I started my professional career at 16 years old as an intern at a local newspaper office. When I look back, I’m so grateful for the opportunity. Back then, I knew nothing about how to be a successful employee, let alone how to write a proper news article. But for some reason, they gave me opportunity after opportunity — while heavily editing my writing along the way, of course. Six years later as a college senior, I returned for a second internship and I continued to work with the newspaper on a freelance basis after college.
That internship treated me well, but I can’t say the same for every other internship, and I especially can’t say the same for every real job I’ve had. That being said, I am a firm believer that you can find value in a bad job experience; oftentimes, more so than from a good job.
Why Bad Can Be Good
My junior year of college, I landed my dream internship. I was on cloud nine, until I realized that what I thought was my dream job was kind of boring. The stereotypes about difficult coworkers in that industry lived up to the hype, and worst of all, I found the work unfulfilling. Fast forward a few months and I accepted an internship in the financial industry. It was never a path I saw myself going down, but it was one I immediately took to. I loved my job, coworkers, and the subject matter I was writing about. I was overjoyed to join the team full time post-graduation, a feeling I never would have predicted just nine months prior. In fact, if it weren’t for that unpleasant internship, I never would have applied for the financial one. Point being, a bad job experience can help open you up to new opportunities.
You can also use bad job experiences as a testing zone. Not every moment or step of your career has to be perfect — we learn as we go along. Sometimes, bad experiences are of our own making. For example, I learned very early on that I struggle to assert myself in the workplace, which can really hurt me during conflicts at the office. This quality has also stopped me from sharing ideas and raising concerns. At one point, an office manager gave me a new phone because I spoke so softly that no one on the other end could hear me. Once we realized the problem was with me, and the phone was in fact not broken, I felt mortified. But you know what? Now I can laugh about that moment, and it serves as a lesson to literally never be afraid to use my voice.
How to Learn
Even when a job experience feels bad — and they can feel really bad — I’ve found there are lessons to be learned. In fact, some of the jobs I disliked immensely provided the most valuable learning lessons. Dealing with difficult coworkers has taught me about conflict resolution. Having time to dwell on unkind comments from managers has allowed me to prepare to better defend myself in the future. I’ve learned what types of roles and industries I like and which I don’t, and I can now better recognize a toxic work environment before the first interview is even over.
If you’ve had a bad job experience (or, let’s be real, a few of them), take time to play a little game. Sit down and write out this quiz:
Q: When X happened at work I felt Y. The result of that event was Z. What can I learn from that experience?
A: This is where you will write down what you learned, what strengths you’ve discovered, and what changes you’ll make in your career moving forward.
Taking time to reflect on these experiences (preferably when you are in a relaxed state) will help you identify learning lessons. Writing them down will ensure you don’t forget them. If you keep these notes stashed away, you can reference them during similar situations. When there is conflict or disappointment at work, emotions can run high. By taking the time to review past learning lessons and work through how you feel about new ones, you’ll handle future events with more composure.
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How to Move Forward
Did you have a boss that didn’t believe in you? A coworker who tormented you? Did you fail miserably at a role that you thought was a good fit? It happens all the time. One of the best things you can learn from these experiences is how to move forward, how to let go of any embarrassment or painful memories, and how to walk away from feelings of anger and resentment.
I don’t think I have to even say it, but we all know that living well is the best revenge, as Leon Pomeroy, Ph.D. argued in an article for Psychology Today. So go out, land that dream job, get that promotion, or earn that raise. Live your best life and enjoy your career, and don’t dwell on bad memories from old jobs. The only person you’ll hurt by doing so is yourself.