Sometimes you have to do something you are not excited about—take a mandatory training class, attend a long meeting on a subject in which you are not interested, and so on. If you focus on the negative, the task will just become more annoying. Below are some ways to get something positive from an activity that you think may not be a productive use of your time.
Change the focus. If you are involved in the planning, maybe you can change the topic, duration, dates, or another aspect of the event slightly to make it more useful and meaningful to you. This is easier if it is early in the planning process. If you are not informed until all the details are set, maybe you can change who is attending—in other words, can you send someone else (who is more interested) in your place?
Learn one new thing. No matter how well you know the topic, and even if you have taught the subject, there is always some new twist or aspect that you have not considered. How does the presenter subdivide the content? Are there categories that you could use in your own presentations? Do they have a different perspective on a part of the topic that resonates well with you—or with the participants?
Learn how other people lead and teach. If you’re sure you can’t learn anything new about the content, can you learn something about the way it is taught? Maybe this instructor has a new way of running interactive exercises or presents topics in a different order that makes more sense to participants. If you pay close attention to how someone else teaches, you may improve how you teach similar topics by integrating their good ideas and avoiding their bad ones. When someone else is teaching, you can focus on how the participants are responding, which can be quite instructive.
Identify trouble spots. Maybe what you learn is not about the content of the meeting but about your fellow attendees. What kinds of questions do they ask, and what topics appear to cause them trouble? What is it about the content that seems to be difficult for them? Is there a way you can explain it differently or use another analogy that might make it more clear to them? Obviously you can’t take over for the instructor, but you may be able to help people individually or share additional resources with the group while being respectful of the leader’s authority.
Network. If everything else fails, you can always build your professional network. You can commiserate with fellow attendees—but don’t share too much until you know how they feel. You don’t want to call the president’s pet project a waste of time. If there are breakout rooms, partner activities, or group projects, try to work with people you want to get to know better. Then make sure to do your best work so they will have a favorable impression. And don’t forget to get their contact information so you can follow up after the event.
Very few things in life are completely good or completely bad. Most things are in between, and with a little thought and planning, you can make something good come out of almost anything.
Get involved in the discussion. The ACS Career Tips column is published the first issue of every month in C&EN. Send your comments and ideas for topics for future columns to email@example.com.