When The Going Gets Tough

Posted by

"This will be my last day shining your shoes."

I like getting my shoes shined. I don’t do it often enough, but I do my best to keep my shoes (and yes, even my leather sneakers) as clean and scuff-free as possible. Lump that value system into my own, personal "measure of a man," but to me, dirty shoes is a leading negative indicator (while I’m no snob, I realize this may make me a little vain). My favorite place to get my shoes shined is at the airport. I typically do this prior to departure, and it’s always the same person at the shoe shine stand. He’s never happy. I’ve known him for close to a decade and he spends his time shining shoes by complaining to every patron who sits in his station. He’ll complain about politics, the weather, the airline, the airport, the security and the shoe shining session usually ends with the line, "this will be the last day that I am shining your shoes… I’m closing this stand down on Monday." It’s almost become laughable. I once jokingly said to him before getting started, "will this be my last shoe shine?"… he didn’t think it was a funny joke at all. He became beet red and didn’t say a word to me. I felt very bad.

Going out of business sale.

It’s like the running joke when you’re in New York City and see those "going out of business" signs at the retail level on stores that have been there for years. Being trapped in a job or business that you do not like is a terrible experience. I did a short stint in a service-based industry that made me miserable several years ago. It got so bad, that towards the end (right before I quit), I would actually get a physical reaction to being in the office (I affectionately called it, "scratchy throat"). I knew it was time to go when I was having physical reactions to a job that just wasn’t for me. I could not imagine being there another month (let alone for the rest of my life).

How to control misery.

As a business owner, I’ve seen people be unhappy. It’s never pleasant. Odds are that you know several people – right at this exact moment in time – that are struggling with their work. They’re not fulfilled, they’re not happy and they’re simply not achieving. Who is to blame? This is the tough part, but it’s the cold hard truth: the business will rarely change to align with your value-system. If you feel like you’re not able to accomplish something because of your teammates, your supervisor, the boss, the clients or whatever, guess what? It’s not them… it’s you. Don’t get mad straight away and start leaving nasty comments below. Think about these last few lines, internalize them, let them baste around in your brain. My friends at Bazaarvoice have a very interesting human resources policy that they call, "the ride home": if someone no longer wants to work at the company, they pay them a couple thousand dollars to leave. Why? They’re not just trying to find the right person who meets a criteria for a list of job responsibilities, they’re looking to hire people who are suited to work with their team.

What works here does not work there.

People often take work for the wrong reasons (a lot of it has to do a self-perceived desperation): more money, trying to pad a resume, a feeling like they have no other options, etc… It’s very hard (and intense) work to figure out what you really want to get out of life. Sadly, most people think that a job’s main raison d’être is to keep them out of poverty, and that becomes the main focal point: survival. I’ve seen people perform very poorly in one environment, change jobs and work for a similar company (in a similar position) and they thrive like never before. We see this in the marketing industry almost daily: a client/agency relationship falls apart, the brand does an agency review and finds a similar company that offers similar services with very similar people, but it’s simply a better fit and they all thrive.

Think about thriving.

Are you thriving? What will it take for you to thrive? These are core questions that will shift the focus from the work and the supervisors to you… and only you. Personally, the minute my professional career and trajectory changed and become that much more positive (in all aspects of it) was when I shifted my mindset from it being about the work and my bosses, to me and my personal responsibility – instead of whining about my lot in life. BTW, I’m still working on it. Life isn’t perfect, but accepting that it’s not perfect also enables me to spend the better part of my time self-evaluating instead of blaming it on everyone else.

What’s your take?


  1. There are some hard truths in what you say, but I think it behooves us to remember how lucky we are to be able to make choices like these. Nowhere else but in the Western world does one have the opportunity to think about how one is going to go about being fulfilled at work. For much of the world it really is about pure survival, and I might say that this is increasingly a fact in our direct surroundings as well.
    That is not to poo-poo what you have said, because you’re spot on in many ways, and I’ve had a long road of finding a spot where I fit in, and as I grow, I’ll have to find another. I think I make the above comment just to remind us of how lucky we are to be able to choose, not just the type of career that we would like to have, but also the place where we can most comfortably ply our trade. The ability to choose a spot where we’re able to thrive is a lovely thing indeed.

  2. Hey Mitch – good post. When I was teaching graphic design, I would ask my students if they woke up tomorrow and had to not worry about paying for anything – would they still be doing the same job? I find that, like you mentioned, people end up accepting jobs for the wrong reasons – and then those reasons become the thing that people resent the most. If you work towards having both passion and purpose clearly defined for yourself – employment choices will become natural.

  3. Great insights. I learned something from Marla Shapiro that goes hand-in-hand with this. If you’re thinking, “I don’t have time to…[find a new job, lose weight, see my aging parents, learn a new skill…]”, change it around and say …[finding a new job, losing weight, seeing my aging parents, learning a new skill…] “just isn’t a priority for me”. If you can still stomach it, maybe it really isn’t a priority.

  4. My take Mitch .. I think this is all smart, good advice. Chatted w/ a few folks lately about corporate culture and wouldn’t it be dreamy to work in environments that value communication, reward innovation w/out fear of mistakes or penalizing partial successes as failures. Dreamy, but not always the case.
    The reality for a lot of us, we have to crawl before we can walk, walk before the running, and buy a plane ticket in order to fly. It’s very hard to think about thriving when you are struggling just to survive. It’s not a copout – certainly not in today’s ‘too big to fail’ market, as top brands make some good moves, still go under – to say that surviving is step one, square one as we move towards thriving. Not whining either and boy do I accept responsibility for my own choices; it’s just.. you have to stay afloat to stay alive, stay in business .. then you can think about growing. It’s a work in continuous progress, always. FWIW.

  5. Much of our satisfaction at work comes from the relationships with our manager and co-workers. I’ve experienced this in my own career with various managers and work groups. Same environment, same culture, same clients, same work. But the people we work with and for greatly impact our job satisfaction.
    I believe it’s our responsibility to find work that adds value to others. That’s an inward look, but with an outward goal to make a difference for others.

  6. Excellent post! Unfortunately, sometimes it takes time to figure out what environment you do thrive in. And some people never figure it out. I worked in retail as a teen and there was one coworker that complained all the time. I returned to the store a few years later to find out that she was the only one that stuck around after multiple management changes. She was promoted and she looked like she was thriving. Is it worth sticking it out to get what you want?

  7. This rings true for me. I learned this lesson a few months ago about taking a job just to take a job. While they did great work, I knew they were not a good fit for where I was at that time. Since then, I’ve interviewed all over the place to find a company that is not only doing great work, but the people I’ll work with are ones that I respect and can most importantly learn from. I’ve finally found that – but the process has it’s ups and downs, and can be frustrating.
    It’s also very true about knowing when it’s not everyone around you – it’s just YOU. This article is hilariously on point: Does Your Job Suck? It’s Probably You http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505125_162-28247291/does-your-job-suck-its-probably-you/

  8. Love it, lived it, re-inventing myself. It’s not always easy to make those life changes, for sure, however it is still up to us as individuals to change our destiny, and if we’re not willing to do that (the gumption, do whatever it takes), then it is simply that – our choice – which also means quit complaining.

  9. Well said Mitch! I’ve worked in high tech for 20 years and in some very intense fast paced environments. I found it challenging and it helped me grow a thick skin, learn how to work with different, creative, “difficult-to-work” with individuals. What I learned is that awareness of your own certain personality traits and innate qualities, strengths and weaknesses can help determine whether a role in a company is a good fit. Often you won’t know until you’re in it despite how well the interviews went or how the company culture was described. I usually take on an assignment if I have a good gut instinct, aligned with my values and the value I know I can bring to the table. I have to be passionate about the product/service and people to say yes to the job and from there they have my full commitment.

  10. Mitch,
    People ask me, “What should I do as a career?” My answer is the same to them all. Make a list of the things you enjoy doing. Pick the one you would enjoy doing the most, then do it, and incidentally make a dollar. Do not go into a business just to make money. If you do, you will be in a prison every day, until you leave it. Not only will you be unhappy, but the people around you will be also, and that is inconsiderate of others.

Comments are closed.