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Three Tips to Help You Turn a Crappy Job Into a Dream Career

How a few small shifts can hugely impact your career satisfaction

Do you love your job? You know, in the I-can’t-imagine-life-without-it kind of way? Do you believe that your work fosters your skills and creativity day-to-day? Are you growing sharper, wiser, and, perhaps, richer, with every challenge? Do you feel like you’re working for the greater good and earning a sizable paycheck? If so, please read no further.

This is for the rest of us—the people whose jobs evoke the word meh. If your case of the Mondays lasts until Friday afternoon, and the best part of your job is leaving at the end of the day, I’m talking to you.

I’ve been there. I’ve applied to crappy jobs. I’ve been rejected from crappy jobs. I’ve been rewarded with the opportunity to work at crappy jobs. And I’ve left crappy jobs to work at even crappier jobs.

I’ve been out of college and immersed in “the real world” just shy of a decade. Only recently, however, did I find a job that has challenged and inspired me in ways I’ve always thought careers should. Working in advertising and marketing, I’ve had to manage nightmare clients. I’ve sat in offices where casual conversations turned into inescapable polarizing lectures. I’ve watched tears run in meetings as accusations turned personal and threats less-than-subtle. I’ve had to report to bosses who didn’t even bother to listen when I talked.

And, yes, it made me feel crappy.

Finally landing a job I love is a huge relief. But while I feel lucky and blessed, this job didn’t fall out of the sky. It’s the product of all that I learned along the way. All those years spent in nine-to-five purgatory—more like eight-to-six in my case—helped launch me into a much better reality.

I’ve consulted mentors, talked with peers, and read memoirs of people who truly love what they do. Every single one of them had at least one crappy job experience. True for them and me (and probably you) is the realization that a less-than-ideal job is often just the thing that will motivate you to seek a better fit. To make the shift, remember these things:

01. Nurture your life outside of your workplace.

When working in an unhealthy environment, you can’t control the weather. But you can prepare yourself for the storms. It’s a dark point in your career, but you don’t have to let this darkness permeate your life. Developing close friendships and leaning on others is critical. Let them depend on you, too. It’s only by doing this that your plight comes into perspective. After all, when you’re working a soul-sucking job, the most critical asset you need is simply hope, and a support system will give you that.

As a former (and chipper) colleague once told me, “I’m only able to face today in a good mood because I take care of myself.” Think eating well, exercising, and maintaining healthy relationships is unrelated to your day job? Think again. When you’re beaten down at work, your mind, body, and morale—all of which you need to stay hopeful, optimistic, and resilient—suffer. Sure, sometimes sinking into the couch, ordering pizza, and cracking open a beer (alone) might seem like the best anecdote to end the worst of days, but poor coping habits won’t help you flourish.

When you’re not at the office, work out, get out of the house, and socialize with people you trust. Develop personal interests and skills that you could use in your ideal career by taking classes or reading books. One woman I know enrolled in an online programming course that she studies on her own time. Her current job as a personal assistant isn’t her dream career. But now she’s able to put her programming skills to use by designing websites for extra experience and cash. She plans to build her portfolio and list of clients before she applies for a new job or becomes a freelancer. Speaking of leaving the job you hate for the job you want . . .

02. Tout the skills you want to grow.

A recent grad once asked me to critique her resume. It had been several months since she graduated, but she was still unemployed. She had the kind of degree that’s supposed to get you a lucrative gig—chemical engineering. So what gives?

Her resume highlighted the minutiae of her internship. This included “filing documents” and “answering phones.” Her reasoning was that she spent 75 percent of her internship doing these things. I advised her to remove the aspects of her previous jobs that were irrelevant to her goals (the tedious tasks that most interns do anyway). Then I asked her to expand more on the other 25 percent—the parts of her internship that were meaningful and indicative of what she actually wanted to be doing. Within one month, she landed her first job, and she’s been working there for the past two years.

Too often, I see people transferring from crappy job to crappy job. By listing insignificant skills on your resume, you’re opening the door for future employers to ask you to do those same things. Instead, focus on the parts of your job that you actually like, and expand on those. Discuss opportunities with your manager to get on projects that help hone the skills you want to carry into your future career. Is your colleague on an exciting assignment that you’d love to be a part of? Ask if you can lend a hand. If the right opportunities aren’t landing on your desk, it might be time to put in the extra effort to hunt them down.

03. Think about the bigger picture. Then use your current role to work toward it.

An ambitious former colleague once told me that, as millennials, we often focus way too much on what fulfills us rather than what helps fulfill ​those around us. Or we think too big, wanting to change the entire world, and quickly become burned out. At the time, I had been complaining to him about my job. He challenged me to think about all the things the company was struggling with and what it needed.

This was a turning point for me. Instead of focusing inward on what I was lacking, I started thinking about how I could add to my current situationMy research made me realize inefficiencies in our processes, and I began to brainstorm solutions. At first, colleagues responded with skepticism and resistance. Over time (like, years), I was able to make a fundamental difference in the company’s branding and marketing. This is what ultimately launched me, albeit slowly, into a bigger and more exciting career—a career that’s still evolving.

So start where you can. What problems do you experience on a day-to-day basis, and how can they be improved? What new opportunities are on the horizon that could catapult your firm ahead of the competition? Think critically through the pros and cons, and determine what would need to happen to implement your idea. Find a champion internally to help you execute a particularly good idea. It might mean a little more work, but it will be far more energizing and rewarding when you’re making a real difference.

In retrospect, I think my biggest struggle as a working adult has been accepting where I am. Allowing myself to grow roots in my current surroundings has been challenging. In the beginning, I would often think, Oh, this is temporary. I don’t need to develop relationships here. It was only once I let myself accept my situation and thrive where I was that I was able to develop the maturity to move beyond it. Once you embrace where you are—crappy job and all—it’s much easier to take it day-by-day and remain hopeful. Once you have your bearings, you can start mapping out next steps. Working a bad job gives you time to think about what you really want, and it motivates you to pursue it with all you’ve got.