Advice for Entrepreneurs Stuck in “Real Jobs”

For any number of reasons, there comes a time when many entrepreneurial-minded people decide to take on “real jobs.” These folks have great energy, and I have hired a number of them over the years for exactly that reason. They are driven, passionate, and they can be valuable to an organization. At the same time, the corporate world has a way of really burning these talented individuals out. It can be soul draining.

Having seen a number of others wrestling with the same frustration I once did, here is my advice for those feeling disheartened even in a small “big corporate.”

Throw yourself in 100%. If you give any less, you will multiply your own frustration. It will be noticed by your peers, your team, your manager, and anyone else with whom you interact. Opportunity comes to those that are committed, and the last thing you want at this point in your career is for less opportunity to come knocking. You do not want to be perceived as a “short timer.”

Learn everything you can. There are some things you simply cannot learn until you have been through it a few times. This is an opportunity to get just that kind of hard-to-come-by experience. You are likely surrounded by some really smart people, so take advantage of it and learn. Take every training opportunity, and volunteer to take on new projects others will be trying to avoid. It is a great way to stand out. Learn what works and what does not, and absorb as much as you can.

Don’t get hung up on money. You should earn a fair wage, but as long as you have enough to meet your needs, always choose the right role over the higher paying one when starting something new. What you make now is not a limitation on your career earning potential. Yes, you could always find another job that will pay a little more. If you are in it just for the money this early on, you are in for a frustrating career. Those that excel at creating real value for the organization tend to float up as new opportunities become available.

Network like crazy. You will be meeting people in your industry that you may be hard pressed to get on the phone at another point and time. Genuinely get to know them and never burn bridges. You will be surprised how many people you will come across time and again in new roles for many years. Help them out when you can. There will be a time when you will need their help, too.

Create something. A lot of people talk the talk. Do the work. It is incredibly powerful to be able to demonstrate that you can make things happen in an environment where you are not the chief. Someday, when you are discussing your career achievements, it will serve you better to talk about what you have built rather than what you tried to.

Be CEO of your role. Own your role like it was your own business. Take pride in your work. Be a perfectionist. Define processes, inputs, outputs, and interfaces with stakeholders around you. Do not simply wait for assignments or instruction. Be proactive. You will find increased professional fulfillment in ownership of the role, and management will appreciate the initiative.

Do not play politics. There will be times when you will be egged on, but if you take the bait, there will be someone that is better at the game than you are that will shut you down. It will come back to bite you. Put your ego aside, and stick to the facts. Do your homework and know the subject matter better than anyone else. If it gets tense, always stay level and bring it back to objective points. In a few years, prospective employers or business partners will not care whether or not you were able to get your way. They will want to see that you were able to help move the business forward.

Do not feed negativity. Everyone needs to let off steam once in a while, but you will do more harm than good by bringing it to the rest of the team. Negativity festers and gets in the way of productivity like nothing else. When something is broken, fix it. You are probably not the only one to notice the problem. Instead of being beaten by it, take it as a personal challenge to overcome. Bring solutions, because there are no bonus points for complaining. These are tests you will continually face in your career. They never go away. Learn how to use this energy to affect positive change.

Pick your battles. You will have a limited forum for communication with upper management. Use it wisely. Focus your message. The rest is just noise, diluting the overall conversation. Prioritize. Know the difference between what is important now and what will still be important a month from now, and let some things go.

Have a side project or hobby. It does not have to be related to your job, which can cause conflicts of interest with your employer anyway. It can be as simple as maintaining a blog or taking up photography. Make sure it is something you enjoy. Your mind works differently than others, and you need to feed it with more than your day job. Sometimes, this will provide just the nudge your brain needs to clear a mental log jam with which you have been wrestling.

Put in your time. If you have a start-up mentality, most companies of any size probably feel like big companies. When you get fed up, try not to take your ball and go home. The grass is not usually greener on the other side. It is often a different set of frustrations. Try to spend at least 2–3 years at any company. Shorter time spans are red flags on a resume. Never make big decisions on a bad day. Whatever decisions you make about your career should be the same ones you would make on a good day.

I speak from experience wearing similar shoes. I learned several of these lessons in hindsight, because I did not following them all myself the first time around. They all may not be right for you, but take from it what you will.

If you know someone that may struggle with some of the topics in this article, please pass it along.


A version of this was originally posted on my personal blog in January of 2012, but since that site went down, I’m reposting here.