Don't rot away at work“Hmm…,” you’re probably asking yourself, “What exactly does this guy mean by ‘rot away’”?

To rot away at work is to sit at a desk…and do or learn nothing.





No, I’m not referring to those three days before Thanksgiving when you spring for two-hour lunches, then gaze at all the tinsel displayed in the windows of Bergdorf-Goodman. I’m talking about allowing months—even years—to go by during which the only thing you accomplish is learning exactly how slow a wall clock can incrementally rotate its hands.

Though it’s not vital that you accomplish something earth-shattering every single day, you do want to ensure that your working hours include planned (that’s the first key word) and executed (that’s the second) tasks or activities that expand your horizons on a regular basis. These aspirations might include taking on new projects or responsibilities; re-educating yourself in relevant job-related fields and then exploiting such knowledge gained; or participating in selected industry events.

It’s not necessary that you whip yourself as a masochistic donkey; just try to set realistic goals. In other words, it’s cool to learn lesser things too, like a new capability in a commonly-used software program. As an example, I wanted to learn how to create pivot tables in Microsoft Excel so I ventured out into the program’s online help pages and proceeded to investigate the topic; then I tested things out on my own. What I accomplished didn’t turn any bottom-line 180 degrees around but I gained something that I hadn’t had before. And who knows? Maybe such an increase in my experience and knowledge will bring tangible results in the future!

How does it happen that you rot away at work?

“Rotting” can happen either from within (think “muscular atrophy” resulting from sitting in front of a TV hours on end) or without (think microbes breaking down a turkey sandwich left out on the kitchen table). Here’s how it happens:

  • You actively avoid taking initiative and/or trying new things because you lack confidence, you have a fear of failure, you make the assumption that you needn’t learn new things as long as that paycheck shows up on a regular basis, and/or you’re just plain lazy.
  • There’s no work for you to do; I see this in large companies at the start of a downturn or some major strategy shift. So the work simply dries up. Though it sounds like a dream come true (no work but still getting paid!), the problem is, if you’re not working, you’re also probably not learning…and if you’re not learning, you aren’t fully attending to your professional (or personal) future.
  • Those around you—your colleagues or superiors—lack said confidence, fear said failure, make said assumptions, or are said lazy. Admittedly, this can be a bigger problem to address. It’s bad enough for colleagues who wish to sustain mediocrity but for department heads to hold back individuals by avoiding or phoning in performance reviews, severely limiting allotted time and/or budget for extra training, or squashing new ideas is a more critical challenge (and should be dealt with accordingly).


However, if it’s you that is rotting from within, the first thing you need to do is change your attitude about continuous education. Take on a small but purposeful learning assignment like my pivot table example above. Think of something that, were you to take it on, would make your job easier or more enjoyable. Set aside an hour or two outside of your normal work day, and then dive in. Most importantly, test out what you’re learning. See if it makes you feel more capable, alive, and handsome. If it does, heck, try learning something else. (You could also look outside of your current workplace to find learning opportunities, projects and people to stretch your limits.)

One of my career-counseling clients worked for the same large insurance company for four years. For most of that time, she was assigned very little work. Though she earned a decent salary and didn’t mind the low-pressure environment, she didn’t want to maintain a state of complete vegetation. So she set herself on a self-learning path that would give her a range of new and relevant skills (this person was a technical writer). After a few months of studying a couple of hours per day at her desk (which still left more than enough time to complete her actual job-related tasks), she learned HTML, XML, DITA, Dreamweaver and FrameMaker—programs important in her field. She also became active in her local chapter of the Society for Technical Communication, where she learned new things during hands-on demonstrations and also made several new contacts. Over time, she found ways to use what she was learning to make the work expected of her more interesting, more challenging…and with better results. In time, these tools also helped her to get her work done quicker so she had even more time to learn new things. (Eventually, this client also learned to use LinkedIn and so found herself a new job!)

Keep in mind however to proceed with caution when working as a member of a team. You don’t want to rock the boat or alter the rules of the game to such an extent that it proves difficult for your colleagues to follow—unless they’re clearly receptive to it.

Where can you learn?

Want to come to know how to use a new tool? Master a new process? Tie a Windsor knot? Prepare Eggplant Parmesan? Here are several avenues to explore:

  • Look it up online. YouTube, in particular, has tons of instructional videos.
  • Read a book or listen to a podcast on the topic.
  • Hire a personal instructor/tutor.
  • Take a non-credit class through a university or private training company.
  • Don’t just attend but actively participate in professional association events.
  • Complete a certificate program (typically composed of several non-credit classes), diploma program (typically composed of several credit-bearing classes) or college degree (Associates, Bachelors, Masters, Doctorate, etc.), either part- or full-time.


Remember, as a living, breathing, active human being, you are much more than a slice of turkey left out on the kitchen table.

So don’t let yourself rot like one!