Ask Polly: I Hate My Job and Feel Like a Fraud. What Should I Do?

Photo: Darwin Wiggett/Corbis

Dear Polly,

I’m a 30 year-old woman with an amazing life, except I hate my job but can’t seem to care enough to change it.

I’m a lawyer, and it is terrible and I spend hours every day wasting time and then hours panicking. I would be a really good lawyer if I wasn’t so lazy and paralyzed by anxiety about it all the time, but I am. And so things are late, they fester on my desk, and I’m not as good as I should be. I let things slide by me, I’m sloppy, I make dumb typos and forget to respond to emails and I don’t really care that much. I’m not professionally negligent, but there are days when I don’t provide great service to my clients, and I don’t feel good about it, but not bad enough to change. I love going to court and showing off, but that’s the only thing I love, and it doesn’t happen all that often. I like people, and talking and attention, and not sitting at my desk doing boring shit.

The thing is, I make tons of money and get lots of acclaim for what I do. People are fooled every day into thinking I’m working hard, but I’m not. I’m phoning it in. I usually get pretty good results, and I am super-good at faking my way through. I win, for the most part (more than half the time, which is a pretty good average). But I really don’t care all that much. I just can’t get it up for this job, and this job requires a giant, ever-lasting boner — for details, for being correct, for rules and regulations and other people’s shitty problems.

I feel like I can’t quit, though. I have student debt that still astonishes me, despite aggressive payments. I’m used to the money I make, and the social status that goes along with my job. (I mean, nobody LIKES lawyers, but it’s an easy gimme at cocktail parties. “I’m a lawyer.” “Oh! That’s cool.” I guess I like to intimidate people.) I want to marry my beloved boyfriend and have babies, and I make all the money in our relationship, and our plans for the future require the money that I make to work. Besides, I don’t know what else to do.  When I think about what I want to do, it’s all “have a nice vegetable garden and make muffins and ride my bike and throw parties and have babies,” which is great and all but won’t pay off my student debt, much less pay for itself. I fantasize about winning the lottery, a lot.

I’m passionate about things, but not career things. Family things, book things, living-the-good-life things. I like to hike, I like my friends. I like vacations. I like restaurants and barbecuing wild-caught salmon while drinking dry rosé.

I was a gifted kid, and have always been lazy. I’m really smart, I’m really good under pressure, but I really don’t like to put effort into things, at least not reading/writing/desk-job things. I won awards I’m sure I didn’t deserve. I have no follow-through. I got good grades because I’m full of shit, I think. So maybe being a lawyer is the perfect job for me. I often think that if I could just do the high-pressure performative parts of my job, and none of the piddly little shitty things I have to do all the time, then that would be perfect. But that’s not how it works.

Plus, my dreams of having lots of babies and leisure are incompatible with working 10–12 hours a day, but I don’t know how to have enough money to satisfy my bullshit middle-class aspirations without this job.

I’m tired of living every day feeling like I’m full of shit. But I don’t seem to care enough to double down and change it. If I really cared, I would do SOMETHING. Apply for other jobs, grad school, something. Just plain work harder at my job. Instead I come to work and kind of muddle through until I can leave and my real life starts again.

I also feel like the boring-est, most middle-class cliché ever.

Polly, how do I stop being full of shit?

Lawyer in Love

Dear LIL,

Your letter will annoy some people, because there’s a lot of entitlement and carelessness embedded in it. The current cultural atmosphere is pretty allergic to these things. You want babies and dry rosé and the admiration of randoms at cocktail parties? Clearly you’re a capitalist fuck with mediocre desires.

But I don’t think that’s you. In fact, I think your descriptions of yourself are unfair. You’re just smart enough to recognize how all of this will sound to other people. And even this performative self-loathing you have going on is a product of your cultural influences. I’ll bet you racked up all of that student debt at a private college where you were richly rewarded for showing off and intimidating people. I’ll bet you were rewarded for becoming a masterful fake.

I was also a masterful fake, once upon a time. I was a beer-swigging high-fiver who loved the idea of intimidating other people. That’s not a very likable way of moving through the world, all bluster and swagger and outright lies that you almost believe.

But let’s BOTH give ourselves a break, okay? I don’t know what life was like when you were in school, but my school was a verdant paradise and it was also a kind of macho purgatory. I was a fragile, oversensitive girl underneath my beery swagger. You know what my college did to nice, oversensitive girls, back when I went there? It ignored them, or it condescended to them while spilling cheap beer all over their Esprit sweatshirts. So I drank and high-fived and used my ramp-shaped nose to drop quarters straight into pitchers of beer. I cackled and pointed and said, “DRINK MOTHERFUCKER, DRINK DRINK DRINK!”

And look, it’s not like that was never fun. But there are so many places on this Earth where being kind and sensitive is a lot like being a little bunny rabbit who wandered straight into the reptile room at the zoo. What do you do, when you think you might get swallowed alive? You learn to hiss.

Like you, I was a show-off. I liked to perform. I wanted to matter, and I wanted to look good doing it. How can we really fault a person for wanting these things? Entire industries are structured around these desires. Even as I type these words, my iTunes is blasting out Kanye growling, “I AM A GOD / HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN MASSAGE / HURRY UP WITH MY DAMN MÉNAGE.” Kanye’s music is the sound of a bunny rabbit hissing — a sharp, sensitive being who took in every hurtful thing he ever heard or experienced, and transformed it into one artful Fuck You after another. He was once in pain, and now he’s talking to Jesus and stacking his millions. Every oversensitive kid can understand that trajectory.

Humility and earnestness may be having their cultural moment, but let’s not take away our right to preen and strut and show off, especially those of us who’ve taken a lifetime of poisonous messages to heart, those of us who grew up believing that the world didn’t really belong to us. I grew up recognizing that the world belonged to men, and since I would never be a man, I would never get the keys to the kingdom.

I would be the fucking court jester instead. I would be the hot piece of ass. I would be the hissing bunny rabbit.

That may sound hopelessly melodramatic to you. You’re just a lawyer having a career crisis, for fuck’s sake! But listen to me. It’s not JUST that you’re full of shit at the office, or that your desires are full of shit (and hopelessly middle class, which, look, welcome to humanity. It’s not exactly shameful to want to eat and relax and make babies). Your very honest, self-deprecating description of yourself is full of shit.

You write, “I was a gifted kid, and have always been lazy. I’m really smart, I’m really good under pressure, but I really don’t like to put effort into things.” This is your parents talking. Your parents projected their desires onto you. They expected you to get good grades and get into a good college and then go to a good law school, because they were worried about you. You were smart, but you weren’t necessarily buying into their vision of the world. You were a fucking bunny rabbit, and every time you took a second to nibble on a tiny little carrot, your parents said, “SERIOUSLY DO YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN IF YOU FUCK ABOUT WITH CARROTS FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE?” and they said, “YOU KNOW WHO’S ALSO INTO CARROTS? THE HALF-WITTED WANKER WHO MANS THE DEEP FAT FRYER DOWN THE STREET.”

So the first thing I want you to know is this: You aren’t lazy. Your letter, your whole way of being, the electricity you feel when you’re in front of a courtroom or in a room full of cocktail swillers who are impressed by bad-ass lady lawyers? These things do not say LAZY to me. You write that you’re “lazy and paralyzed by anxiety about it all the time.” Hmm. Lazy AND paralyzed by anxiety. These are incompatible things. Lazy, anxious. Two very different energies in play there.

You aren’t lazy. You know what you are? You’re obsessed with leisure, because you’re always doing something that someone ELSE wants you to do, and you’re never doing something that you really want to do. You let someone else — your parents, I’m guessing — decide what you should do with your life. And now what’s your escape path? Babies and parties. BABIES AND PARTIES.

Listen to me closely: I love babies. I LOVE THE LITTLE BASTARDS. And parties? I love parties so much that I throw parties over and over until I’m broke and tired of vacuuming and cooking food — because when you’re my age, you have to feed the motherfuckers in addition to filling them with good tequila. But I think you’re fixated on these signifiers of leisure right now because they’re the only two things you can feel. You are in touch with your desire to love a baby and be loved by a baby. You are in touch with your desire to show off, to talk, to be adored. You are a social animal and you want people around you, big people and small people. No problem there.

But what else can you feel? NOTHING. You’re anxious and you hate your work, but you have to keep working and pulling down the tall dollars, why? Because that way you can live in the future instead of the present. You can support your boyfriend and get your babies and pay off your massive school loans. Do you see what’s happening? You’re going from what your parents want to what your boyfriend wants. You’re serving the random jackasses at the party. The random jackasses will continue to be impressed with you, and your beloved boyfriend won’t have to alter his (creative? free and easy?) career path one iota. You are the fucking captain of this ship, intimidating and impressive and special. YOU ARE A GOD.

But you are a very unhappy, very anxious god. Are you really a lazy god? I don’t think so. You want another kind of a life, that’s all, and you believe that makes you bad and lazy. Are you BAD for wanting a life that adds up to something, that means something to you? Imagine that: having a life that means something to you. Because when you say, “I like books and I like wine and I like babies and I like leisure and I realize that makes me boring and middle class and full of shit”? That’s some odd fucking math you’re doing there. Liking books and liking wine and liking leisure don’t make you lazy or boring or middle class or full of shit. These things don’t make you anything but human.

And notice how you didn’t say you LOVE those things. Notice how your boyfriend is the only thing that is “beloved.” Notice how you are connecting the dots for me, from books and babies and leisure to lazy and boring and middle class and full of shit. You don’t just dislike your job. You dislike your whole fucking picture. You don’t like yourself, and you don’t like your choices. Even as you tell me “Books and wine and babies would be enough for me” (which would be absolutely fine and great and not BAD, by the way), you are simultaneously yelling in my face, “EVEN THESE THINGS ARE NOT ENOUGH FOR ME!”

And instead of saying, “What would be enough for me? What would make me feel good inside? What would make me use words like LOVE and PASSIONATE and TRULY HAPPY?”, you’re telling me that you’re just a bad, lazy, full-of-shit person.

Have you noticed how you can’t stand for anyone to think something about you that you haven’t already thought of and volunteered yourself? That’s the grown-up version of a kid who was overly criticized. Do you see how hard you work, just to avoid opening yourself up to criticism? Do you see how you wrap yourself up in a shiny package for the world?

These are the traits of a very smart, very masterful fake. They also make you a great courtroom lawyer. They make you an impressive girlfriend. They make you a wonderful cocktail-party guest. They make you a great daughter. Everyone is impressed by you.

But do these things make YOU happy? If you really want to be happy, you need to stop knowing everything and you need to move into a giant question mark and live there for a while. You need to feel vulnerable. You need to remind yourself of what you DON’T know — about yourself, about the world, about what this future you’re committed to might actually feel like once you’re there. What does it feel like to support your beloved boyfriend by doing a job you fucking hate? And what might it feel like to use your skills — performance, argumentation — at a different position, in a different context, maybe one that makes you feel vital and important for once? You need to embrace the unknown. You need to explore the spaces in between your self-assured statements, your bluster, and your fucking masterful faking, and live in those spaces. Maybe you need to explore being emotional and spaced out and inexact and ineffectual. Does your boyfriend get to live there instead? Is he the fucking princess in this picture? Are you his prince charming?

I know I’m guessing. But look, guessing is part of MY job. And you know what guessing does? It opens up a vast, imaginative space on the page. Even if I lose you — because your parents were actually easygoing hippies who told you to follow your heart, no matter what — my words will apply to someone else. And you know what? Fuck it. Let’s have fun here. I want to give you my empathy, but I also want to honor the unknowns, the possibilities, the poisons, the magic in the air around us. Is that irresponsible of me? Is it irresponsible of you to quit your job when you have a mountain of debt to pay off? Is it irresponsible of you to say to your boyfriend, “We’re both going to contribute half of our cost of living, even if we have to fucking downgrade our apartment and our wild-caught salmon budget, because that’s what an egalitarian partnership looks like to me, and I can’t be an indentured servant to our future when I’m dying inside every goddamn day of my life.”

Every human being alive has a right to say what they can and cannot do. Do you want to keep working, just to serve your shiny picture, without knowing what it all adds up to? Because I want to tell you something. You are a force to be reckoned with. You are laser sharp and you are on fire. That anxiety you feel isn’t about laziness; that’s the white-hot flame of a heart in chains. You were big and bright and raw and sensitive and sweet and you used to admit what you didn’t know, easily, without fear, and you know what happened? The world beat that shit out of you.

Your parents criticized you, and you fought back with your logic, your words, your arguments. You were always one step ahead of them. You frustrated them. You were so smart! So they lashed out at you and they were unfair. Your parents had a vision for you, and you acted rebellious, but you still followed the narrow path they laid out for you. You took care of them, gave them what they wanted, sidestepped their unfair judgments by outperforming, by faking it, by winning the grades that would win their approval, their hard-won fucking adoration and approval. Forgive them for this, but recognize it. And then you went out into the world and you kept winning and winning, and that adoration and approval felt good. IT WAS THE ONLY THING THAT FELT GOOD. And now you’re taking care of fickle fucks at parties and taking care of your boyfriend. Now you rebel by doing a crappy job at work and punishing yourself with a five-year-long anxiety attack, with a life that’s throbbing with pain and longing.

Where will this path lead you? Is there peace at the end of this tunnel, when the debts are paid off but you’ve already upgraded to a fancy place and pricey private schools for the babies? Will you be talking to Jesus and stacking your millions? God knows, I love Kanye. I love babies and parties and ass pants and music and dry rosé — all of it. But is there peace there for you or for me or for Kanye? Is there peace in always knowing everything about everything, and savoring your ability to intimidate, and keeping the world at a safe distance? There might be peace if you’re creating art, or creating something real. But what if you aren’t? Is there peace for the hissing bunny rabbit, for the full-of-shit lawyer, for the hot piece of ass, for the leisurely upper-middle class?

You could stay on your current path and have a comfortable life, with the proper psychotropics and after-dinner drinks and after-after-dinner drinks and expensive shiny things to fill in the empty spaces. None of us are above comfort and shiny things. Don’t fucking believe them if they say they are, unless they’re sitting in a drafty cave somewhere meditating. Don’t believe Lorde; we’re ALL caught up in the same late-capitalist love affair, just to varying degrees.

But don’t let other people dictate your path. Are you a writer, LIL? Are you an artist? Are you a chef? Are you an environmental lawyer? Are you someone who felt the injustices of the world so keenly that you eventually shut them out, because it was cooler not to give a shit?

Do you know what “I am a God / Hurry up with my damn massage” means? It means I NEED MORE. I NEED MORE AND MORE AND MORE. It’s intended as irony. It’s intended as self-abnegation. It’s intended as “I know what you see. I know everything. FUCK YOU.” It’s intended as “I need your love.” It’s intended as “I am small and mortal and I know nothing.”

I don’t know what you want, LIL. I can’t know, because you don’t know what you want, either. I will tell you one thing for sure, though, because every line of your letter adds up to the same message: YOU WANT MORE THAN THIS. You don’t like books and food and leisure and babies enough to make up for wasting 40 hours a week at a job you hate. You don’t like anything enough for that.

You need to look into other career possibilities — within the realm of law or outside of it — and you need to figure out how to REALLY LOVE something. You need to start with the question, start with the space in-between, start with admitting that you don’t know, start with your self-hatred, start with your fear, start with your shame. You are so ashamed of who you truly are, beneath the witty remarks, beneath the polished know-it-all swagger. Start with your soft, chewy center. Stay there. Dare to be uncertain. Dare to make guesses.

FEEL YOUR WAY IN THE DARK. Go read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami. Then go down into the deep, dark well and feel your way in the dark.

I’m sorry that you’ve been hiding for so long. It’s time to wake up and see everything that you are, and everything that you are not. You are beautiful. You are in pain. You are brilliant. You are soft and sad. Imagine what you could do, if you really loved something, if you weren’t just phoning it in. You’re so good even when you’re half-assing it. Imagine, what a supernova you could be, if you actually cared about something and believed in it, if you brought the full force of your intelligence and your passion (it’s in there somewhere) and your hard work and focused it on something that MATTERED to you.

Shut out all of those old, negative voices from your past, and listen to your own voice instead. You are not full of shit. You are full of energy and wit and brilliance and raw potential. And you are on your way to a whole new life.


Got a question for Polly? Email Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday afternoon.

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Ask Polly: I Hate My Job. What Should I Do?