How I Overcame My Worst Career Move

Illustrated by Anna Sudit.
The sinking feeling hit as soon as my new boss walked me over to my desk — which was less a desk, really, and more a long, wobbly table next to a puttering air conditioner that was losing its battle against the 90-degree heat outside. I tried to hide the flashing red light going off in my brain as she pointed to a desk chair that still had crumbs on it from whoever had been there last. I looked at the line of unhappy faces sitting along the same table, thought of the private office in a shiny corporate tower I had just left behind, and thought, What have I done?

This was early in my career and I can say now that things did get better. But during those first few weeks — scratch that, months — at my new gig, I had to resist picking up the phone and begging my old boss to take me back. It wasn’t just the office environment that was throwing me off. Even in my first staff meetings, I sensed that my new coworkers were being stretched to their limits — and not in that, “We’re burning the midnight oil because we are so passionate about what we are doing!” kind of way, but more the, “I haven’t seen my boyfriend/been to the gym/left the office before 11 p.m. and want to cry” variety. There were other hiccups, too: An assignment that didn’t fit my job description, miscommunication between departments, and some Regina George behavior among a few colleagues.

I’m not the only one to second-guess a new gig. Leigh, 29, had only been working at a public relations firm for a few weeks when she realized the job was much different than she’d anticipated. “I thought I would be doing all this publicity stuff, but all they really wanted was for me to bring my friends to events,” she says. Leigh thought about quitting, but instead proposed a plan to her boss that would give her more responsibility. “He was more receptive than I thought he would be and it definitely made him take me more seriously. The job was hardly a dream, but it was more bearable after that.”

What have I done?

Aileen, 35, stuck it out until she had another option. During her first two weeks as junior lawyer at a small, private firm, she learned that nobody who had held her position had stayed for more than a year and a half. “I witnessed [my boss’s] mood change from grumpy to grumpier,” Aileen says. “Not only would she slam doors when she was angry, but she never seemed to like anything that I produced.” Aileen stayed on for eight months before getting a job at another firm — and learned some valuable management skills on how not to manage. “I now make sure that I behave respectfully toward anyone who works for me, because of my experience being on the other end.”

Sarah, 34, also felt twinges of regret after accepting a job at the headquarters of a cosmetics company. “The allure of the free products and a gorgeous office space hooked me,” she says. But during her first week, she came home sobbing. “The vindictive receptionist kept tabs on how long I was out for lunch...I was required to wear stockings if the CEO was visiting and my new boss almost brought me to tears from her harsh words and micromanaging,” she says. Her stay-sane strategy? Sarah applied for new jobs regularly as a reminder that her situation was only temporary. It worked, but it took a while — after 12 months, she landed a new job that she loves.

The vindictive receptionist kept tabs on how long I was out for lunch.

Personally, I worried about having a blip on my résumé that I would have to explain to prospective employers, so I told myself that I had to make it through one year — then, I would reevaluate. Like Sarah, this took some of the pressure off for me: I will not be here forever became my morning elevator mantra. I also set clear boundaries between my work life and my actual life, such as not checking email on weekends (I let my boss know that if she needed to reach me, she could call me on my cell phone — low and behold, there was almost never something that important that it couldn’t wait until Monday), and made an effort to get to know some of the people I was working with — several of whom are now, years later, dear friends. I never loved that job — but I did learn a lot, and the panic I felt in those early days eventually wore off. Here’s what I wish I had known to do then, to shake the bad feeling even faster:

Help out your new co-workers.
Lending a hand to your colleagues can make you happier at work, according to a University of Wisconsin — Madison study. It will also help you get to know your cubicle-mates so that you don’t have to eat lunch alone at your desk. Knowing (and liking) your coworkers can have a real effect on how much you like your new job: According to a survey by Virgin Pulse, the Virgin Group’s employee-wellness software program, almost four out of 10 employees credit their team members as the number-one reason they love their jobs.

Set up some face time with your boss.
In an ideal world, you and your boss would have lunch on your first day and powwow about all the great projects you’ll be working on in your new role. In reality, he or she might be swamped — leaving you wondering what you should be doing. Instead of getting frustrated, take the initiative to set up a meeting with them when they aren't crazed (a good place to start is by asking an assistant, if he or she has one). Getting off on the right foot with your boss is huge — roughly half of adults surveyed in a 2015 Gallup poll said they had left a job to get away from their manager.

4 out of 10 employees credit their team members as the number-one reason they love their jobs

Evaluate what really matters.
You might not love everything about your new gig, but if your biggest peeves have to do with your workspace or just the culture shock of being in a new place, rest easy — it will pass. Much more important: The respectful treatment of all employees, at all levels, as well as trust between employees and senior management, according to a recent report by the Society for Human Resource Management. If your coworkers appear to be generally happy and your boss seems to give people a healthy level of autonomy (at first, you might feel micromanaged — but that can just be part of the training process and getting you familiar with the role), take that as two very positive signs that your anxiety is just new-job jitters.

Find something you can own.
Autonomy, competence, and feeling connected to others are “strong predictors” for well-being, according to a study of attorneys published by the George Washington Law Review. Propose or volunteer for a project that you can spearhead or join a team that’s already working on something that suits your skill set, where you are confident you can contribute.

Retrain your brain to better see the positive.
You might feel weird meditating at your desk, but research shows that practicing mindfulness could change the structure of your brain in the best way possible. Taking some time out to check in with yourself will calm you down — and help you focus on what’s good about your new job. This type of meditation can change the grey matter in the areas of your brain associated with regulating emotion and perspective, among others...and make life more bearable as you adjust.
Here’s the thing: Plenty of us panic (at least a little bit) when presented with something as major as a new job. Wanting to like where you work and the people you work with is the most normal thing ever — and so is feeling kind of anxious that everything won’t be awesome. Having a positive attitude helps, but so does having a plan.