What if the only job you can get is one you don't want?
I went to social work school to become a psychotherapist, so you can imagine my horror when, for my fist year internship, I was assigned to an agency called The Traveler’s Aid Society, providing help for stranded travelers. Fortunately, I had a very wise advisor. When I complained to her that I really was not interested in handing out money to people who couldn’t find their way home, she told me to give it a few weeks. “You’ll learn more about people in that agency than you would in a psychiatric hospital,” she said.
I found it hard to believe, but she promised me that if, after a month, I was still unhappy, she would try to find me another placement. “But you won’t want it,” she said.
Of course she was right. I stayed at that job not only for the full nine month internship, but as a paid employee for the next two summers, learning more about human nature than I could have imagined. My clients included Viet Nam war refugees, runaway teens, a woman who heard walls speaking to her, victims of abuse, and people with an incredible range of psychiatric diagnoses, from psychopath to neurotic. (For more about that experience, go to my blog on Psychology Today).
I certainly didn’t love everything about the work; but in my training to be a psychotherapist, I could not have asked for a better learning experience.
I often think about that experience when I listen to clients and friends who are struggling with the current job situation. As one client who has been looking hard for a job in her area of interest put it the other day, “This really isn’t what I expected. The message I always got was work hard in school, do well on standardized tests, get into a good college, and your life would be ‘made.’ It’s not true. Or if it is, I’m in trouble, since it looks like the only job I’m going to get is as an assistant. That’s not what I was aiming for.”
She’s right in many ways. She, like many young people and many adults as well, has been sold a bill of goods. Oh sure, for a number of years you could fall out of college and into an extremely high paying job. But that was an odd period in history, a blip on the screen of human experience. These days, fall out of college and pray to get a job – any job.
So what do you do if you get a job you don’t want? A job that feels beneath you? A job that looks like a dead end?
Susan Shapiro, author of many books, including , is one of my all-time favorite writing teachers. She offers great advice about writing and she’s a wonderful support to authors at every point on the publishing spectrum; but one of the things I love about her classes has nothing at all to do with writing. It’s when she says, in different words, almost the same thing that my early graduate school advisor told me.
“If you want to write,” she says, “you may have to do other things, too. Go to work for a small publication. If they won’t pay you, intern for a while. You’re not getting paid right now anyway, right? And make yourself indispensable. If they ask you to get coffee, get coffee. If the refrigerator needs to be cleaned, do it, even if no one asked you to. And meantime, get to know the publication. Read it. Learn what they write about, and how they write. And start writing short pieces for yourself, in the style of that publication. Then, one day, when things are quiet and you’re sure you’re not bothering anyone, take a couple of your best pieces to your boss and ask if she thinks one day you might write something for the publication.”
The point is not that one of those pieces will get published, although there’s always the chance that it might. But you have demonstrated to your boss that you have paid attention, that you understand, and that you’re willing to work hard, even if there’s no immediate reward. It’s an incredible work ethic, and there are few bosses who can resist it.
So here’s one more example of how the wrong job can, if you work hard enough at it, take you to the right one. I didn’t stay at the Traveler’s Aid Society for too long, because I really did want to learn to do long term psychotherapy, and that was one thing they could not offer. I got a job at a psychiatric hospital (in part because of the experience I gained at Traveler’s Aid) and eventually began training at a psychoanalytic institute. During my training, I applied to work with an industrial psychologist, doing a consultation in a factory. I did not particularly want to be an industrial psychologist myself, but I admired this older colleague and thought I could learn something from him. I also needed the added income.
I got the job, although I think I may have been one of the least experienced applicants, at least in terms of my knowledge of theory. But I had included on my cv that I had worked in my parents’ clothing store throughout high school and college. I had waited on customers and run the cash register and complained all the way, but as a result I had some knowledge of the retail world. And that, according to my new boss, was why he hired me.
So yes, this is a new era and things are different from the way they were when I was starting out. And no, you will no longer finish college and find the job of your dreams (although can I tell you about all of the people I know who are feeling trapped in the job they got just out of school ten years ago?). But right now, even if you take a job just to make some money, even if it feels like a backwards or downwards step, try to think of it as potentially moving you in the exact direction you want to go. You may not be able to see it, but it may be the very thing to that will make your next boss, the one at the job you really want, decide to hire you.