No one wants to be Peter Gibbons. The main character in the widely-loved (and oft-quoted) movie Office Space was open about how much he hated his job at Initech Industries and how that affected his motivation (“I’d say in a given week, I probably only do about 15 minutes of real, actual, work”). And yet he was still drained by his job, because actively disliking your job is really draining.
If you sit at your desk fantasizing about making a career change or starting a side hustle or passion project, it’s time to move towards your more fulfilling goals—without quitting your job. Your current position can teach you what you want to learn, help you sharpen your favorite skills, and give you an arena to learn something totally new (with no reason to fear failure!). Here’s how to turn office water cooler water into lemonade.
Step 1: Try not to repeat, “I hate my job, I hate my job”
“The way the brain works, the more you think or do something, the more engrained those grooves in the brain become for that thought or behavior. That’s how habits form, and it’s the same for ruminating thoughts,” says Melody Wilding, a New York-based therapist who works primarily with young professionals.
To drop this energy-draining habit and rewire your brain to be more positive, Wilding recommends catching yourself whenever you think, “I hate this job.” Then, make an effort to have mastery experiences during the day—learning something new, knocking out a nagging task, doing things you didn’t think you could do—to feel better about your current situation.
“People think acceptance means giving up,” says Emily Fletcher, founder of Ziva Meditation. “But it’s not—it’s the first stage in transformation.”
Step 2: Focus on skills you want to improve for your next job
Then implement ways to use these skills and practice them at your current job. “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that I can get out of being here?’” says Amy Morin, author of the bestseller 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don’t Do. Use this time to get better at what you’re best at.
Step 3: Keep putting an effort into your job
“Do your job with utmost integrity,” says Fletcher. “That’s a muscle, that’s an attitude. So do 110 percent. I was on Broadway for 10 years. That whole other career was perfect preparation for my current one. But that wouldn’t be the case if I was half-assing it or if I was like, ‘I can’t wait for this Broadway thing to be over so I can be a meditation teacher.’”
If you need motivation, make a list of everything you’re learning in your current role and keep it handy.
Step 4: Figure out the skills you need for the future
Use this time to acquire and practice things you don’t know or aren’t good at. Morin says, “It takes the pressure off when you know this isn’t your lifelong career. If you want to practice your public speaking skills, what a great opportunity to do it now.”
Several years ago, this writer was planning to quit her unlucrative side job waitressing at a Manhattan sports bar. But, I thought, I should learn the “three-plate carry” before I leave. Because the stakes were lower, I wasn’t embarrassed to ask a seasoned waiter to show me how. I also wasn’t as nervous to stack my left arm with plates loaded with fries and towering club sandwiches, and weave around the seating area at increasing speeds.
Erica Murphy, the career advice editor at Levo League, says that your co-workers can be a real resource.
“It’s definitely okay to ask someone to teach you something and position it as a learning opportunity,” she says. “Or, you can say, ‘I’m really interested in this topic, can I help with this project?’ People may be more than willing to accept help.”