It’s been over 10 years now since I received the once-coveted high school diploma, and five since I earned my bachelor’s degree.  In that time, I’ve been employed in more positions than I care to admit.  Among them are homeowner manual editor, youth director, administrative assistant (three times), receptionist (twice), financial analyst for a defense contractor, volleyball coach, and my current calling: barista.

That is a lot of full time jobs in a short amount of time.  No, I’m not yet thirty years old.  And I can only think of two experiences in the lot that were mainly positive, both for me and my employer.  Was I a terrible employee?  No.  Was I your favorite employee?  Probably not.  And I’ll tell you why.

Until recently, I’ve had a tendency to take any position that was offered to me.  And when I say tendency, I mean I did it 100% of the time.  If I was looking for employment (or not) and got an offer, I took the job.  Every time.

This is not to say that I’m a quitter.  To the contrary, I usually found myself in this position because I held on too long.  Good Americans don’t quit.  Overall, this is of course a positive cultural value.  The problem is that many of us don’t leave even if it’s stupid to stay.  A sure way to complicate your life is to continue to work (or begin employment) at a job that is not a good fit.

Why do we stay on when we’re miserable at work?  Because we fail if we quit?  Because it shows some kind of spiritual fortitude?  Because we’re scared?

This is not a recommendation for unemployment.  Pay your bills.  Don’t do it on credit.  This is a recommendation for looking for a better fit at your FIRST sign that your current situation is not a good fit.  Don’t wait until either you or your employer can’t take it any more.

So here, partly in humor, but mostly not, is a list of signs, if you find it helpful, that I wish I had paid attention to early on in my various places of employment.

Signs that staying at your current workplace doesn’t make you a hero:

1.  You were offered the job because they “need somebody now!”, and they made no bones about it.  (High turnover, anyone?)

2.  Your commute is longer than your lunch hour.

3.  You can’t get through a staff meeting without the HR guy making some kind of inappropriate sexual comment.  That’s right, the HR guy.

4.  Your boss is a phenomenal gossip.

5.  When you let your supervisor know that you are all out of work to do, they respond with, “That’s fine.  Just make it look like you’re working.”  Regularly.

6.  You continue to hear from your boss that your personality (i.e. extroversion/ introversion, left brain/right brain) needs to change.

7.  Someone anonymously put a sign over the doorway to your department that says, “Death Row”.

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” An old and dear friend of mine, Beth, gave me this quote from Annie Dillard, and I cannot get it out of my head.  Currently I spend my days as a barista at Espresso Royale on campus at the University of Illinois.  I work with many students and recent grads, people with no intention of doing this for very long.  I remember feeling the same way.  More money and/or greater fulfillment is on the way, I thought. But having a degree did not make me love my job.  I love my job because I have a fantastic manager, hard-working co-workers, and grateful customers.  Most days.  But it has taken me just as long to get here, to being a barista, as it took me to get that Bachelor’s degree.  Painstakingly, job after job, I have found that I am not built to spend this part of my life wearing uncomfortable office shoes, with more face time with my computer screen than with my husband.  (This is, of course, particular to me; many people who would read this and think, “well, thank you, but I am not built to sling shots all day for minimum wage to come home coated with a thin layer of sugar and coffee grinds.”)

My point is not that all people should be baristas.  Some of us make fantastic receptionists and teachers and executives and full-time parents.  But don’t ignore who you are in order have something to say when one of your volleyball player’s parents asks what you “really do”.  (When this happened recently, by the way, I learned that it is surprising and disturbing to some folks that a college grad is now working at a coffee shop.)  But this is exactly the kind of question for which I do not want to spend my life miserably producing a socially viable answer.  I want to spend my days, which, of course, is how I spend my life, building positive and meaningful relationships with the people around me, doing my job to the best of my ability, and, for now, slinging shots and syrupy milk for twenty-somethings and professors.

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