As the new school year begins, seniors in high school and college are dreaming of wrapping up their experience at their current institutions, and even high school juniors are planning their next stage of life. Most people save their advice for the end of the year around graduation, but I’m going to hit you with it now when it might have a chance to do some good. Let me start with a story.
Many years ago, I studied acting. By all accounts I was talented – just how talented I couldn’t say, since nobody is an objective judge of themselves, but for the sake of argument let’s say I was talented enough to go far. That was the problem. I was used to get by on talent, and not used to having to rely on other things like skill, hard work, or even being a decent human being to the rest of the troupe.
Fast forward a few years. By the time I got to college I was surrounded by people who had talent, and most of them were at least as good as I was. I wasn’t just a little fish in a big pond at this point; I was swimming with sharks, and they were hungry. Now it wasn’t “aren’t you amazingly talented”, it was “what do you bring to the table”? Talent was a given, and for the folks who didn’t have it they kept in the running by being twice as skilled or three times as valuable in some other way. I’ll be honest: I didn’t last long.
That dose of humility was bruising, but it was just what I needed. If I had managed to get it much earlier, I might have stayed in acting a lot longer, because I would have taken the time to develop more of what I needed sooner. Fact is once you get out in the world, people will stop handing you things (and yes, believe me, whether you realize it or not people are handing you things right now). Once you are nothing but the next person in line, the question isn’t going to be “how well did you do on the test?” or “do you have a degree?” because the assumption is you passed the test, or you have a degree.
Here are the things you need to be thinking about moving forward: How well do you engage with other people? How much of a team player are you? Can you be a leader and a follower as the situation requires? What sets you apart from everyone else in your field, but in a good way? Why should an employer want you on their team?
What do you bring to the table?
Somehow, despite all my worst efforts, I’ve ended up supervising quite a few people over the past several years, as well as observing more than a few more come through this and other companies I’ve worked at. Between this and my own personal experiences (read: “the horrible mistakes I made and all the advice I never listened to just like you will not listen to me”) I’ve come to realize there are certain common traits that separate the people who will continue to advance and thrive from the people who will simply drift from one meaningless job to the next, only to inevitably end up complaining that the world isn’t fair. In order to empower you and prevent you, dear readers, from becoming one of those benighted souls, I offer these insights I have gleaned from my years on both sides of the managerial fence.
I Know It’s Boring, Just Do It Already. Here’s a little wake up call for you, sunshine: if your job weren’t 90% suck, I wouldn’t have to pay you to do it, you would do it for free. If it were 90% fun, YOU would be paying ME. So please, stop telling me how much the work I’ve given you sucks/is boring/is beneath you/is a waste of your time/skills/degree/god given talent/I honestly don’t give a rat’s ass. The simple fact is, the people who do what I ask them to do, do it well, and don’t complain are the ones I will come to when I need something else done, including the fun projects, and the complainers are the first ones to get cut when the budget axe comes down.
My Job Is Boring, Too. Bet you didn’t see that one coming, did ya? Yeah, cupcake, here’s the reality of the workplace: the reason I gave you all that boring stuff to do is so I could have time and mental capacity to focus on my own load of boring stuff. See, I have more experience, more institutional knowledge, more work relationships, and more understanding of how to get things done. That means that for every boring project you’re working on, I have three, only I don’t get to see them through to completion. Instead, I have to nurse them along just far enough that I can hand them off to someone else that I can only hope will bring them through to completion in a manner I find satisfactory, because if they don’t then I get yelled at for their failure. That’s called responsibility, and it’s what I really get paid for.
Take Responsibility. The people who get promoted are the people who get things done. If you can’t, come to me before the deadline and before you run out of money so we can come up with a solution. This makes you look like a problem solver. Why you didn’t get the project done on time, on budget, after the fact, is of no interest to me.
Do It Right The First Time. I shouldn’t have to say this, but somehow I do. I can’t count the number of people I have had to train in the simple fact that details matter. It’s not just about the task at hand, this goes to my overall perception of you. It’s like this: when I have a new project of critical importance, who do you think I’m going to give it to: the guy who treated his last project with a shrug and a “whatever” attitude, or the one who treated it like his job depended on it? Even if the project at hand is simple data entry, the next one might not be, and how you do on this one will shape my perception of how you will do every other task I give you.
This Isn’t Social Hour. Maybe you heard that “networking” was the way to get ahead. Maybe you never grew out of chatting with your friends in high school. Maybe you’re just naturally gregarious. Whatever it is, if every time I see you I see you talking to someone instead of getting something done, that’s the image I have of you. That’s not to say you can’t be sociable at work, but it is to say that you need to understand why you’re there, and socializing isn’t the number one reason. It’s not even in the top five.
Innovate, Don’t Inundate. Truth is I’m always open to a good idea. I welcome them. The problem is that everyone, and I mean everyone I’ve seen come into a new company throws out a new idea within a week of starting there. I’ve done it myself. I guess the urge to impress your new boss is just too strong, or maybe we all just feel like “Well, they hired me for a reason.” The problem is this is the height of hubris. This presumes you understand the company and position you are in so well within a week that your idea will have merit and strength sufficient to be worthy of consideration and implementation. Now take this hubris and multiply it by the number of ideas you’ve thrown out in the amount of time you’ve been at your current job, and divide it by the number of months you’ve been there. For most people who have been at a job for less than a year, this ratio will be roughly “holy/shit!” Even if there’s a good idea in there somewhere, I’m not going to notice it because I’m too busy ignoring everything you say. Wait for the right idea to come along, put it out there, and let others decide its relative merit.
Be Patient, And Have Realistic Expectations. There’s a great line in Fight Club that I think we can all learn from: “We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars, but we won’t.” I take a different lesson from this than the movie intended, but I do take a lesson away from it, and I hope you will to: you can have the corner office, you can have the six figure salary, you can have the respect of your peers and the adulation of the masses… but you won’t have it today. Tomorrow’s not looking good either. You’re gonna have to work your way up to them, slowly, bit by bit, and even once you get there, if you get there, there’s no guarantees there will be anything more beyond it – or that it’s even what you wanted in the first place. Life’s like that. So think about it, now and along the way. Be sure you know what your options are, and know what you’re giving up, because there are damn few second chances, and nobody gets a third.