bad job. As with beauty, the definition of a bad job lies in the eye of the beholder... however, everyone knows what a miserable job is. It's the one that you dread going to and can't wait to leave. It's the one that saps your energy even when you're not busy. It's the one that makes you go home at the end of the day with less enthusiasm and more cynicism that you had when you left in the morning."  The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, Patrick Lencioni, 2007.
He goes on to say that being miserable has nothing to do with the actual work a job involves. I couldn't agree more. Since we know the work you do doesn't likely cause misery, let's move on to what does cause misery and how you can avoid it.

Avoiding Misery

It would be great if every leader read Patrick's book and took his advice. The world would surely have less misery. But here's the thing. Your boss may not read this book. Worse yet, he or she may read it and still not know what to do. My theory? You're better off addressing the causes of a miserable job yourself. Why give someone else power over your misery anyway? Save yourself. Here's how to apply the principles of Patrick's book on your own.
1.  Be recognized for what makes you special.
Your job is miserable when you feel unimportant or irrelevant. When you start a new job, you try to fit in with others. It's absolutely necessary, but only to a point. If you go too far in your attempt to fit in, you risk becoming generic. You're too much like everyone else. You lose what makes you special. Over time, you start to feel invisible to yourself and others.
Do This
Use your unique talents as often as you can. Be known for what makes you unique. Be hard to ignore, for all the right reasons. Bring a fresh perspective. Find a way to stand out a little, but still fit in. Your boss doesn't have to acknowledge that you're special for you to be, and act, special. Be special regardless. You're less likely to feel miserable and lost in a sea of sameness.
2.  Understand how and why your work matters to others.
Your job is miserable when you don't understand who you help, how you help, or why your work "matters" to others. You work hard, but why? Who cares? It's fair to expect the leaders in your organization to help you understand the value of what you do. If they don't, it's worth the effort to figure it out for yourself.
Do This
Answer three simple questions and you'll feel better about your job almost immediately. If you can't answer the questions for yourself, ask your co-workers or friends what they think. Who am I helping? How am I helping them? Why does it matter if I do a good job? Every job has meaning and purpose; you just have to find it. Don't wait for your boss to give you the answers. Invest some time on your own to understand why your job matters. You'll be surprised at how hard it is for misery to take hold once you focus here.
3.  Know for yourself whether you're doing a good job.
Your job is miserable when you don't know for yourself if you're doing a good or a bad job. You usually accept what other people tell you about how well you're doing. Your boss has measures that matter to the business; you adopt them as your own, because you have to. You may or may not have actual control over the outcome. Sometimes the measures really matter, and sometimes they don't. There's nothing more miserable than being measured on something that doesn't matter, or something you have no control over.
Do This
You obviously can't ignore what matters to your boss. Perform as best you can in his or her areas of interest. Then find additional ways to know for yourself if you're doing a good job. How do you know if you helped the right person in the right way? You probably have better ideas on how to measure your "true" success than your boss. You do the work everyday. What's the difference between a good job and a bad job? At the end of each work day, if you know for yourself that you did a good job, you won't be miserable. You probably won't even be miserable-ish.
Bottom Line

Life is too short to be miserable at work. You can certainly hold onto hope that your boss will make your job less miserable for you. I mean, you might get lucky. It's just not likely. Now might be a good time to share the rest of the story about my own experience.

Here's where we left off: I had just enthusiastically encouraged my leadership team to focus on "fixing" misery in the workplace. What do you think? Did it work?

Well, not exactly. About an hour into the discussion, one of my managers hit a wall. Not literally, but it felt like it at the time. Here's the exact quote: "@#$%^&! How am I supposed to help my team feel less miserable? I'M miserable!" Cue awkward silence, followed by a completely different discussion.

What we realized that day is that we were all feeling a little miserable. As leaders, we were overworked and overwhelmed just like everyone else. We wanted to help others rediscover their spark, but we had let our own sparks flame out. How in the world were we supposed to help our team? We weren't in a position to help anyone be less miserable, until we were less miserable ourselves. To my earlier point about "fixing" misery one person at a time, that's exactly what we had to do. We had to start with ourselves.

Chances are, your leaders face the same challenge. They're likely pulled in many directions and feeling depleted most days. Sometimes even the best of intentions just don't come to be. That's not to say that leaders shouldn't do their part. They should. But they may not. So what does that mean for you? Don't wait for your boss to make things better for you. Avoid misery on your own terms.

Be known for what makes you special. Connect with what matters and know you make a difference. Figure out for yourself what it means to do good work. You can't be successful or satisfied at work if you're miserable. You'll end up eating your soul for breakfast every single morning. My recommendation: Tell misery to walk on by. You've got better things to do.

More soon,