Lessons from my Job from Hell

The winter of my senior year of high school, I was itching to step outside of the pressures of my college applications and start living as a real adult. You can only get so far in adulthood as a seventeen year old still living in bedroom with princess decals on the walls, but with blind optimism and a healthy amount of naivety, I was ready to enter the workforce. 

After a December of dropping off resumes, I started working at a local ceramics studio as a studio assistant and pottery teacher. On paper, it was my absolute ideal job: flexible hours, close to home, and a chance to work with what I loved more than anything. But what seemed at first to be an opportunity dropped down from heaven revealed itself to be a miserable, grime-filled place with a boss straight from purgatory -- not to exaggerate, or anything. 

The job was miserable: the adult students were overly demanding, the studio a constant mess, and my boss never paid me on time. After five dismal months, I quit, and was more than a little happy to be finished with the place. But looking back, I’m not unhappy I took the job. Though my experience was the definition of “paying your dues”, I left the position with a better understanding of the workforce and a series of lessons on how to navigate it: 

If something seems off, it probably is.     

You go into an interview for a new job and immediately get a weird creepy-crawly feeling. The other employees are rarely around and seem unhappy. Things are unorganized and frazzled. If you’re getting a weird vibe from the workplace right off the bat, there’s probably a good reason. When my future boss responded to a follow-up phone call by me by saying she was so glad I’d called, because she had lost my resume, and then missed two phone appointments, , I probably should have recognized the studio wasn’t going to be a well run place to work. A boss who makes you uncomfortable the first time you meet them isn’t going to pull a 180 and suddenly be your best friend. Meshing with the culture of the workplace and the people is hugely necessary in having a positive experience in a new job, and your gut instinct shouldn’t be dismissed. Trust your intuition!

You can push through things you think you can’t. 

One of the final tasks I was given right before I quit the ceramics studio was cleaning out the storage room. You know when Marie Kondo has people put all of their clothes in a massive, overwhelming pile? That’s how you can picture that storage room, but replace the clothes with moldy clay, rotting tools, half-eaten fast food, and, confusingly, an old toilet seat. I’ll mention now that I actually like organizing and cleaning a lot - that wasn’t the problem. I am, however, horribly afraid of mold and fungus. So this pile was basically my worst nightmare. But believe it or not, I managed to grab my yellow rubber gloves and dive into the pile of black (!) mold fusing old cardboard and glaze bottles together, anchored to the floor by electric pink fungus. Did I cry while doing it? Yes. But did I manage to push through? Absolutely! Challenge yourself with your fears, and prove to yourself that you’re able to achieve things that scare you. The mold might be awful, but the feeling of success is worth it. 

It’s not “pushy” to know your worth. 

No matter how often I hinted at it or slipped in the words “pay-day” into conversation, my boss just couldn’t manage to pay me on time. Week after week, she would forget to send me my check and I would be stuck working hours even without having payment for the last few shifts. Talking about money sucks. It always feels weird, and it’s even more stressful having that conversation with your boss. And maybe you don’t want to be seen as annoying or pushy for asking about it. But the longer the problem goes on, the harder it is to bring it up. Right from the beginning, make sure your employer knows that your time is valuable and your work needs to be respected. If you’re not getting paid, the unspoken contract between you and your boss is being broken and you’re being taken advantage of. I’m well aware of this now, after still missing two paychecks months after the job ended. Know your worth, and speak up even in difficult situations.

Not pleasing everyone is not the end of the world. 

With how unorganized my workplace was (you should have seen the front desk!) it’s no wonder things got lost in the shuffle. But most often, what was getting ignored or misplaced was customer receipts, gift certificates, or important bills. I can’t tell you how many times I was on the floor when an angry customer came in fuming that they were still waiting on their pieces to be glazed months after their class, or that the gift card they bought for their spouse was no longer valid because the company lost the receipt. Try the best you can to fix the sitaton, being understanding and kind, but know that not everything is in your control. I would go home feeling awful that I upset someone, but they are things you’re just not able to fix. Yes, disappointing others feels bad, but you can’t handle everyone else's problems, particularly when it comes to your employer’s mistakes. Accept what you can’t help with, and try your best to fix the things you can. You’ll know exactly what to do differently when you are a boss yourself someday!  

Know when it’s time to quit. 

As much as I value challenging yourself to deal with new situations and trying to adapt to others around you, there comes a certain time when you just have to stop. Not every workplace is going to be the right fit for you, just as you’re not going to be the right fit for every workplace. If you’re a biologist, you’re probably not going to do too well working as an English teacher. And that’s okay. Accept that some things aren’t meant to work out, and it’s nobody’s fault. And if you are in a workplace that’s at fault for being unsafe or predatory, recognize it’s not your responsibility to fix it. Take the difficult steps to put yourself first and leave the position. Your future self will thank you for it.