You Need Help: Sucking Less At Your Job

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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.


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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 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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