As a young person in the workforce today the constant low-grade anxiety of incessant recruiter emails, sexy buzzwords, and self-congratulatory new job posts on LinkedIn can convince you that there is always a job one move away that can cure you of your work woes.
While you direct your attention to the new, you may underestimate the ways in which you have distracted yourself from the job at hand. Worse, you might excuse yourself entirely from the difficult and rewarding work of making your current job what you need it to be.
Make Your Job Work For You
It all starts by building a real relationship with the people managing you.
Young people come to work steeped in outdated advice and reductive caricatures of the workplace. We are conditioned to expect an antagonistic relationship between clueless corporate employer and enterprising exploited employee.
Managers quickly become the focal point of the anxiety this narrative generates. They are your closest point of contact with the motivations, politics, and personalities that make up your organization. As such, a manager can be easily and unfairly reduced from human being to corporate agent.
Are there bad managers? Of course there are.
Is your manager one of them? You’ll never know unless you’re willing to take a risk by opening up a real dialogue.
If you don’t invite them into your life, you won't know who they are or what they are capable of. You need to provide them with the knowledge and the trust necessary to work for you, not against you. Otherwise all they can do is guess what's best for you.
Your manager has a more complicated set of responsibilities than you might realize. They have to encourage you — despite all the distractions in your life — to be productive. They're tasked with making you — with all of your competing dreams and insecurities — happy.
They are working to make you successful.
But your success is not just their responsibility. It’s yours too.
The key to a successful partnership with your manager is setting boundaries and advocating for yourself. Without these continuous discussions, anything your manager does will look to you like mismanagement.
No one can manage you if you do not know what you want.
A good manager wants to work with you. They want to turn your time with them into the best possible experience for you, for them, and for your organization. It is their job to align those competing interests toward growth for all parties.
To learn how best to manage you, you must teach them. You have to become conscious of the ways you’re looking to use your organization for your goals and the ways that you are comfortable being used by your organization for its goals. Reflect on what opportunities there excite you. How can you pursue those opportunities in a way that benefits the organization at the same time?
Many employees come to these relationships unconsciously. It can be uncomfortable to communicate boldly and set healthy boundaries in an unfamiliar environment. If you are not an active participant in setting up expectations with your boss, you run the risk of inviting in a whole new set of incentives, motivations and politics into your life that can easily destabilize you.
Knowing yourself and what’s right for you is the key to ensuring you can work for an organization that is larger and more powerful than you without getting swept up in it.
Identify the value of your time.
Identify the areas you need to grow in that excite you.
Identify the boundaries you need between work and life to be present in both.
Learn What Work Can Be
There is a philosophical framework for work and life in Japan called Ikigai that offers a valuable set of pillars and lenses through which to build and analyze our work lives.
Ikigai encourages us to look for opportunities in work that allow us to play to our strengths and do work that we love to do, while making the world a better place, and making us money.
Doing what you love is a privilege that few access in their life. It requires the emotional stability, the psychological safety, and the financial foundation to take risks with your time, your money, and your future.
For people without these privileges, they are not doing what they love. They are doing what they must.
However, as you are doing what you must, you still have the opportunity to create a better work life and to fall in love with it. If not the work itself you can fall in love with the people around you that your work impacts, the good it does for the world, the freedoms it affords you, or even just in the joy of being proficient at something.
Your manager can help you fall in love with your work by being the person who acknowledges the constraints and challenges of your situation but works despite them to make it the best place for you at the time. Even if that best place for you is a shelter from which to get paid and learn the skills necessary to prepare for your next move.
Some employees struggle to align their long term goals with the work they must do in the short term. They consider one to be separate from the other and with that, work is forced into head-to-head competition with your goals.
This mentality sows the seeds of chaos, distrust, and dishonesty and will ultimately result in time wasted for you, time wasted for your manager, and expensive premature turnover for your employer.
Your manager is there to remove the obstacles to productivity and pull out the roots of bitterness and resentment before they flower. To a certain extent it is their responsibility to foster within you a healthy attitude toward the work that you are doing despite the frustrations of busy work, difficult coworkers, and the inevitable poorly communicated corporate nonsense.
Perhaps this idea sounds dangerous. The alternative is that the direct report feels they are spending years of their life fighting against their calling, wasting their time, progressing in the wrong direction, and perhaps most dangerously, squandering their life.
Be honest with your manager about what pieces of your job fall short of this. Sometimes, the misalignment will be intractable. They might not be paying you enough to survive. Your organization’s mission might oppose your core values. But sometimes the small details you think make your situation impossible only require a reframe to see how your work is making your corner of the world a better place in unforeseen ways and is worth falling in love with.
Open and honest dialogue with your manager is the most powerful way to get that new perspective.
Demand What You Deserve
Your responsibility is to take a sober look at your work and audit the role work is playing in your life for how it is letting you down.
Once you are ready to advocate for yourself, work with your manager to make those desires a reality and help you progress toward a healthy relationship with your work.
How can you actually pull this off?
There’s the easy stuff and the hard stuff.
The easy stuff is to set up a conversation that provides an intentional space to discuss what you need from work.
The hard stuff is the courage to say unabashedly what you want and the humility to compromise afterward.
The hard stuff will always be hard, but the easy stuff doesn’t have to be.
For the last six months, I've worked on a tool called Assembly that empowers anyone in an organization to make the space and the time for hard conversations. I’ve used that same tool to take increased ownership over my work life and over how my manager and I communicate.
Prior to our meetings, I declare my top priority for the coming week and take time to consider how I am progressing toward my personal and professional goals. Making consistent progress on my goals outside of work is critical to my ability to be present at work and because of that fact, it has become part of what I report on to give my manager a fuller picture of the mindset I’m taking to work.
With my goals in mind, my manager has surfaced new opportunities to take on new projects, has encouraged with me to take a larger role in recruiting, and has become an accountability partner in the extracurricular goals and habits I’ve committed to.
As a result, I’m more aligned in my work life, more grounded in my strengths, more conscious of my weaknesses, and more excited to learn and grow than ever before.
Assembly makes possible a far more meaningful way to communicate at work. We empower employees to build structured forms that ensure conversations centers on the ideas you think are critical to your work life over the course of a single meeting or over the course of an entire relationship. As a user, you are invited to participate in those conversations asynchronously without the stressors of a face-to-face conversation and the need to have an instant answer on hand.
We believe that for some, it is nearly impossible to think clearly in those face-to-face, clock-ticking, moments. All of us, those people included, deserve the space to express ourselves honestly.
We know that for all, it is easier to think when you have the time and space to do so on your own terms.
So we built a product to make those conversations easier and to empower any employee to control the conversation.
Introduce your manager to Assembly and let them take the lead on how they want to begin their relationship with you.
Or if you’re feeling bold, create the relationship you want to have for yourself in Assembly, and invite them to participate in it on your terms.
In either case, and even if you do not use Assembly at all, be honest. Your manager wants to hear how you feel as much as you want to say how you feel. They’re chomping at the bit to prove it. All you have to do is let them in.
And if you have no idea what you want, it’s time to get unpacking and here’s a great place to start: