You Need Help: Sucking Less At Your Job

Welcome to You Need Help! Where you’ve got a problem and yo, we solve it. Or we at least try.


Q: What do you when you are genuinely struggling at a job? This is not a “everything is shitty” situation, this is a “it’s a taxing job, and I am a float and the expectations and norms change between roles”. My first couple weeks I really struggled, the person training me was kind of a jerk, and I cried in front of my boss, which he was pretty nice about. It’s been about three months and I think things are going okay (feedback reflects this, more or less, except that there’s a moderate amount of “we wanted you to do this! you’ve never done it before, so you didn’t do it well! do it better next time!”) There’s a few different pieces going on, like a) imposter syndrome b) the thing where some things are genuinely hard and it takes time to get better at them and it’s not because anybody’s being mean, but it kind of grinds down my confidence to keep butting up against something that I am not very good at (but conversely, it’s a good life skill to practice doing things I’m not good at, I know) .

I try to communicate where I’m at and receive criticism really professionally, but sometimes I just feel bad at shit, and I feel really embarrassed. People in general do not perceive me as incompetent or easily shamed, so this is a pretty confusing experience to be having. The rest of my life is similarly big-things-in-development (planning a wedding! getting licensed in my field! etc!) and sometimes I worry that my entire future is one with low ceilings and fluorescent lights, very finite personal time that is jammed with dealing with dirty dishes and the dog needs to go out and fuck, I haven’t done laundry in three weeks, and if that’s going to be my life, at least I want to be good at my job. I’m good at my life/relationship/communicating/doing my laundry every week and a half or whatever, I just wish I were good at job things. Please advise!

A: Hey there, person who knows what’s up. It sounds like you know what’s up! You’re in a new role and that’s always a steep learning curve. You’re receiving constructive feedback because you’re attempting to do certain tasks for the first time or still learning to perfect them, which is perfectly okay! It’s normal and expected. It takes some time to get good at a job and I’m sorry that it can be a struggle in the interim.

It sounds like maybe you’re not used to feeling like you’re bad at shit? If you really are bad at shit! You did mention Imposter Syndrome and so I don’t want to assume that you genuinely are terrible at your job — maybe you’re just grappling with the feeling of thinking you’re not doing so great? It’s hard to tell.

Maybe it’ll be helpful to remember that lots of people get hired for their potential, initially, and not their current abilities and skill level. So even if you are performing terribly right now and it’s not just your brain saying so, your new boss probably saw something in you that makes them think you’re gonna be a goddamn superstar. Eventually. It’s the exact same thing that you see in yourself, which is why you’re so frustrated and embarrassed. You probably know you’ve got what it takes; all you’re missing is the practice.

I understand the feeling of at least wanting to be good at your job. That speaks right to my soul. If you’re going to spend the next few decades chained to a desk/computer/phone/stove/steering wheel etc, whatever the tool of your trade is, it’d be swell to take pride in doing what you do. It’s hard to give you tips on sucking less without knowing what some specific challenges are and so instead, here’s some general advice about staying calm and confident while learning.

Focus on 1-2 things you do really well.
No one ever really knows what they’re doing, not all the time and all the way. For example, I’ve been employed as a professional writer for almost a decade and while my conceptual skills are top notch, I couldn’t tell you what a conjunction or preposition is or how/when to correctly use an em dash or whether it should be ‘affect’ or ‘effect’. My brain refuses to absorb those little technical writerly details or fully grasp the English language, two things that people assume are required for success in my field. Not so! And that’s fairly common thing for professions that don’t demand strict perfectionism, I think, to be solid at one or two aspects and wing the rest.

So what are those one or two things that you really kick ass at? What got you the job interview, and then the job offer? Focus on those things! Even if your career goal is to totally nail every single element of your role eventually, acknowledging that you’re already crushing a few tasks will ideally build your confidence as you work on mastering the whole shebang. I think there’s a lot of value in telling yourself, hey, I might be total rubbish at [this one thing] but at least I’m rad at [this other thing]. Even if [thing] seems like a totally ridiculous talent to hang your professional hat on, like maybe you happen to create the most amazing games for teenagers who work at KFC. But dammit if you’re not one of the best KFC game-makers in the biz. Feel good about that.

No one actually expects you to kick ass straight away.
Not so long ago my company hired a junior designer who dies of shame every time she takes four hours to do a job that other designers could smash out in an hour. She gets totally bummed and so we keep reminding her that no one actually expects her to be any good, at least not yet. She’s new! She’s just a baby grasshopper learning the ropes. Still, we keep (constructively) critiquing her work and pushing her to do better. We’re those assholes saying, “It’s fine! You’re doing great! Get it right next time!”

That’s our job as trainers, to get her to set her standards high and push herself as far as she can go. It seems like your employer is doing the same thing to you? Receiving criticism doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re under-performing and/or disappointing anyone. If the recruiter did their job right, your company would’ve had a realistic idea of your capabilities when deciding to hire you.

Be open about what you need to do better.
Ask your manager for some extra support and/or skills training, even if it makes you feel vulnerable or if you think you’ve received your fair share already. Never be timid when it comes to your skill development. If your trainer was a jerk and that lessened the effectiveness of those sessions, ask for some more. You’d be surprised at what some companies are willing to invest in their people. They’ll respect those who are self-aware and proactive enough to call out for extra help if/when they need it.

That’s not to say that you should point out every single weakness, it won’t be a great look. But it’s a good move to pinpoint a particular struggle and then research some courses or other training methods that could help you come up to scratch. Even if your boss is unwilling or unable to throw training money or education resources your way, at least you’ve demonstrated that you really care about your skill development and reaching your fullest potential. That won’t go unnoticed.

Graciously accept feedback.
You said that you’re already accepting constructive feedback/criticism professionally, which is great and important! I’m really just reiterating this point in case anyone reading has a similar struggle and doesn’t realise its importance. Accepting feedback graciously is a really cool thing that you can do to quietly acknowledge that you’re a) not yet at your best and b) open to the ideas, support and expertise of others. It makes people like you and want to help you to improve. It’s pretty much the #1 rule for being a likeable employee, closely followed by never making yourself a cup of tea without offering to make one for every f*cker in the building.

Good luck with the licence and congrats on your wedding! I think you’ll find that with a little more time, everything’s going to be A-OK.


Send your questions to youneedhelp [at] autostraddle [dot] com or submit a question via the ASK link on autostraddle.tumblr.com. Please keep your questions to around, at most, 100 words. Due to the high volume of questions and feelings, not every question or feeling will be answered or published on Autostraddle. We hope you know that we love you regardless.

Crystal is a 33-year-old Australian living in Chicago. Founding member, does HR stuff, writes now and then.

Crystal has written 329 articles for us.

54 Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this article! I’m also kind of struggling with a job I’m doing right now, and my supervisor is actually speaking to me today about something he thinks I can do better. And I was really afraid of that conversation, but I’m feeling better about it now.

    • You’re gonna be great. Its nice to have manager who cares – even if all you want right now is to left alone (heh – my manager was away last week and it was such a nice break from supportive career input:) )

  2. Yessss, all of this, and so relevant to everything in life (not just work) being able to receive feedback and really take it on board before my defenses kick in is an everyday goal for me. Actually, the only thing worse than feedback, is no feedback… seriously.

    Oh I just had one of those lightbulb moments as regards the whole writers and commenters thing.

  3. This advice is ace, and I think has really good points for everyone, no matter how they feel their job is generally going. And for the person asking the question, fingers crossed the job gets more manageable, congratulations on the wedding, and I hope the professional certification thing goes well for you – I’m working towards that at the moment in my field and it is a long, painful process that I cannot wait to be done with.

  4. “…lots of people get hired for their potential, initially, and not their current abilities and skill level. So even if you are performing terribly right now and it’s not just your brain saying so, your new boss probably saw something in you that makes them think you’re gonna be a goddamn superstar.”

    This was the reminder I needed today – thank you!

  5. This is good advice to have in my back pocket for when I start a new job in the fall – it’s a big bump in responsibility and I’ll be working on a new computer program that has a steep learning curve already, so I’m kind of nervous about it but this helps!

  6. thank you so much for this–I just started a new job and am trying very hard to Make It Work In A Good Way! very very helpful as always.

    also, to the asker, GOOD LUCK! YOU CAN DO IT! and mad congrats on getting married soon!

  7. This advice is solid. I always like to sprinkle some mental health tips onto stuff, because I truly believe that changing how you feel about yourself and the things you do to a more positive light will actually make yourself and those things better. Mindset is so powerful.

    You mentioned that “if that’s going to be my life, I at least want to be good at my job.” I think that this perspective can be harmful, even to your job performance, because it puts negativity and desperation into how you do your life. Mindfulness can help a lot– being really in-the-moment with the things that make you happy about your life. So taking time to sit down and really appreciate how happy your fiancee makes you, or how cute your dog is, or how good dinner was last night, anything that makes you feel joy just sink into it and *feel* that feeling, be mindful of it.

    Meditation, yoga, breathing exercises, mantras, etc. can all contribute to this. You could even try (before you go to sleep, or when you get up in the morning, or over lunch) breathing in and out on a mantra–breathe in on “I will succeed at *insert job/task*” and breathe out on “and I will feel *insert positive emotion (satisfied, fulfilled, accomplished)*.” This practice has gotten me through so many tough times– it gives me the energy to give my all and so I actually end up succeeding. It also refocuses you, or helps you go to sleep, depending on when and how you use it.

    Also, being mindful of negative thoughts and reframing them into something more productive. So if you take too long to do something, and you think “god that took forever, I’m sucking so badly at this” reframe into the positive, so “yeah that took a long time, but I finished it and I’ll be better the next time I do this now that I’ve struggled through it.” This is a much more productive thought process, and after a little while of consciously reframing into the positive, you start to do it automatically. This will make you feel positive and successful, which will give you the drive to actually be successful.

    I could go on forever, but anyone struggling in this way should be super conscious of their mental health. Engage in radical self-care and self-love, be mindful, and keep out unproductive thoughts and feelings. It does wonders for your successes and your happiness.

    • Thank you for posting this! I am having job-struggles of my own, and have a tendency to think “I am SO BAD AT EVERYTHING” and just spiral until I’m crying on my poor girlfriend’s shoulder. It’s such a necessary reminder that I need to reframe challenges as positive.

    • Ooph I really needed to read this today. Thanks! I’m struggling to finish a project that’s long overdue (which has tanked what had been a good professional relationship), and generally hating on myself about it, which (surprise!) is not a great mindset for actually getting any work done. Gonna try out this mantra and see if it helps: I will succeed at writing this report and I will feel relieved and accomplished when I do.

      [Also relevant to sending dating messages and writing cover letters/job applications, the other things currently on my plate!]

    • These are great points about mental health. Mindfulness is one of those things that seems simple in theory but can actually be kind of hard in practice. At least for me. Even simple mantras like “focus on the problem in front of you” have helped me not to spiral info a negative place.

    • Fuck yes all of this. I worked in a very demanding, punishing job for the last few years, and this advice would have been so helpful.

      I wish I’d had the self-awareness back then to see what a bad fit that job was. Everything was SO. HIGH. STAKES. and that threw my perfectionism into overdrive. It was a mess.

      Sometimes workplace bullying masquerades as constructive criticism, too. That is something I unfortunately have experience with. I’m not saying that’s going on here, but having a boss who enjoyed tearing me down constantly while bookending it with nice-sounding words can wreak havoc on a vulnerable mind. Ask me how I know.

  8. Excellent advice! In May I finished an extremely demanding year of training in a field which I have never worked in and which I am now scared shitless of starting to work in.

    It’s my dream to work with this, I think I can be good at it at some point, but it’s really scary that I have to start working while not being perfect at this job (which has really high demands) in order to get better. Because I know that this is the only way I will get better. So thank you for the reminder that it is okay, that I will learn how to do this job at some point, and as long as I don’t completely suck at everything (which I don’t since I got through the training – stay down imposter syndrome!) time and experience will sort this out. I have a looooot of feelings about this topic.

  9. “…lots of people get hired for their potential, initially, and not their current abilities and skill level. So even if you are performing terribly right now and it’s not just your brain saying so, your new boss probably saw something in you that makes them think you’re gonna be a goddamn superstar.”

    I want to second this! I second this so hard! I’m on the opposite side of this dynamic at the moment. My work just hired a young guy, call him B. B has a little experience in the field, does well with customers and has a lot of enthusiasm, but his technical skills are lacking. We knew this when we hired him – what we are looking for from him is basic aptitude for the work and teachability. He *does* make a lot of mistakes, and I spend time double checking and correcting his errors, but the reason he is still working for us is because he takes corrections well, tries to figure things out independently and takes specific steps when I give him specific feedback. He does get kind of anxious that he’s going to be fired over every mistake, and I try to reassure him that we expect him to goof up as he learns, and we hired him for his attitude. If you’re anything like B, you’re doing fine!

    The last guy we hired like this, K, got defensive when corrected, hid his mistakes, didn’t listen to specific instructions and was generally condescending whenever we pointed out ways he could improve. K was not rehired this year. Don’t be K – that’s all most places want from their trainees.

    • Thank you for saying this, it’s so nice to hear directly from the ‘other’ side. Somehow when you describe this dynamic developing with someone else, it is so easy for me to have this perspective but when I am B myself it is much harder to see it!

      • Almost everyone has been B at some point – most good trainers and senior staff remember how it feels and will work with you if you put in the effort. I think of the best things to do is actively seek out areas where you need to improve the most, and then double check that with your senior person. It looks really good and also gives you a chance to see what their prioties for you are. I’ve been in the teacher position a lot, itsthe nature of my work, and that is what impresses me the most.

        Also, some trainers suck so don’t be afraid to ask for more specificity with feedback, it shows you’re listening

  10. This is great! I’m starting training for a new area at work and while excited I’m also terrified…mainly of sucking. It’s reassuring to know that sucking is totally okay! And learning takes time! And one day I’ll get there but I’m gonna suck hard core for a bit and that’s a-ok.

  11. It’s okay to suck sometimes. Keep learning, be honest about it, be open to feedback. I keep reminding myself of this but my last job has made me a little extra anxious about working for someone else again. I sucked at my last job, and was working to be better at it, but my employer kinda expected me to be a mind-reader. She actually told me, “I’m really disappointed in you. It’s unreasonable for me to expect you to be a mind-reader, but that IS what I need you to do.” Actual quotes there. I wrote it down the second that meeting was over. Then she let me go a week later because as it turns out ESP is not a skill I have.

  12. Ok, this is gonna sound really bad, since I’m an MD, but when I started working, I thought I was shit.
    I probably was, too.
    College couldn’t have been further from reality, and even so, I had been out of college and the loop for two years before I actually started practicing anything.
    I was supposed to be in training for four weeks, but my first instructor yelled at me that I wasn’t better than a glorified intern, the nurses hated my very guts (and there I was, thinking I could get along with anyone..) and my second instructor was very sweet and kind, but we were so overrun with patients, that I was mostly on my own.
    So much for training.
    My superior was a psychotic asshole, who didn’t do a lot of supervising but a lot of not being available or disappearing, and my co-workers were just as young and inexperienced as I was.

    Three things happened, that totally helped however:
    1.My second instructor told me, that I needed to study, to look stuff up, or things would never get better. So I did. In the subway at six in the morning, or at nine in the evening, after 5 hours overtime or four hours of sleep. But I did. For ten or twenty minutes at a time. But I did.
    2.My first instructor, while being an utter ass, beat structure into my chaotic self with a nine iron. It wasn’t nice and she was wrong with a lot of things, but she was good at that.And I did need it. Ten years of college and no one had taught me how to run things.She did, in two weeks.
    3. One day, on my way to work, someone from ICU sidled up to me and asked me whether I wasn’t one of the new ones. Then he wrote down the ICU cell phone number, and told to call, whenever, for whatever reason.

    It was horrible hell, but I learned to study, to really study, not to just pass exams. I learned to make a hobby and a habit of it, too!Evening lectures with friends, subscriptions to journals, study dates, case discussions, whatever. It actually gets to be fun, after a while. Whatever your job is, there is surely something you can read up on, to empower yourself. Talk to someone, study together! Practice, whatever it is, that you do.
    I learned, too, that I’m not naturally good at manual things.(Don’t worry,I’m not a surgeon) See one, do one, teach one? Not for me! I still feel embarassed about that, but I know, that I need to get a feel for something,know all the theory about it.Be shown several times. I’ve learned too,that then, I have the potential to be exceptional at those things that have pestered me the most.
    It’s about learning your weaknesses and then finding the right strategy for them.
    In martial arts you always do more repetitions for your non-dominant side, to train it up, by the way.
    I learned that I don’t need to like people to take their advice or even appreciate them, and I learned, that I need about two days for reason and criticism to get through my stubborn skull, so I learned not to talk back and to weigh things carefully.
    I also learned that some people are just full of shit, and you can’t take any and all criticism at face value, so it’s good to kind of distance yourself from the good and the bad and see what it can do for you.Everyone has a very, very distinct way of dealing with criticism, and its never easy, I guess.

    Now,it’s me who gives out the phone numbers to the young ones, and since we have a very high turnover I have seen and even trained quite the number of newbies.
    Out of that I can tell you:
    Everyone sucks at first. Being aware of that suckage, is what turns you into someone who is going to be good at what you do later, even if it makes you feel lost and helpless as shit now.
    I have seen a couple of arrogant assholes in the past few years, and being very sure of yourself in the very beginning, is, I can attest you, not beneficial to your further development.
    If you are unaware of your incapabilities, you can’t work on them. If you have no one to point them out on top of that: Really bad.
    You sleep a lot better, and I mean, A LOT, but you’re not ever going to be brilliant at your job.
    Another thing I’ve noticed: Some people just need more time than others. One of the young ones I thought was really bad and meek is kicking ass now. Another guy just needed that spark lit in him to thrive, and for that he needed to switch departments.
    And the imposter thing: Who doesn’t at one time or another? It’s a quality actually to appear confident and capable, even if you don’t feel that way. See it as a preview, that person you present to others, see it as a preview of the person you’re striving to be.
    Dear adviceseeker, you have one quality and one capability that even not knowing you makes all the difference: And that is the desire to be good at what you do.
    Not everyone has that want, and I hope that it will drive you towards a lot of joy and fulfillment at your workplace, even at the possible cost of your laundryschedule.
    Take care

  13. This is a super wonderful thing to read today, thank you Crystal! I am living the unpaid intern dream this summer and eating a lot of ramen and being pretty okayish at my job. Learning to take constructive criticism is a skill I am developing more every single day because I almost always do it a little wrong at first because I’m a silly itern. It’s been a great learning experience.

  14. it really takes practice to become good at accepting (constructive) criticism without taking it too personally, trying to argue and justify yourself, etc etc.
    the other advice is really useful as well!

  15. Not picking things up as fast as you think you should sucks – but few of us learn as quickly as we like to think we do. This is some excellent advice. We can only do what we can do, and we just have to keep trying to make what we can do be just a little better at a time.

  16. Mentors! If it is at all feasible, find mentors. I’ve been lucky enough to have four incredible ones since I finished my undergrad degree and I absolutely wouldn’t have the job I do now (which is basically my dream position) without them.

    I am barely experienced enough for the role, so I’ve gotten really good at calmly faking like everything is totally under control, and then hyperventilating at my desk while no one is looking. It is invaluable to have an unbiased person you can admit you have no idea what you’re doing to, who can also offer their expertise. Its also reassuring to have someone who isn’t at all obligated to, to tell you that you’re going to be fine and are totally capable of doing whatever you’re panicking about. Helps with the imposter syndrome thing…

    The first time I asked someone I was terrified, but I’ve found that if you buy someone a coffee and explain that you admire their work and feel like you can learn a lot from them, people are really willing to give back to a newbie in their field.

  17. I’m on my third week at a new job where I’m a veterinary intern. I feel so stupid every day. And I graduated from a top school and passed my licensing exam but that doesn’t mean I know how their computer system works or I know what all the different color files mean. I moved back home (which also feels so cliche for my generation). But talking to my dad about my workday every day and having him tell me how proud he is that I’m there makes each day better. There is someone out there in the world who would be in awe of what you accomplish each day whether its in work or in life and I think that’s true for everyone even if you don’t actually meet or speak to that person. We’re all trying.

  18. at my last job, I was in a situation where the person training me was a terrible person. it was so difficult to have the one person assigned to helping me treat me like I was an idiot. I eventually learned that she was very insecure about her own position, and she ended up quitting a few months after I started. so if you are struggling with an awful coworker who is being less than supportive during your training process, it probably means they are not confident in their own abilities and you will outperform them in the end. just hang in there!

  19. Whoaa I relate to this so hard. Today at work I tripped over a trash can in front of 4 of my superiors. And that was one of the least embarrassing things I did during my shift.

  20. I’m really glad you posted this, I feel much better having read it today. Thank you. With jobs being scarce and a less-than-kind boss, I worry about my job security and that affects my quality of work. I will keep the advice of this article in mind as I go through the workday, and see if I can find a better mental balance.

  21. Please let this be true! A couple of people have said this now in the comments and I’m really glad I read this.

    I’m gonna finish school in the near future and I’m about to send of applications for an internship. And I feel so terrible about it, about my skills and my accomplishments so far. I can’t imagine anyone wanting to hire me. Or maybe they’ll take me as a cheap intern, but after this? Will there really be someone who wants to pay me for what I can do?

  22. This is good stuff. I could really use an article about how to get that job even though you aren’t already a rockstar in the field. I have a decent job and I’ve worked hard at it, but I would get fired for being gay so I need to find a new job in order to come out and move toward my ultimate goal of living happily ever after as the person I really am with someone I love. I’m good at parts of my job and not so great at others. There’s not a lot of job security where I’m at and I’m always terrified that someone will find out that I read autostraddle and have an ok Cupid profile that says I want to find a woman and that would be the end of my time there. Jobs are scarce. I own a house. I haven’t done the resume/interview thing in 10 years. So. Much. Pressure.

  23. As everyone has said, great advice!
    To the Asker: Hang in there. I’ve been new at … several jobs now, and a year later the anxieties of the beginning are usually gone.

    But imposter syndrome is harder to kick. That’s an internal struggle I’m still dealing with too.

  24. Thank you so much for writing this! OP, you’re definitely not alone. I feel the same way about my job. And I’ve been doing it for almost two years! One thing that’s helped me is to form one or two work friendships who will make you feel supported and confident.

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