Working Through the Grunt Work

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We started a recent career group session sharing brief updates. One member (I’ll call her Cassie) had recently left a senior position at a large non-profit, and was now one week into a mid-level role at a small foundation. While she’d been actively looking for a new job, she was disappointed by her first week in her new position. She had spent some of her time entering data into Salesforce, which she felt she was working below her pay grade. She was fighting the feeling that she had made a terrible mistake.

Cassie was only a week in, of course, and still hoped (with reason) that things would change. But her situation made me think about a time in my career when I was extremely satisfied with my work. I was surprised that my memories of being satisfied happened to be when my responsibilities were not particularly specialized, nor when I was in a high-ranking position. I was just really focused on doing my job well.

I was a volunteer manager with an animal rescue group, and I worked with both other volunteers (coordinating pickups and dropoffs, vet visits, adoption events, etc.) and with potential adopters (arranging visits, preparing them for the adoption process, following up afterwards, etc.). The work didn’t require years of experience or special degrees. I mostly had to write a lot of emails, be pleasant and responsive, and communicate promptly and clearly. When those three things happened, simple as they were, it had a hugely positive impact on the experience of the people and organizations we worked with—and thus the reputation of our group.

I was motivated to do a good job because the mission of the organization mattered deeply to me on a personal level, and also because all those responsive emails had an immediate impact on how smoothly the organization ran. This was reinforced by positive and sincere emails from happy adopters that really kept me going. Their notes thanking me for my help and letting me know that I had made the experience positive for them were a big part of what made the job so rewarding, even though the particulars of my role were not glamorous in any way. They felt like evidence of my value.

I’ve also been in situations like Cassie’s, when I felt like I was above the responsibilities I was being asked to do in my role. Usually this response arose from a sense of resignation or fatigue, and I often reacted by checking out and giving myself permission to do the minimum amount expected. Did the quality of my work even matter? Who would notice or say anything? I’m sure there were times when I took an angry kind of pleasure in this, but the feeling was usually fleeting. Eventually, rather than buffering me from professional disappointment, it would amplify it. I’d end up feeling bad about my job and about myself as a person.

Dedicating yourself to doing your job well sounds like a strange antidote to feeling overqualified at work (of course, don’t mistake this as encouragement to resign yourself to a position that doesn’t make you happy, or isn’t right for you). But my time in a role where my responsibilities were very basic, but nonetheless impactful, was a lesson in realizing that you can do any job, any set of responsibilities, well. When I’ve found myself despairing or unhappy at work, focusing on doing a good job with the responsibilities I do have, however menial, is something I try to come back to.

 

The Grindstone” is a series about how we work today by Billfold writers Leda Marritz and Stephanie Stern. Looking for advice? Want to see a specific issue covered in the future? You can email them here.

Leda Marritz lives in San Francisco. You can read more of her writing at smallanswers.us.

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