Columnist Megan Greenwell answers a reader’s question:
Q: I’m a litigation attorney and am absolutely miserable. Recently, I went on a dream vacation abroad with a friend for a week, but concerns about work plagued me just about every day. I woke up from nightmares about work several times and felt incredibly guilty about not billing enough time. When I returned from vacation, I intended to take an additional day off to recover from jet lag, but I woke up from another work nightmare and went to the office despite feeling exhausted.
I feel like I can’t escape my job. It’s all I think about as I try to fall asleep. I wake up well before my alarm most days because I’m worried about work. I’ll cut activities with friends short because I start to worry that I need to get more work done. I also find myself becoming the buzzkill, as I regularly end up discussing my unhappiness with work.
There are parts of the job that I love, and I’ve produced some great work. But I spend most of my days on tasks that I hate. I think it’s time to either find a new job that’s a better fit or get out of the legal profession entirely. The problem I’m facing is that I’m at my third firm in a bit over two years and have only been here for about three months, which I’m afraid will throw up major red flags to prospective employers. I’m trying to decide if I should just tough it out for a while longer, start applying for new positions, or quit and take the time to recover from this career and reinvent myself for something new. – Dallas
A: I have decided there were only four types of work problems:
1. My boss annoys me.
2. My co-workers (usually millennials) annoy me.
3. I am dissatisfied with the type of work I do and/or don’t know what to do next.
4. I don’t actually have serious work problems but am anxious about that.
Numbers 1 and 2 can be tricky to solve, but the stakes are never as high as you think. If you are frequently in rooms where you like absolutely everyone, congrats, I guess, but functioning in the real world requires dealing with a lot of very annoying people! That’s not to say you just have to get over a boss who clips his nails or eminent-domains your work, but, buddy, the world does not need your four paragraphs of flowery prose about the exact ways in which he sucks.
Most people suck.(Fun fact: Millennials do not suck more than most.) You can deal with them or quit and go looking for a place where a smaller minority of them do, but bear in mind that you might suck, too, so don’t assume that working for yourself will be any better.
Numbers 3 and 4 are the sticky ones, because fundamentally they’re about your psychology. Jobs aren’t sentient, which means you can’t talk any sense into them, which means the only good way to solve problems is by talking some sense into yourself regardless of whose fault they are. I do believe that most work problems (and non-work problems) would be mostly solved if every man would sign up for therapy, but men tend to react quite poorly when you tell them that.
So, Dallas. Your tough situation has led you to misidentify your actual problem, which has nothing to do with how prospective employers see your résumé, and is in fact about your relationship with your work more generally. You don’t say why you left those other two jobs, but I’m going to take a wild guess that this is not the first time you’ve felt serious anxiety about work.
While I love my current job, I recognised far too much of myself in your letter. I have stress dreams about work all the time! My spouse and I have each ruined our share of fun activities by fixating on our jobs! Whether sitting at my desk or having drinks with friends, I frequently have flashes of realising that “if I don’t do this particular task right this instant I will never achieve anything in life!” Because I very recently started a new job after a tumultuous exit from my old job that has left me worried about my former colleagues, I’ve spent the last two months having anxiety about both the old job and the new job!
You and I, Dallas, need to rewire our brains, not find the elusive perfect job. Therapy really does help (or so I, uh, hear), as does creating a more fulfilling life outside the office. Read Jenny Odell’s brilliant work of philosophy/memoir/self help, How to Do Nothing, which has done a better job of settling my brain, at least temporarily, than anything else in recent memory. If you are a person who tends to bury your feelings about things (not that I know anything about that), make a point of opening up to people you trust who know you well enough to give more personally tailored wisdom.
None of this is to say you should stick it out at a job you hate. I am an advocate of quitting bad jobs when you can afford it, so get out of there! Three months at a job is not long enough to justify putting it on your résumé – I’ve entirely removed the four months I spent working under an abusive boss from my professional record without negative effects – so don’t worry about that.
Thinking of your time off as a recovery period is exactly the right mind-set. Before you can even think about your next career move, you need to train your brain to obsess about work less through hobbies and volunteer work and maybe even some mild boredom. Then worry about figuring out what your dream job is.
Make good decisions, go find a hobby, stop blaming millennials for your problems and quit your terrible job.
This first appeared in The New York Times