Don’t Pay Dues and 3 Soul-Saving Mindsets When You’re Fed Up At Work

career, personal stories, quitting, random thoughts
ben franklin institute

At a wedding at the Benjamin Franklin Institute, I explained to my friend Sean how part of my work involved chauffeuring pets to and from vet appointments.

“I don’t know man,” he said. “I don’t think I could do it.” Big Ben (the 100-foot replica of Benjamin Franklin glaring down at us) seemed to agree.

I get it. There are days that made me feel all Anne Hathaway in THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA. During a recent trip to the vet, the dog expressed her gratitude by leaving a lake in the reception area. I cleaned it up with half a roll of off-brand paper towels, the kind that gets soaked by a gentle mist.

you had one job

After her appointment, I had to take my boss’s car to the DMV to get it inspected and registered. I finished the paperwork and paid for the registration:

“Great, now go get the smog inspection, come back here, and we’ll give you the plates and stickers,” the person said. Another 90 minutes and a smog inspection later, I returned to the DMV and got back in line.

An hour later, I had the plates and stickers. I dropped off the car, and returned to mine, then proceeded to cross the hell hole that is the 405 on a Friday evening.

Total time running errands: 6 hours.

Keep Reading If You’ve Ever Been Fed Up At Work

My inner monologue at these moments used to sound like any other whiny, self-entitled intern or unique snowflake college graduate:

  • “I am too smart to sit in line at the DMV for someone else.”

  • “I have so much more to contribute to the world than chauffeuring around dogs.”

  • “I’m cleaning up my boss’s dog’s piss — what is wrong with this picture?”

Mostly, I was angry. I was frustrated. And I didn’t know how to handle it, or make the situation better.

Now, I’ve found a degree of peace. I’m not as consumed playing opportunity cost calculus, which I attribute to the 4 reasons I explain below. These are subtle shifts in mindsets I think anyone can use. They’re not coping tactics (e.g., “breathe,” “count to 10,” etc.) or fortune cookie advice (“Make the best of your situation!”)

Before I get to the 4 mindsets, I want to be clear: I don’t promise to make cleaning dog piss or waiting at the DMV a hoot. It’s not. It won’t ever be.

However, that anger that used to come up (for me) doesn’t rear its ugly head anymore. If you’re in a similar situation — starting a new career in entertainment, or working with difficult egos — hopefully these 4 mindsets will help you, too.

1. Play At a Higher Level

I’m finally seeing what it takes to develop your career at a higher level. Let me explain with a philosophical analogy: Smash Brother Melee:

Smash is an infinitely complex game. To break down the complexity, let’s say there are 3 levels of expertise:

LEVEL 1: BEGINNER. The game is simple: Hit them. Don’t get hit.

LEVEL 2: PROFESSIONAL. Players learn new tools (wave dashing, edge guarding, etc.) Game strategy like stage positioning and combos get built upon the basics (“Hit them. Don’t get  hit.”)

LEVEL 3: MASTERY. The technical skills: wave dashing, L-cancel, directional influence, etc., all become a given. Everyone’s mastered the tools. At mastery, you’re thinking about player styles. You’re playing mind games.

There is a gulf of a difference in talent between MASTERY and BEGINNER. A beginner  watching two masters play barely recognizes Smash as the same game. He’s blind to the subtle nuances: play patterns, mind games, a critical L-cancel that separates the winner from the loser.

To take our careers to the next level, we have to look at them in a similar way. In the past, I could only measure my career in yearly increments. For example, Year 1, get settled in LA, Year 2, put one year onto an executive’s desk, etc.

Today, I think about career moves in 3-5 year increments, not 1. I focus on bigger moves, which means the smaller, day-to-day decisions matter less. This is playing the game at a higher level.

How does this apply to my day spent at the vet and DMV?

If I play the game at a lower level, I see this as a day wasted. I measure:

  • What was the opportunity cost of those six hours?

  • What can I do to squeeze the most value out of those six hours?

However, the situation looks completely different when I play at a higher level. I don’t measure hours, or even days. Instead, I measure:

  • How much stronger am I building this relationship by adding value to today?

  • What steps can I take so a month or two from now, I’m so valuable my hours can’t be spent at the vet or in line at the DMV?

Two completely different games. When you’re so focused on the lower level, it’s difficult to fathom what’s happening at a higher level. But that’s where you make the bigger, more nuanced moves.

2.  A Holistic Approach

I’m addicted to the climb. From the moment I wake up until I go to bed. I’ve accepted that about myself.

But what is success in your career worth if you let everything else (your health, relationships, finances) in your life go to shit?

James Altucher refers to his holistic approach as a Daily Practice: He examines his mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual health. I don’t use these words but the idea is the same. Am I devoting the same care to myself and the people around me as I do to my career.

When I started to do this, a few things happened:

  • I treated the time spent working with more focus

  • It demanded I work on higher impact levers

  • The individual emotional swings in my career mattered less

  • Overall I felt happier

So when I was on my knees cleaning dog piss… I was focused on the dog piss.

I wasn’t worried about money.

I wasn’t thinking about a stupid fight my girlfriend Amy and I had that morning.

I wasn’t feeling guilty for not working out that day.

I was mopping up piss. I was healthy, happy, calm.

Having a holistic mindset is a totally new approach to me. I imagine others, across the spectrum of competitive industries, might feel how I used to feel: “I want to work like crazy now. I can relax in the future… when I’m 40. Or after my first kid. Then, I’ll cut back those hours, and revisit my health and my family.”

But that point never comes. It’s never enough — I’ve seen enough mentors and people I admire trapped in the cycle. They’re still saying the same things: “I’ll wait until I retire, or when the kids are in college. Then I’ll cut back…”

The holistic approach doesn’t happen because you earned a title bump, got a raise, or because your screenplay was optioned or your TV show got a series order. It happens when you decide you’re ready to make your life (not your career) a priority.

3. Systems and Automation

I created my first financial ledger when I was 14. I worked at my uncle’s restaurant, and he paid me $20 a day. The ledger was simple: One column of “+$20”, and the new sums next to it.

This financial system has grown in sophistication. It tracks spending, pays bills, and invests. It’s NOT all automatic, but it removes the anxiety of “did I put my rent check in the mail?” or “am I investing enough to my Roth IRA?”

Here’s a brand new system that’s working for me: I hired a trainer. I pay him money. In exchange, he kicks my ass at the gym. We wake up at 5 a.m. twice a week to do this. It may seem like a shitty system, but in 8 years, this is only way I’ve put on muscle.

What do you do when you wake up (brush your teeth, eat breakfast, read news, etc.)? Or arrive at the office (grab coffee, check e-mail, plan your day)? These routines are systems. My morning routine is part of another, larger system. I even have a system for building and refining systems. None of these were built overnight. My financial system took 14 years to build, upon the back of the ledger that tracked those $20 payments.

All these systems — the automatic and the manual, the messy and the elegant — keep your life on the rails, regardless of what gets thrown in front of the tracks. They are the whirling cogs in the eternal engine aboard the Snowpiercer. When the inevitable unpredictable happens, your systems back you up. I don’t worry about dropping balls, or losing momentum, because I know the train keeps running.

4. Don’t “Pay Dues”

“I don’t like the word purpose. It implies that somewhere in the future I will find something that will make me happy, and that until then, I will be unhappy. People fool themselves into thinking that the currency of unhappiness will buy them happiness. That we have to “pay our dues,” go on some sort of ride, and then get dropped off at a big location called our “purpose,” where now we can be happy. It doesn’t work that way.”

– James Altucher’s CHOOSE YOURSELF

When you’re working a particularly tedious job, or you feel unappreciated, or wonder why you’re not living up to your potential, a common justification is “I’m paying my dues.”

  • If you’re spending 10 hours a day in a Hollywood mailroom…

  • If you’re working at a Big 4 accounting firm and spending days crunching numbers on a spreadsheet…

  • If you’re a personal assistant running errands and cleaning dog piss…

Then the phrase “paying your dues” gets thrown around. A lot. We assume it’s part of the game. That framework gets you through the moment.

The problem is like Altucher says, it implies that one day, you’ll finish paying. You’ll “arrive,” as a:

  • partner

  • screenwriter

  • executive

And then, all will be right with life! Champagne will pour from the sky. Velvet ropes will be crossed.

Again, from watching my mentors and people I admire, who’ve reached massive levels of success — that day doesn’t come. There are always new mountains to climb. There are new challenges, new crises of identity. You just level-up your problems.

Instead of waiting for The Day to arrive, realize: The Day is here. Today just involves driving to the DMV, or waiting at the vet. And that’s okay, because you’re playing the game at a higher level, taking a holistic approach, and have systems to keep your life moving in the right direction.

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