"You seem...bitter," my boss began as we sat at a local hamburger joint eating lunch together. I denied it, of course, but after three years of being passed over for a promotion that he was "fully supportive of," he pretty much had my number. I was angry, stuck and intellectually stifled. But I had no idea what else I could do so I stayed, even when it would likely have been to everyone's benefit that I leave.
That conversation took place during what I call "The Crying Years." Driving to work every morning, I felt an impending sense of doom. As I got closer to the office, the tears would start to fall. Along with them came the self-condemning questions: Is this all I was ever meant to do? After two degrees and six figures in student loans, is this it for me? What happened to all the promise and possibility I felt as a young woman? What wrong turn did I take, or opportunity did I miss to end up here?
For a solid 18 months, I cried all the way to the parking lot at my building, then used baby wipes to wash my face and reapplied the make-up I had just cried off so I could walk in and pretend I was fine. These were dark days. But they got even darker when the tears stopped coming and I grew numb. Quite simply, when it became clear I was going nowhere at the job I thought would finally turn into a career for me, I gave up on myself and any possibility of doing work that was meaningful to me.
You can imagine what kind of employee I was. And if you can't, let me enlighten you. We've all heard about the 2013 Gallup survey which found that 87 percent of workers worldwide are not engaged with their work. Of these, there's a top tier of sorts for the "actively disengaged," i.e. those who are "unhappy and unproductive at work and liable to spread negativity to coworkers." I never thought of myself as the spreading negativity type, nevertheless, the "you seem bitter" conversation was not the last my boss and I had about my attitude, and a co-worker once semi-jokingly referred to me as "openly hostile." But I was in too much pain to care and felt powerless to do anything about it.
After about a year in this numb fog, out of the blue one day my then 4-year-old daughter asked me, "Mama, what are you?" I was so far from knowing what I was, I answered the only way I could: "I'm your mama." Not the answer she was looking for. As kids will do, she pressed on, "No, what are you? Jules' mom is a doctor. Marley's mom is a teacher. What are you?"
And just like that, the tears were back. All at once, in a big rush, along with a kicked in the stomach feeling that immediately cleared my numbed out haze. I didn't know what to tell her. I had given up even thinking about, much less trying to do something that was meaningful to me. I was ashamed of myself for not providing the example that my daughters deserved. How could I ever tell them, "I want you to be happy," when I had given up trying to create my own happiness? All of these thoughts rushed through my mind in just a few seconds, and I quickly wiped my tears and swore to myself in that moment that I would figure this out or die trying.
Trying to find the work I was meant to do had been the theme of my adult life. I tried to figure what color my parachute was. I tried to follow my bliss. I tried to escape from cubicle nation, but somehow nothing had ever fully clicked. But as I sat there in my car with my little girls in the back seat, I made this my mission. Over the next several months, I read countless books, attended classes, teleseminars, webinars, hired coaches, journaled, meditated, sat at the top of hills and on beaches and I got there. I hit upon something that felt so obvious, so much like home that I immediately felt my body relax when I thought about it.
And so, my side business was born. Prior to this, I had never even considered the idea of becoming an entrepreneur. Owning a business was something for people with more money or connections than I had. There was a deep learning curve -- one that I'm still climbing. But having my business changed everything for me. It gave me a sense of purpose, something to work on that I cared about and a means of intellectual stimulation that I hadn't had at my job since I first started.
And, ironically, because I was getting all of those needs met through my side business, it made my job easier, better, much less painful. Had I not started my side business and figured out what I was really meant to do, I don't know if I would have survived in my job. I was depressed, disgruntled, dissatisfied and everyone noticed it.
Here's how I turned it around for myself, and how you can too.
- Protect your energy. There is no possible way to be a creative, successful business owner if your well of energy has been sucked dry by the daily grind. It's up to you to do whatever you have to do to make sure you still have enough gas in the tank to work on your side business. This means you cannot get sucked into drama, gossip, office politics, etc. You are there to do your job to the best of your ability every day. Do that and you will feel good about yourself and the work you've done every day as you walk out the door. Not only will this make you a better, happier employee, but you'll still have the energy you need to put in the after hours time on your side business.
- Adopt a learner's mindset. Even in the worst job situations, there is something to be learned. You're a businessperson now. When challenges arise at work that push your buttons, take a step back and ask what the situation can teach you and how you can apply that lesson to your own business. This will also allow you to see things from different perspectives instead of focusing solely on how something affects you. This is crucial for going from an employee mindset to an entrepreneur mindset. You need to be able to see situations holistically. As an added bonus, it just might help you have more empathy for your boss and colleagues.
- Develop gratitude for your silent investor. Your job is supporting you as you ramp up your business. Treat it as you would anyone else who was giving you the gifts of time and money: with respect, gratitude and attention. This is one that was difficult for me, I can't lie, but the more I practiced it, the easier it became to see that I wouldn't be nearly as far along without this essential investor, so some sincere gratitude was in order. Going from miserable to actually being grateful for your job is a true game changer that will touch many other aspects of your life if you embrace it.
For most people, the purpose of a side business is to build something so you can eventually leave your job. Until you get there, though, it's important to create the best possible conditions for yourself at your current job. If you can do that, when the time comes for you to leave, you'll be in the enviable position of moving toward work you love rather than running away from a job you hate.
Andrea Shields Nunez is a Career Liberation Coach who can help you liberate yourself from a traditional career path and create a business that's truly meaningful to you. Get started FREE with The Busy 9-5er's Side Biz Starter Kit.