What I Learned From Taking the Wrong Job

Sometimes a job seems right on paper, but once you actually start, you find that you have made a terrible mistake. Maybe the hiring manager painted an untrue picture, maybe you approached the job wearing rose-colored glasses, or maybe you were so eager to get out of your last position that you leapt without looking.

Whatever the reason, every wrong job can still teach some lessons that benefit you long after you have moved on. That may not be evident as you head to work each miserable day, but keep your head up and consider your mistake a learning opportunity for next time.

Make sure your expectations are right

Jason Hall: In my 20s, I worked as a retail manager, and I took a promotion that involved transferring to another location about 40 miles from my home. The next year-plus turned into one of the hardest periods of my professional life. And it was essentially all because I went in with terribly wrong expectations.

As a retail manager, long hours and working different shifts are commonplace. It wasn't out of the ordinary to still be at the store at 10 p.m., only to have to be back in before 7 a.m. the next day if a truck was scheduled to deliver merchandise.

Unfortunately, I went into the job with the expectation that it would be an easy transition and my personal and social life would not be affected. The reality was very different; between working longer hours, a much longer commute, and a schedule that changed all the time, I was forced to reevaluate my concept of work-life balance and make some personal sacrifices for the sake of my career.

To make a long story short, I sucked it up and worked hard to support my store and team, and I learned the value of hiring great people to take the burden off myself. I eventually earned another promotion to a better opportunity -- and made sure I went into that new job with the right expectations.

In the nearly 20 years since, I've avoided making the mistake of not really knowing what I was getting into, and it's paid off immensely in helping me be a better employee and partner. And that's helped me earn a lot of opportunities for advancement over the years.

Money isn't everything

Maurie Backman: When I first graduated college, I landed a job at a hedge fund that was exciting at first, but it went from interesting to awful in a matter of months. Not only was the environment abusive, but I really wanted a more creative role than the one I was in. But rather than stick it out for, say, a year, and then resign at that point, I wound up working there for almost five years. The reason? I was relatively well paid for someone my age, and I didn't want to give that income up.

I'll be the first person to tell you that sometimes it does pay to follow the money. Like many people my age, I graduated college with a decent pile of debt and a pretty pathetic amount of savings. My goal in working that job was to pay off my loans and pad my bank account before leaving. But once I reached those milestones, I made myself stay on even longer because of the money, even though I was miserable.

In hindsight, it's quite clear that my first job out of college was the wrong one for me, even though I managed to make the best of it. Staying at that job so much longer than necessary wound up being good for my wallet, but bad for my career. But I did learn one key lesson: Never take a job you won't be happy with just for the money -- at least not for the long haul. Frankly, life's too short for that.

Management matters

Daniel B. Kline: Early in my career I worked for a now-defunct newspaper company that had a reputation for not treating people well. In my first job with the company, I had a decent boss who insulated us from corporate, so I never really knew how little the CEO valued people.

That changed when I first interviewed for a promotion. The CEO conducted the interview, and we were talking about management style when he shared a piece of his philosophy with me.

"Sometimes I like to fire someone for no reason just to keep everyone else on their toes," he said.

That was a red flag, but it was one I chose to ignore because I wanted the job. There were many others over the next few months, as I learned that upper management rewarded competency with more work and less help. The CEO -- and by extension, the rest of upper management -- did not see people as assets.

Certainly, that's not how I operate, and it put me in a situation like my first boss. I could be a buffer for the employees, or everyone could be miserable.

I chose to take the burden on myself and spent over a year knowing I had made a mistake. Still, I also learned an important lesson in how to treat people and that when people tell you who and what they are, it's best to listen.

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