Bullish Q&A: On Moving Out of Support Roles, Coworkers with Terrible Politics, and Finally Getting Serious in Life

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I’ve been reading Get Bullish for years and would love some feedback. I’ve been at my current job for two years in a support role – those above me have proved to be bottlenecks for new ideas and getting anything done. Part of this is just the nature of being in a support role, but part of it is institutional: there are three levels of hierarchy above me in my office of 16 people. I don’t mind being the lowest rung and putting in my dues if it came with the possibility of promotion, but that’s not the case. The department’s budget isn’t great, and my manager doesn’t have any power to hire more people for our two-person team.

So some things are going on structurally. But part of my annoyance here is personal. I’m charming and nice to a fault, have never had issues getting jobs (I have a unique but still “support”-ish skill set) and people love working with me, but I have a hard time being promoted. I’m an office “rock star” but am getting really fucking sick of being in a support role. After the 2008 recession, I feel like I got into this habit of making sure I’m as well-liked as possible for fear of being kicked off a job. People like having me as a coworker to help them out, but I don’t like it anymore. I want to be seen as skilled and left alone to do hard work sometimes, not as a willing note taker at meetings. I don’t want to be a good team player.

SO: I’ve got a side hustle where I get to work alone and the overly-nice thing doesn’t factor in. It’s also a lot more lucrative than staying here. I’ve got a financial cushion big enough to try my hand at it full-time. I’ve got a date in mind to give notice.

So I guess my question is two-fold: 1) What’s the line between being helpful and getting stuck in a helper role? 2) How do you move away from being superficially nice and caring what everyone thinks to being known for your competence and skill?

Is the answer to both of these “smile less”?

 

I answered a really similar question here – check it out: My Boss Thinks of Me as Sweet and Cheerful – How Can I Move Into Management?

But also:

It’s really hard to get your current coworkers to perceive and treat you differently. That’s why kids who are bullied move to a new school to start again, if they can. You just look for a new job.

Wanting to move out of a support role is a super great reason for looking for a new job, and you can phrase that in a positive way in a job interview. As in, “My current company isn’t offering a path for advancement out of a support role, and I’m ready to move into XYZ. Here is some proof of my skills and here are some ways I can help your company.”

As for your personality, I mean, should you smile less? Depends on why you’re smiling. Are you smiling because you’re happy and you like people? Or are you smiling as a way to keep the peace and indicate submission? If it’s the last one, well, maybe. But if you just have a bubbly personality, try wearing headphones at work some of the time. Or getting a job where you can wear headphones and be left alone to do hard things. Also ask a few people who know you, though – maybe there’s something you’re doing that you wouldn’t mind changing. (Or maybe there isn’t.)

If you want to be more known for your competence and skill, you have to direct the conversation. Even at the proverbial water cooler – don’t just go along. Start conversations about your reading and learning, or your proposals for the company. (“Sounds like a cool vacation! Hey, did you see the quarterly report? It looks like our X product is doing 22% better than our Y product. I dug into it, and it’s actually because of individual buyers, not corporate accounts. Surprising, right?”) Ask questions about how things work in the deep end of other people’s jobs. Write up manuals and reports wherever possible, and make them detailed and include graphs of all kinds of shit, and cite your sources. And put your name in the corner of that shit on every page, publish it as a PDF, and send it to everyone. “Hey everyone, in case you need to know how to do the thing, here is a quick manual on best practices.”

If people ask you to take notes, assume that gives you some authority. “After reviewing the meeting notes, it is apparent that most people were in favor of X.” Then include a list of resources, best practices, or recommendations.

I know you say you have a lucrative side hustle, so maybe you don’t need any of that, but in case you’re not ready to go freelance or in case you want to actually keep having multiple income streams — well, it might be worth it to conduct an aggressive job search, especially since you DGAF whether your employer finds out, and you can be ballsy in negotiating salary because you know you have that side hustle. Is your side hustle scalable? Where will you be in 10-20 years if you do this now? Is that a better place than you’d be if you had a job with a 401K, plus a side hustle? Some things to think about.

 

I need advice – I work in a field where the majority of the people involved are of a different political persuasion than myself. There is one person I work with from time to time who is a radio personality. I find her views abhorrent and getting through the occasional meeting with her means gritting my teeth and trying not to tell her that she is what I believe is wrong with the world. How can I get her to stay away from discussing politics during these meetings and stick to the topic at hand – our partnership and the details of it?

 

My goodness. So I’m basically imagining that you’re working with Ann Coulter. Lovely. And most of your colleagues are voting for Trump.

You didn’t mention whether your position is well below Ann’s. She definitely doesn’t sound like a client you could fire.

You could practice a few lines like, “Not sure where to go with that… So, are you on board for the budget increase?” Or a bemused, “Back to the topic at hand….”

You could try scheduling really short meetings – literally put something right after the meeting and send her a polite email ahead of time saying you’re sorry you’re so crunched, just wanted to let her know we have to keep it to 20 minutes today. That might help. Supposedly scheduling meetings at weird times (like 11:25) signals to people that you are SO BUSY and well organized that every 5 minutes counts.

You could also keep notes on this for a future novel/memoir/exposé/lawsuit.

As for having an influence on your coworkers and office culture at large:

You can only nudge people a little bit. I wrote more about this here. If you were to go full-on outspoken liberal in the office, you might feel virtuous, but you’d turn off the people you want to persuade. If people are awful, the most you can hope for is making them slightly less awful. That’s hard to do, and if you aim for totally removing someone’s entire belief system and replacing it with a new one, you will fail at the task of nudging them at all.

Now, you didn’t mention wanting to persuade so much as just get through the day, but one way to get through the day is to feel like you’re making a difference, and like your “gritting your teeth” is accomplishing something.

How can you nudge people a little bit? Well, even if you say nothing, your coworkers already know where you stand – you have already failed to make the right facial expressions and give the right nods at their jokes and references. So you wait until someone expects you to say something, and you drop a line like, “Of course I wouldn’t vote against my own interests.” Republicans really like winners, so here I’d say a few brief words about Lily Ledbetter and equal pay and how there’s “a lot more like that that’s pretty crucial to my best interests,” and leave it at that. Your opinions have more of an effect on people when they have to probe for them. Less is more. I mean, I care a lot about police brutality. Do I actually want to persuade a conservative about that? Well, the police are part of the government, so we’re both concerned about the government overstepping into the affairs of private citizens. I start there, and I stop talking when I think I’ve achieved a little nudge. They can ask me another question tomorrow.

You will get further if you use de-politicized language. Don’t ever say you’re “offended” – that’s code for being a “weak liberal,” or the PC feminazi police or something. It will not get you results. Same with “racism,” “sexism,” and other -isms – if you complain about them, you are flagging yourself as a liberal. Of course there’s nothing wrong with that, but do you want to be right or do you want to persuade people to be slightly less terrible?

You can make the same complaint, keep your integrity intact (by speaking up), and get better results by using nonpoliticized language. Think about words we all used as children when we were learning to be nice, not hit people, etc. “Let’s not make fun of our colleagues” is a totally nonpolitical statement. “This language is not professional, we’re going to need to edit this.” True, no?

Try hard to call behavior or speech what it is: Insulting? Cruel? Unprofessional? Not factual? Stereotyping? “Unprofessional” is a particularly good one. I talk more about this here.

Hope that helps! Don’t hesitate to do whatever mental health things you need to do, and possibly to look for another job! People move jobs for far lesser reasons – or for no reason, just to get ahead.

 

I have come to a point in life where I realise I must take myself seriously, but I’m not sure how. Everything I did for the past 4-5 years has been “playground” or “practice” versions of real life things I will be doing “for real” in some obscure future. I have glided through last 2 years of my interpreting and translation degree on minimum effort of the kind a person with a natural ability to languages would put in if they happen to be bored, lazy, in a class below their level, or all of the above. Not to say it was pointless or extremely easy, but my routine involved extensive internet browsing till the last possible moment, then panicking and doing all the work at once.

I’ve only ever did 2 small freelance translation projects, decided I’m no good at this and dislike it anyway, and proceeded to move to Spain to study flamenco dancing, jumping on the fact that I liked it as a hobby and my parents had the means to let me give it a shot as a potential career. Now, almost 3 years later, I feel like I didn’t put in enough work, didn’t produce any results except for becoming somewhat better at it and gaining theoretical knowledge on flamenco. I feel like I have wasted my parents’ money, my own time and my teachers’ energy, by not becoming a brilliant dancer. It is silly to expect to become a pro in this field in 3 years when you come in from pretty much zero.

However, I see people moving forward when I just keep “blending in with the wallpaper”, unable to give myself that “magic kick in the bum”, as we say in Russia, to propel myself to motivation and be able to put in that daily effort that is a dancer’s life.

Right now I feel so stuck, unworthy and desperate I don’t even know if I should keep at it at all, if it doesn’t seem to come naturally. I’m also good at baking and languages, could use that somehow to feed myself, I guess. I’m heading home soon, but the new chapter of my life has no title yet. I don’t know what I want to do or where to live. The question is, how do I get out of my head, make a rational decision about all that and stick to it?

 

It sounds like you’re still pretty young. Not that you can’t make a big change at any age – you can – but if you spend your early twenties completely fucking around, people (in the US, at least) tend to be pretty understanding of that. Especially if you did something really exciting or glamorous, like flamenco dancing in Spain! I worked at a company where one of the graphic designers was in a band. In New York, this is not unusual, but at a straight-laced company, it is super cool. He’s married now and has a kid and I’m pretty sure is no longer in a band, but his coworkers probably still remember him as cool guy who was in a band! This isn’t bad.

Don’t worry about what anybody thinks and go learn to do a real thing that pays well. You always have translation and baking to fall back on, but you don’t like translation that much, and being good at baking doesn’t mean you’d necessarily be good at running the kind of baking operation that could provide you with a good future.

It sounds like you would benefit from an organized program, whether it’s a coding bootcamp or an MBA or a company that rigorously trains people to do something. When you get into such a program, take active steps to keep from falling into your old patterns. People (like Scott H. Young and Cal Newport) write in great detail about getting academic work (and regular work) done efficiently.

Maybe the antidote to privileged driftiness is a career that helps others. And I don’t mean teaching beginner’s flamenco in Russia, I mean actually helping the poor, or victims of domestic violence, or people in hospice, or something like that. You don’t have to worry about what you’re doing with your life when someone has real needs and you help them.

From what you’ve told me, it sounds like the worst thing you could do would be to waste another five years doing little freelance projects here and there. You don’t have the personality to make that work – at least not at this stage of your life, with the ideas you have so far. Who knows, maybe you’ll learn a new skill and like it so much you’ll become a very motivated freelancer or entrepreneur, or maybe you’ll just be different in ten years. But right now, it sounds like you need to sign up for something difficult and let organizations and experts help you change the way you’ve been doing things.