I both love and hate my job, and I am so confused.
My job is great because it matters: if we’re successful in what we are doing, we will for sure make the world a better place. It also pays well and I like my co-workers. There are very long hours, but I’m generally ok with that.
The problem I am having is that sometimes I am good at my job, and sometimes I really, really suck at it. On good days I am happy. On bad days I am miserable and I hate myself. I think (and my supervisor thinks) that it comes down to confidence: when I feel good about myself and my ability to do the job, I do great. When I don’t… I suck. This means also that when things start to go wrong, they quickly snowball. The big problem is that I can’t figure out how to control whether I feel confident or not. I try to pretend I’m confident even when I am not, but that doesn’t seem to work.
I do have one thing going for me, which is that I can be incredibly stubborn. I thought at first that if I just kept trying and kept trying, eventually I would get the hang of things and stop sucking at my job. I tried REALLY REALLY HARD for months and nothing seemed to get any better. Then, two weeks ago, after some long talks with my supervisor and co-workers in which they gave advice — some useful and some not — I had a really great week. Everything seemed to go right, and I felt I had gotten the hang of things that had never quite worked for me before. I thought, FINALLY! It happened, I got good, I stopped sucking!
But then last week, for no apparent reason that I can discern, I was back to being really bad at my job again. And today is pretty shitty as well. At this point, I just feel like giving up. But I really don’t want to do that, because (1) I made a commitment, (2) I really want us to be successful at the thing we’re working on, so much so that there is nothing else I WANT to do, and (3) I don’t really have any other options immediately available to me to put food on the table, etc. All very good reasons not to quit. But it’s getting harder every day to keep going. I do not know what to do and I am very unhappy about it.
Do you have any suggestions?
P.S. Everyone has bad days at this job just like any other, but we quantify these things carefully, and I have more of them than my co-workers; and often they are WORSE bad days than my co-workers have, so it is a legitimate performance issue and not just something I imagine when I don’t feel confident.
Dear Unconfident Job Person:
I’m trying to puzzle out what you do that is a) good for the world b) pays really well! c) is quantified daily and d) requires confidence because e) if I knew what specifically you were trying to do I might be able to offer suggestions better than “Be more confident, silly!” and f) are they hiring, by any chance?
So leaving specifics aside, it seems you are asking the following questions:
1) How do I get more confidence?
2) How do I get more consistent about feeling confident?
3) How do I get more consistent about performing well (whether or not I feel confident on a particular day) (which will make me feel more confident)?
My chosen professions are teaching and directing movies, which have a lot in common. With both, there is a level of knowledge and expertise that you cannot fake. You MUST know your stuff and you MUST plan. They are both collaborative and performative: Sometimes it’s like you’re making one charisma-check after another, and you have to roll a 18+ every time or the whole thing falls apart.With both you do a lot of secret, solo grunt work before you ever show it off.
It’s a lie that art gets created only when some magical inspiration strikes a True Artist, who is somehow different from regular people. I’ve had moments where an idea for a story or a solution to a problem popped into my head that felt magical, and sometimes these moments happen when I’m not actively working: I’m in the shower (where I would really benefit from some kind of waterproof note-taking apparatus/voice-recording device/sexy assistant), or on the eL (where I take out a notebook and try to scribble something down before it leaves me). Sometimes a story will come to me when I’m in the middle of trying to write a different story, like it’s taunting me. But the ideas would not come if I were not putting in the work and creating the conditions for them to show up by reading, watching movies, taking pictures, and writing a lot of garbage and shitty first drafts just to be in a daily habit of writing. Who said “inspiration favors the prepared mind?”
Turning back to the performative aspect of work, some of the most useful advice I got from a mentor who taught me how to direct films (and not a little about teaching) was that often what a film crew wants from you is not any particular piece of knowledge or expertise, but for you to act like you’re sure about what you’re doing and to make your decisions…decisively. Film directing is somewhat about talent for storytelling but it is also a lot about a repeatable set of behaviors (preparation, rehearsing, taking suggestions from others but not getting derailed by them, problem-solving, making people feel appreciated and listened to and trusted) that could be learned and practiced over time. Some of his most valuable pieces of advice were:
- Fake it ’til you make it. When you’ve got a film crew standing around you can’t afford to wait for “inspiration” or “talent” to strike. Talent rests largely in the ability to get it done when you have to get it done.
- Film directors can’t afford to think out loud in front of people. If you need to take 5 and think something through, take the time and/or bounce it off a trusted lieutenant, but don’t open your mouth in front of everyone until you know what is going to come out. (This one goes triple for ladies. This is completely wrong and unfair, but what in men looks like “asking for creative input” or “Being the Doctor” in women looks like “the blood that might be leaking out of her vagina right now is attracting bears and probably zombies and making her indecisive and she’s doing it wrong and is possibly nuts.”)
- If your Director of Photography wants to shoot it one way and you want to shoot it the other way, it’s probably faster and cheaper to shoot it both ways than it is to have the argument that no one will really “win” and that will poison the rest of the day.
- That said, stand up for yourself and get what YOU want, even at the risk of making a mistake. That way the mistake will be your own and you can learn from it, rather than a constant “What if we had done it my way?” nagging at you every time you watch the movie.
- Wear headphones for at least the first day so you can hear how your movie is sounding.
Obviously not all of these are directly applicable to your mystery job, but I think you could directly apply “fake it til you make it,” “don’t get in pissing contests, just do the work,” “don’t think out loud,” and “risk making mistakes, as long as they are your mistakes” to many work situations.
If your company is depending on you to do certain work, they can’t have that work depend on what mood you’re in or how you’re feeling about yourself that day to get the work done, right? They’ve identified the problem and given you some tips, but now it’s on you to either make sure you are in the right mood or to figure out how to fake it when you are not in that mood.
Here is a non-comprehensive list of stuff that might help you. Readers? Tell us stuff that works for you.
- My good friend B. breaks her large to-do list off into a few things that she must accomplish on a given day. If she does those things, she is a rock star. Anything else she does that day is extra. Make a small to-do list for yourself. VERY small. If you do those things you can feel good and call the day a win. You will do (and have to do) many other things in the course of your day, but if you just cross those three things off you get to feel good.
- Since B is an athlete, I’ll borrow one from athletes: Visualize yourself having a great day at work. Walk yourself through all the steps of having a great day. Imagine each step.
- Review the fundamentals. Assume you know nothing about how to do your job, go back to the beginning, and spend an hour or so thinking about how to do your job. Are there steps or processes you can/should follow? Are you following them, or are you cutting corners because you assume you know what you’re doing? Can you observe someone who is great at what you do and apply anything to your own performance? Can you have someone observe you doing your job and give you some coaching?
- Maybe measuring your accomplishments daily is making you nuts, because having one bad day will tank the next day as you try to recover from feeling like you failed. Maybe your boss can measure your daily output, but give it to you as a weekly assessment? If you have one terrible day and 4 good days, you’re coming out at “pretty good for the week,” yes? Since you guys have talked frankly about performance, this seems like a reasonable request.
It’s a little bit of magical thinking to act like your failures are because of you but your successes are because of some “mood” or “feeling.” Sometimes my perfectionist jerkbrain gets into the habit of thinking that my failures are my fault and my successes are because of luck. Extrapolating from there, “slogging away” and “working hard” at something “counts” because it is unpleasant and difficult, but solving something easily because of natural intelligence “does not count” because it was “too easy” and I’m not allowed to take any pleasure in it. I blame my chilly New England upbringing. What’s your excuse? Here’s maybe how we can do an end run around your inner Cotton Mather:
- If you do make a mistake or have a bad day, sit with that mistake for a little while, say, 30 minutes. You have 30 minutes to wallow in your mistake and feel terrible about things. Set a timer or alarm. At the end of that 30 minutes, write down what you need to do to not make that mistake again. What did you learn? Okay, the clock has restarted. That mistake is officially in the past. You are starting over, and you now know something you didn’t know before, because mistakes give us information. Cultivate resilience by teaching yourself how to bounce back.
- If you have a good day, take 30 minutes at the end of it to list the things you did well. Take credit for the success! It was because of you! Feel good about it! What things did you do today that you could repeat tomorrow? Documenting your successes at the end of each day allows you to feel a sense of accomplishment, so when you are having a bad day you have some evidence of what good days look like to argue your jerkbrain into submission.
- Learn to take a compliment. When someone says “good job,” say “Thanks!” When something goes badly, don’t talk badly about yourself in front of your coworkers and blame your confidence issues or indulge those issues in front of them. Just say “Yeah, rough day. How is yours going?”
Here’s some umbrella stuff about self-care for anyone who is having a difficult time at work:
- Practice excellent self-care. Eat well. Take breaks to drink water and stretch your legs. Read for pleasure. Get enough sleep at night. Take your vitamins. Talk to your friends and people who make you feel good about yourself. You can’t expect yourself to run like a well-oiled machine if you aren’t taking care of yourself.
- Avoid complaining and avoid the complainers, if possible. They suck you in and drag you down. This is true even if you have good reasons to complain. It’s good to vent from time to time over happy hour, and it’s good to bring up actionable things to management (this is complaining that’s directed to the people who can actually change something), but chronic daily complaining can become its own mindset, and it becomes a habit that informs how you react to the world.
- Appearances count at work, both to others and for yourself and your own confidence. Take an extra 10 minutes to clean up your desk space at the end of each day so you’re not drowning in paper. Clean off your work computer’s desktop and organize your files. Lay out your clothes for the next day so you know you will look sharp at work and not be rushing around in the morning. Get to work 10 minutes early and ease yourself into the day. I know these seem like cosmetic changes, but they make you look like you have your shit together and like you want to be there, which can make you feel like you have your shit together. You will feel better if you are choosing how you work rather than letting it just happen to you.
- What’s your long-term plan? Is this really the right job for you? If it’s not, it doesn’t mean you’ve failed. Being stubborn and wanting to do something doesn’t mean you are excellently suited for it. Take a class or pursue an interest (volunteer?) outside of work and start thinking about the big picture. You’ll be able to handle the day-to-day with more aplomb if you know that it’s leading you somewhere you want to go.
Either you are a smart, capable person who is in the wrong job and will eventually work your way around to something that you are better suited for (and the short-term problem is about making sure you can keep this job as long as you want to), or you’re a smart, capable person who has some confidence/anxiety issues that are holding you back and you need to work them out, perhaps by consulting an expert via your company’s EAP line (if they have one) or seeing a therapist about performance anxiety and cognitive behavioral therapy. But like my grad school film director mentor, I believe there are a bunch of small, repeatable behaviors and attitude changes that can help you fake it until you make it. Good luck.