How Your Terrible Day Job Can Help You Become a Better Entrepreneur

May 12, 2014 -

For many side hustlers and wannabe entrepreneurs, “the day job” can seem like the enemy.

Sure, it’s a paycheck, and that can be a helpful safety net while you’re trying to grow your own business. But it’s often little more than that. You slog through it, biding your time until you can focus on your “real” work and resenting the hours you have to spend in cubeland.

But just because the job that pays the bills isn’t your dream career, that doesn’t mean you can’t still learn a ton from it that will help you once you strike out on your own.

Three years after starting my side hustle, and nine months after quitting my day job to pursue it full-time, I’m still finding ways my time in corporate America set me up to be a better business person. It’s actually perversely rewarding, knowing that the job I hated so much helped prepare me to successfully leave it and go off on my on.

So, before you turn your brain off and coast through those hours at the office, keep an eye out for these skills you can learn in a traditional job that translate well to being your own boss: (Click here to tweet this list.)

Professional etiquette

As a paralegal, I got a thorough course in how to navigate the business world professionally and politely by choosing my words (and my tone) wisely.

The tact and patience I learned dealing with angry divorce petitioners comes in handy now when I need to explain to a staff writer why their post needs serious revision. The respectful-yet-firm tone I learned to use in letters to opposing counsel enables me to deal with a client payment issue or contract disagreements in a way that covers my ass without alienating the other party.

Even if you hate serving coffee with a smile or addressing troublesome managers respectfully, the harsh truth is, you will still need to handle yourself with decorum when you’re your own boss. Learning how to play the corporate etiquette game, while it may not be your favorite thing, can teach you some key tricks to grease the wheels, smooth over difficulties and be the bigger person in any situation.

Energy management

If you really pay attention to your body, you’ll notice that throughout the day, you have a number of energy ebbs and flows -- times when you’re naturally more alert and energetic (or sluggish and dull). We all do. (Does the “3:00 slump” ring a bell?)

The secret to boosting your productivity lies not in time management so much as in energy management. And when you set your own hours, knowing your body’s natural rhythms is especially important, because it helps you use those hours to the max.

As you go about your day job, start noticing what times of day you’re at your best. Do you get twice as much work done in the mornings as you do after lunch? Are you useless until your coffee starts to kick in, somewhere around 10 a.m.? Once you recognize when your peak energy levels hit, you can learn to use those times for more challenging and complex tasks and save the mindless stuff (like filing or invoicing) for your down times.

How (and how not) to be a boss

When you’re out on your own, you’ll be in charge of everything, from wooing clients to coming up with marketing strategies. You may even wind up scaling your business to include employees of your own one day. So now’s the time to learn by example how (and how not) to manage a business.

Watch what your boss does well, as well as the things he does horribly, and take notes. How can you imitate that confidence he exudes in meetings, even when you know full well that his schedule’s double-booked and several deliverables are behind schedule? How can you avoid the unnecessary hassle she causes everyone by giving unclear instructions to team members?

Some higher-ups make it to where they are because they’re really good at what they do. Others make it for less-admirable reasons, and being in a top position just exposes what they’re really made of. Whichever boss you’ve got, you can learn a lot from observing them in action.

How to get through a case of the Mondays

Even when you’re doing work you love, it’s still work. And there will be plenty of times when you can think of a million other things you’d rather be doing.

When you work for yourself, this becomes dangerous because technically, you can slack off without getting in any immediate trouble. But the long-term repercussions will be that, just like at any job, the work will have to get done eventually. You can save yourself some late nights and tedious weekends by learning how to park your butt in your desk chair, even when you really, really don’t feel like it.

Chances are you’ve developed plenty of coping mechanisms while working at your day job. Maybe you treat yourself to a fancy cup of coffee when you know you’ve got an awful project ahead of you. Maybe you play the “if I do X, I can have Y” game. Maybe you’ve created a Pandora station solely for those Monday mornings you’d rather stab yourself in the eye than be at work. Whatever methods you use to get through the tough spots in the office can work just as well when you’re facing the choice of tackling a tricky project or watching another season of Mad Men on Netflix.

Entrepreneurs, what other lessons did you learn at traditional jobs that help you now? Kelly Gurnett is Assistant Editor of Brazen Life and runs the blog Cordelia Calls It Quits, where she documents her attempts to rid her life of the things that don’t matter and focus more on the things that do. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook and hire her services as a blogger extraordinaire here.