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5 Lessons You Can Learn from a Disappointing Job

A fallen ice cream cone.

There are dreams about what working at a nonprofit will be like, and then there are the realities of the day-to-day work. What do you do when you’ve made that career shift you’ve always dreamed about but it’s not as magical as you’d hoped? Becoming world-weary and cynical might seem like the only option, but a different relationship to disenchantment can actually help you shake it off and grow more effectively.

Disappointment can point you to the truth

Disillusionment means you had some illusions about the sector to begin with. Often the fading dream of what life in the nonprofit sector will be like is not as devastating in itself as the message you take from it. Turning your personal passion into a career takes a certain leap of faith, and our culture really values success. You might feel the urge to blame yourself for your perceived naiveté, or you might feel like lashing out at your employer for being disorganized and requiring so much paperwork. Instead, take a second to recognize your motivation for working in the nonprofit sector to begin with. If you had a dream of helping people, this can be a great time to think practically about how best to put your particular set of skills to work.

Disappointment can help you embrace change

Though you might have career goals that guide your work, it’s easy to forget that you yourself are constantly changing. Sometimes acknowledging that your needs have changed can feel like giving up.

But if you are really familiar with what motivates you, you can adapt as needs arise and shift. As Harvard Psychologist Dan Gilbert points out in his Ted Talk “The Psychology of your Future Self,” illusions we harbor in the present can hinder future happiness. “Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they're finished,” says Gilbert, who describes time as a powerful but unacknowledged force in our lives.

Disillusionment is certainly a painful process, and it can be useful to openly acknowledge the sorrow involved. But if it’s true that the illusions we hold in the present might be hindering future contentment, then it’s something you might want to pay attention to.

Disappointment can force you to address personal fairy tales

We have an amazing capacity for storytelling. It’s how we make meaning out of the chaos around us. There have been times in my career where forcing myself to see the silver lining in a position that I didn’t like helped me make rent without losing my mind. It takes awareness and flexibility to notice when sugarcoating is helping and when it is adding unnecessary embellishments to a situation that is no longer serving your aspirations. The key here is to begin to notice when you are dressing up a situation in a story. It’s a very human capacity we all have. You just want to start noticing when you’re doing it.

Disappointment will remind you to be patient

In an era where anyone can get instantaneous feedback via Facebook and Twitter, you might find yourself getting frustrated when you don’t see the results of your work as quickly as you might hope. This can be very frustrating if you got involved with a nonprofit hoping to help people directly, but find yourself buried in paperwork.

If your sense of disappointment stems from this desire for results, it can be time to take a longer view. When working in advocacy, charity, and social change, results are not always tangible. You don’t always get to directly experience the fruits of your work. That doesn’t mean you haven’t had an impact. Remember to slow down and savor the times you feel you’ve made a difference. Seek out experiences in your organization that put you face to face with those you’re benefiting.

Disappointment might signal burnout

I’ve noticed a tendency in myself and many friends who work in the nonprofit sector to feel like helping others should come at the expense of our own emotional and financial health. I know many who have put in well over 40 hours per week at part-time jobs that offered no benefits.

When you’re working on something you feel passionately about, it can be difficult to know when to zoom out, look at the big picture, and engage in some self - care. Feeling that nagging sense of deflation can be a great indicator that you are running up against some burnout and could benefit from some attention to your well - being. Giving yourself permission to take a break can be one of the biggest challenges in taking care of yourself, so just remember that your future self will thank you!

If you find yourself thinking in extremes, just remember that feeling disappointed and disillusioned is not something you need to ignore in order to thrive in the nonprofit sector. It’s often an uncomfortable by-product of learning and growing. Facing it directly and seeing what it has to teach you will benefit you in the long run.

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By Caroline Contillo

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