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5 Things You Should Stop Doing Now to Be Happier at Work

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Looking back on the early days of my career, I made a lot of mistakes. And I'm not talking about the "accidentally deleting layers in Photoshop" type of mistakes. I mean mistakes that, looking back, I realize now really could've easily avoided a lot of unnecessary hardship in my career. The perspective you take to look at something can be the difference between being happy at work and dreading the trip to work each morning. As every artist knows, practice makes perfect. The same is true when it comes to your career. Although I got to learn the hard way what not to do, let's look at some of the lessons I've learned in the hopes that it can help you avoid some unnecessary stress in your own career.  

Stop expecting things to be fair.

Everyone knows life isn't fair, right? In practice, this is a little hard to take when the person next to you gets a brand new Wacom tablet while you're stuck with a generic mouse. It's really easy to start wondering why you didn't get a new Wacom tablet also. In Richard Koch's best selling book, The 80/20 Principle, he explains how people often expect life to be balanced. Koch contends that balances are unnatural and it's actually an imbalance that is natural, even though most people consider them to be unfair. Life is naturally unfair, and it's once you're able to embrace those imbalances that you're able to understand how they can be beneficial for you. Early in my career, I expected the studio to provide things with utmost fairness. It was only after time and time again of being disappointed by this that I started to realize that studios aren't in the business of making sure everything is fair for their artists. Of course that mindset sounds a bit silly, but the quicker you learn that being fair has nothing to do with any business, the happier you'll be. It wasn't until years later when I was the one asking questions during interviews that I started to see how devastating this mindset of expecting fairness, or a sense of entitlement, can be to a team. As much as I may have wanted to offer all of my artists the same things, realistically there are way too many external restrictions such as deadlines and budgets that make this impossible. Once you stop expecting things to be fair, the sooner you'll be able to start working hard to earn those things you used to expect as handouts.  

Stop griping about work.

"A case of the Mondays" is arguably one of the better comedic lines in a movie, and as with most comedies there's always a lining of truth to it. We've all had jobs we didn't like and I'll be the first to admit that I've been guilty of complaining about the work plenty of times throughout my career. There's a lot of peer pressure that can come in the form of ragging on work, especially if you're the new one trying to fit in with everyone else. Ironically, if you're ragging on work in an attempt to fit in, in many cases the exact opposite is happening. Bad attitudes are extremely contagious and, quite honestly, devastating to creativity. Sure, most workplaces can always improve in one way or another but when you're complaining about it all the time you're not helping anything. In fact, you're really only hurting yourself. Anyone who's worked in a truly creative environment knows that artists feed off of each other's creativity. If you're the one being negative all the time, you'll get weeded out pretty quickly. Let's face it, as creatives we get to play on the computer all day making pretty pictures. There's a lot worse things we could be doing.  

Stop getting caught up in office politics.

In my career, I've had the opportunity to work for a wide range of studios and companies. Although it's much more in-your-face when you're working for a government, which I've also had the chance to work for, one thing I've learned is every office has some sort of politics. While they often have a negative connotation, not all office politics are actually negative. Like politics outside the office, in-office politics also have a part to play. It takes a huge amount of ongoing effort, usually from a company's leadership, to make sure a company's politics don't have a negative effect on the company's cultural health. Unfortunately, most leaders dedicate the time required to make sure their company's politics are having a positive effect. In most cases, just like politicians, office politics are championed by people who are only out for their own careers and care nothing for the entire team. Very often, a symptom of negative office politics are people griping about work or putting down other people on the team. It's human nature to put other people down when you're trying to make yourself look better. As a general rule of thumb, unless your role is directly related to the cultural health of your studio or company, getting involved in office politics isn't worth the time and effort. Don't stoop to their level of badmouthing others just to make someone else, or yourself, look better. Ironically, if you focus your energy on finding ways you can help your whole team succeed, you will become a much more valuable asset to your company, helping your career. Everyone around you will grow as well and everybody wins.  

Stop believing everything is a priority.

Stephen Covey's popular book, First Things First, offers some great insights into why you should be focusing on the important rather than the urgent. Unfortunately, most people flip-flop that focus and instead spend their time working on the urgent. That's something I really wish I had learned sooner rather than later. Unfortunately when I started out in my career, I didn't really see much benefit in "self-help" books. In truth, though, once you get past all of the creative stuff you need to know to have a successful career, perhaps no challenge is bigger than organizing all of your creative projects. We all need help with that. As any creative does, at any given time you've probably got multiple projects of some sort or another going on at the same time. Although you may try to disprove this on a daily basis, it's impossible for you to do everything at once. That's why it's important to understand what truly is high priority for your projects and what you need to be focusing your time on. To paraphrase the great Syndrome, from Pixar's The Incredibles, "If everything is a priority, nothing is." It can be really easy to be lazy and let your team leader set these priorities for you or, if you are the team leader, to expect to be the one setting the priorities. Any team leader I've known throughout my career that has truly wanted the best for their team has always really appreciated it when their team approaches them with their opinions for any project. This is especially true when it comes to priorities of what work should be tackled first. On a smaller scale, a great example of how you can manage your priorities better is with email. So many people, creatives included, check their email constantly throughout the day. I've mentioned before why checking your email constantly can be a bad thing. Pick your priorities one at a time and let the others wait their turn.  

Stop agreeing to do work you know you can't do.

Just about every artist knows their own boundaries. You know what projects you have going on as well as what you are capable of doing. In fact, I'd venture to guess that most artists know their boundaries because they've exceeded them on multiple occasions. I know this is easier said than done, especially if your team lead comes to you and asks if you can do a project, but when you're confident in your skills you should be confident enough to know nothing bad will happen when you say 'no' to a project. In fact, when you're willing to say 'no' to a project, that makes saying 'yes' mean that much more. Then everyone around you will know it will get done. Recently, one of my colleagues had the opportunity to chat with Bryan Godwin about his VFX studio, shade VFX. One of the things Godwin said is very appropriate here:
"We do turn jobs away. We don't like to, but if it's not a responsible choice or we think we're going to get in over our heads because of what's in the pipeline, we do say no sometimes. I think that's important. Most of our clients understand. They're not like 'Well, he said no, so we're not coming back!' Instead, they respect the fact that we're being honest. They would rather we be honest than take on too much and bail out of the project half way through. So I think we've built a good reputation with that strategy." 
You can read the full article about shade VFX here. Of course I'm not suggesting you should say 'no' to every project. While allowing yourself to stretch your capabilities is a great way to continue to grow, there's a big difference between taking on a new project to learn something new and taking on a new project you have no business taking on right now. The key phrase being right now. For example, if you're a character artist with no prior knowledge of NUKE it's just silly to assume you'd be jumping into compositing a major VFX shot tomorrow. Anyone can do anything they set their mind to, especially with the powerful creative tools we all have at our disposal.  Over the years I've had the opportunity to work with many talented artists. I've seen many move on to become very successful. However, I've also seen many artists fail for reasons that have nothing to do with their actual skill level. I'm a firm believer that it's better to commit to less and be able to actually complete the work than it is to commit to more and not be able to complete your commitments.

Conclusion

Throughout my career, I've worked alongside way too many people who hate going to work each morning and work for the weekends. As cliché as it sounds, the phrase "Life's too short to hate what you do" is very true. Not only that, but if you're always sporting a negative outlook at work for 40+ hours a week, it's only natural that your negativity will carry over into other areas of your life. No one likes hanging around people who are negative all the time. On the other hand, if you approach work with a positive attitude, you'll tend to become a more optimistic person and your co-workers are more likely to enjoy working with you. That only helps your career by translating into everything from a better work environment to more potential referrals down the road. When you're working in the creative world, you're bound to be familiar with critiques or feedback on your work. When you get feedback, there's two ways you can take it. You can ignore the feedback, and more than likely have a much shorter career, or you can learn from the feedback and tweak it to be even better. If you start to apply the same sort of process to your career, you'll have a much better experience. Don't be afraid to ask your co-workers for feedback on you. One question I like to ask my colleagues is, "What should I stop doing?" Then really listen to what they have to say and figure out a way you can tweak what you're doing to be an even better worker, friend and colleague to the people around you. What are the things you should stop doing to be happier at work and have a more productive career? I'd love to hear some of your experiences and some things you've stopped doing that have helped you be happier at work.