To anyone who’s unsatisfied in their current job, especially big corporate roles where it feels like you’re doing nothing but exchanging time for money, this is your survival guide. I want you to keep your big dreams alive, but also see the huge benefits and opportunities sitting on your doorstep every morning as you saunter into the same office, holding the same cup of coffee, greeting the same colleagues, and working on the same computer. Just wait until you discover how a slight change of attitude can make a huge, career-defining difference.
1. Be an intrapreneur first.
Undoubtedly there are things you don’t like about your company (if there weren’t, would you be so eager to leave?) so take it upon yourself to see how you can improve things while you’re still around. If you notice a lack of community, start a weekly happy hour. If you’re frustrated by the lack of skill-sharing, bring people together for a speakers series. If you haven’t found a mentor, create a new mentorship program and sign up the people you’d otherwise need an excuse to meet. Take all the reasons you’re dissatisfied in your current role and turn them into opportunities to demonstrate your leadership, expand your network, experiment with a form of entrepreneurship, and get noticed by your peers and managers alike.
2. Nurture your relationship with your manager.
Feeling truly supported by your manager can make a monotonous, meaningless job far more enjoyable. A good manager can help you (her hard-working, ambitious, and proactive employee) land better assignments, score opportunities overseas, and get introduced to people you admire within the company. Also, when you eventually have to give her your two weeks notice, a strong relationship can lead to an attractive counter-offer, a warm invitation to return if things don’t work out with your next step, and a positive reference for the rest of your career.
3. Learn how to use your idle time.
In any job, there will be lulls in the action. The smart corporate-escapee-to-be won’t be scrolling through Facebook or reading the news, she’ll be looking for extra projects, taking online courses, shadowing a manager in another area of the business, meeting her mentors for coffee, working on a side hustle, writing blog posts, or setting up other job interviews. Use every minute of the time you’re getting paid to learn more, do more, and ultimately secure your way out.
4. Get up a little earlier.
While routine may be one of the things you dislike most about working a “9 to 5,” you can also use the predictability your advantage. It’s been shown that the most successful people are up early prioritizing their day, knocking out small stages of bigger side projects, and investing in themselves in other ways. Schedule time for things you love to do, the things you dream about doing while you’re “stuck” at work: reading, writing, meditating, side-hustling, spending time with family, exercising, or brainstorming.
5. Manage a side hustle.
This is one of the most important things you can do while working for someone else: dedicate time out of your nights and weekends (and that aforementioned idle time) to build something for yourself. That could mean landing your first freelancing client, starting a book, or outlining a business plan. It doesn’t even have to earn money to be worthwhile. One of my best friends started an arts program for young professionals in Toronto in her spare time, which is teaching her a lot about management, public relations, and branding. As long as it’s something you love doing and serves as a creative outlet for your talents outside of the workplace, it’s headed in the right direction.
6. Enjoy your paycheck while still saving money.
There will probably come a day when you’ll feel the enormous pressure of reeling in clients one at a time, struggling to break even or earn a meager profit as your own boss. You might have a really good month followed by two bad ones, and you’ll miss those days when you knew exactly how much money was coming in and had the freedom to splurge. By all means, enjoy and appreciate that corporate paycheck, but at the same time, make sure you have a strategic savings regimen to grow your “freedom fund.” When you’re a starving entrepreneur or long-term travel bum, you’ll be grateful you had the wherewithal to squirrel away a healthy sum when it was relatively easy to do so.
7. Work extra hard.
This might seem counter-intuitive when you probably dislike what you’re doing, but suck it up and put your nose to the grindstone. Take on extra projects when you can and even volunteer on other teams if it means exposure to new parts of the business. When I was at IBM, I volunteered on projects in the marketing and global communications department and gained over a year of additional experience that way. Stockpile as many skills and experiences as you can while you’re surrounded by the opportunity.
8. Use your corporate benefits.
Free tickets to the theater? VIP seating at the football games? Discounts and hotel points and frequent flier miles? Most companies offer exactly these kinds of perks, so take advantage of them while you can. If you’re not sure about your benefits, just contact HR and ask.
9. Track your experience.
You’re probably familiar with spreadsheets, so start one dedicated to your professional development. Document important projects you completed, challenges overcome, stories about difficult colleagues, major clients you worked with, and other lessons learned. This will come in handy when going after a promotion, preparing for other job interviews, applying for graduate school, or writing your work bio for a new business pitch.
10. Surround yourself with mentors.
Even if you don’t see your career taking the same shape as the people in the upper ranks of your company, they still have more work — and life — experience than you do. Best of all, you never know who your mentors know. If you’re able to appropriately express your interest in a different field and they respect you for the hard work you’ve put into your present position, they may be able to connect you with a senior-level friend of theirs elsewhere.
11. Always be interviewing.
Even if you don’t really want a new job, spend a few hours a month sending your resume around and contacting organizations or people that interest you. Take any interview you can get and use it as a chance to periodically assess your personal and professional development. Remember, the best time to look for a job is when you already have one, so always keep your eyes open for new opportunities.
12. Take your vacation.
Some company cultures may subtly, or not so subtly, discourage employees from taking their rightfully earned vacation time. Don’t fall into this trap. Be pleasant but firm about using your time off. Give plenty of advance notice and be prepared to work harder in the weeks leading up to it, but don’t be discouraged or intimidated out of what you’re entitled to as a gainfully employed corporate citizen.
13. Have networking goals.
Decide what kind of people you want to meet and what fields you want to explore, and then have a manageable plan in place to introduce those people and activities into your life. In a major city, you should at least be going to one event and having coffee with two new people in your field every month.
14. Get to know your colleagues.
Are you eating lunch at your desk everyday? Are you taking the presence of your colleagues for granted? Are you investing in those relationships and developing new ones with people outside of your immediate department? Never underestimate where the people around you will be in ten, twenty years and a bond formed “way back in our McKinsey days” could open up unanticipated pathways throughout your life — as close friends or even business partners.
15. Appreciate your ultimate lack of responsibility.
If you’re in a “typical office job,” most likely your neck isn’t on the line fighting for the company’s bottom line. The firm could lose out on a huge deal, but you’ll still get your paycheck. You don’t have to lose sleep about major clients or the Board of Directors approving new corporate policies. Someday you might, when you’re the CEO or when you’ve invested a large sum of money into a business, but for now, you’re just a piece of the puzzle. It’s important that you excel in managing that piece, but you can enjoy making your very best contribution without the weight of what it’s really like to be responsible for an entire company on your shoulders.
Now get back out there and love where you are in your life and career. It doesn’t matter if this job is the farthest thing from your ultimate professional goals; you’re still building transferable skills, meeting people, earning money, and gaining valuable work — and, more importantly, life — experience. You’re surrounded by opportunity, you just have to make the effort to see it, seize it, and appreciate it.