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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Changing Jobs

6 Things You Can Get From a Not-Quite-Dream Job (Besides a Paycheck)

Whether you’re a recent grad, career changer, or in transition due to downsizing, at some point in your life, you’ll probably have to take a job that’s, well, less than ideal. Instead of spending your hours daydreaming about your future corner office, though, it’s essential to make every working moment count. Even seemingly insignificant jobs can be worth much more than the income they generate along the way.

So, if you’re contemplating temping, working in retail, helping out at your dad’s firm, or taking the first paying position you were offered “just to pay the bills,” make sure that your gig does at least one of the following:

1. Helps You Develop a Skill for the Future

Think about what skills you might need to have for your dream job down the line, and look for jobs that let you build that experience. For example, when I decided that I wanted to start a nonprofit and realized that fundraising would be part of my daily routine, I knew I needed to beef up my assertiveness. So, I took a telemarketing job, where I spent my days cold calling doctors, persuading them to participate in focus groups.

I’m introverted by nature, so the experience (along with other seemingly insignificant part-time jobs I held, both before and after this one) helped me conquer my fear of the phone, learn to confidently interact with all sorts of people (including total strangers), and altogether come out of my shell. And in the end, these were vital skills for my future in nonprofits, sales, and public speaking. It certainly wasn’t my dream job, but I specifically chose it with the big picture in mind—and it ended up paying dividends far beyond the paycheck.

2. Provides Direction for Your Career

It’s pretty easy to build up a career in your mind—or be attracted to certain alluring industries like travel or entertainment—only to find that once you’re working in that field, the day-to-day reality isn’t as glamorous or exciting as it once seemed.

So, let your somewhat undesirable job fine-tune your career compass and reveal the types of gigs you do or don’t want. Think you want to own a coffee shop or restaurant? Forego an office job and spend a year or two serving customers to make sure you’re headed in the right direction. If you let your job show you what you really want in a career, you can make adjustments to change course, or continue full speed ahead, knowing you’re on the right path and gaining valuable experience in the process.

3. Leads You to Your Ultimate Destination

Despite the measly (or nonexistent) paycheck, internships are a worthwhile investment of your time because they often lead to further opportunities and valuable contacts. And sometimes, it’s helpful to think of a just-to-pay-the-bills job in the same way.

I have a client who was very happy and successful doing contract work, but eventually got recruited for a position at a startup. She was thinking about going to grad school, but decided to accept the position instead—just for the time being. I told her to treat like a fellowship, and simply learn as much as she could.

Because she entered the job with an open mind and hunger for knowledge, she took more risks and developed new skills and talents. She was promoted twice in only nine months, which allowed her to be involved in both everyday product development and management. And in the end, she gained the valuable business experience she was after in the first place—not to mention saved on tuition!

4. Gives Your Body or Brain a Rest

Life is all about balance, so try taking a job that’s the total opposite of your dream job in order to exercise a different part of your mind or body. For example, if you’re a dancer or artist, an office job will allow you to rest by using the other half of your brain, so you can eventually return to your craft refreshed and inspired.

When I was just starting to develop my nonprofit, I spent most of every day alone in my apartment. I wanted a side job that provided human interaction and didn’t require intense focus or responsibility, so I got a gig making smoothies at an upscale health club. I’ll never forget washing out the blender on my first day, thinking about how relaxing it was to do simple, manual labor and what a much-needed break it was from the stress of my nonprofit venture. I enjoyed it so much that I stayed for more than a year—and sobbed like a baby when I eventually moved on.

5. Polishes Your People Skills

No (wo)man is an island, so no matter where you end up working, you’ll have to deal with people—co-workers, bosses, subordinates, clients, and vendors. People are people, so the more interactions you have, the more you will learn about adapting to different personality types, management styles, cultural differences, and interoffice politics. So, be observant and learn to adjust to every situation, and your people skills will be in tip-top shape by the time your reach your dream career.

It’s also worth mentioning that every person you meet is a potential door to a new opportunity—personally or professionally. Build good bridges even in that just-for-now job, because you never know how they’ll weave into the larger picture of your life.

6. Lets You Make Your Own Way

With the fast-paced technological wonders of the modern world, it’s easy to forget that there’s a time and place for everything. But lucky for you, we’re living in an extraordinary time, with new job titles and industries being created every day. Can’t find your dream job? You can invent it!

In early 2008, I had a volunteer staff member who took on the responsibility to build our blog and Internet presence, before most companies had fully realized the impact of social media. Less than four years later, she had a paying gig doing the same work for major corporations and magazines—a position she had never imagined, because it simply didn’t exist. Take this lesson with you: If you can find a job that will allow you to take on—or even create—some new responsibilities, it could lead you places you’ve never dreamed.

Taking the “necessary” job isn’t always easy, but remember that, no matter how insignificant or irrelevant a job seems now, it might eventually lead you to your dream career in some way. If you make a commitment to be true to yourself and your goals, you’ll be able to look at every opportunity through the right lens—and make the most of it for your future.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.