Life Lessons Learned on the 9 to 5

1. “Potential” is just that, potential. Being smart is not enough. In my experience at my last two full-time jobs (two quite different roles, but both in the non-profit sector), nothing has come easily. Even though some (kind and generous) people think I come off as an intelligent and competent person, I don’t get to just show up and exude an intelligent demeanor. Nice people don’t get to just show up and be nice. Pretty people don’t get to just show up and be pretty. Not in leadership roles, or in positions that may lead to leadership roles. Making things happen, professionally, takes work. Hard work. And humility.

2. Speaking of which, a lot of that work involves trial and error. If one strategy isn’t successful, if an attempt at getting something done is a complete fail, if a day is wasted due to constant distractions, if I somehow upset someone, or whatever goes wrong…the next day I just have to try again a different way. And if I’m upset, I have to push that aside and start fresh too.

3. Time management also requires trial and error. I consciously test different strategies for tracking projects and prioritizing tasks, checking email, planning my daily schedule, interacting with colleagues, supervisors, clients…it can be quite fascinating. In my previous job where I worked in a really busy office, I spent a few days writing down everything I did with my time and noting any distractions preventing me from achieving my daily goals. It was so enlightening to realize just how often I was interrupted by clients or colleagues who needed my assistance. At that point, I had to determine whether I needed methods for avoiding these distractions, or if I needed to adjust my daily plans–or even my job responsibilities–depending on what my supervisor felt was most important. One of my responses was to record a long, descriptive voice mail message that answered frequently asked questions, cutting down on a huge amount of time I spent on the phone answering repetitive questions. I also researched and implemented automated online systems to assist with some of my more mindless tasks so I could focus on complex responsibilities that required my full attention. Finally, I got permission to work from home occasionally and would have requested to make that a scheduled, regular (perhaps weekly) occurrence if I’d stayed in that position longer. Wow, I went off on more of a tangent there. Well, like I said, I find it particularly interesting.

4. Relationships matter. Chit chat is not always a waste of time. Sometimes it’s better to look away from the computer and make eye contact with the person standing in your door way. This caught me off guard. I used to try and race through my work, because I thought that’s what I was supposed to do, at the expense of connecting with others. This might work for some jobs, but for many of us, we will actually be more professionally successful if we build good social relationships with the people around us. It’s important to have work buddies. It’s important to give people a few minutes of your time. The professional world is political; it’s not all about earning A’s. Trust, respect, humor, and, yeah, popularity; these things matter too.

5. Professionalism. I don’t always enjoy “being a professional” or engaging with others in “professional” environments; it has the potential to feel fake, competitive, restrictive, etc. I like to think of myself as authentic, free-spirited, that kind of thing. Plus I’m shy. But there are real benefits from learning how to behave professionally. Being professional means having self-control. Speaking respectfully and confidently, maintaining a calm demeanor in difficult situations, knowing how to watch your language, putting others at ease, compromising, admitting mistakes, communicating with clarity, following through on your obligations, balancing responsibilities, and I could go on. In short: sometimes when I’m with people who have never had to function in such an environment, I can tell they lack some of these valuable people skills and life skills. It’s good to have to tone down the drama, the temper, the gossip, sometimes. It’s good to have to learn how to deal with interruptions, or challenging people, or even just how to show up on time (ish), day in, and day out.

Obviously I’m only speaking from my limited experience spending a couple of years in a couple of jobs in a specific sector. I know from friends and family that plenty of other working environments are filled with less-than-professional (inappropriate) behavior. But I’ve been lucky and almost always encountered ethical and hardworking folks, in safe, professional settings. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had or witnessed conflicts, or that people, including myself, behave purely professionally one hundred percent of the time on the job. No way. I’ve made work friends I let my guard down with. I’ve cried, once recently… But we know how to generally stay within the boundaries of professionalism. And that’s a good skill to have.

6. Sometimes the bad leads to the good. This is very specific to my personality but, as a somewhat outwardly mousy person at times, I’ve found then when I get really frustrated on the job, this is often just the impetus I need to be assertive. It takes a lot to make me angry at work, but when I do get angry, that’s when I’m able to put aside my nervousness or shyness and confront issues head on. Not in an aggressive manner, but in a necessarily authoritative one I can’t always tap into in my natural state.

7. Play with perspective in the comparisons game. Sometimes I am really impressed with myself. I try to envision a younger version of myself, or maybe, I don’t know, my mom, observing me as I do my work, and I think, I’ve got the hang of this. I’m doing important things. I speak in vernacular that the rest of the world doesn’t understand. I’m doing okay. No, I’m awesome. 🙂 Other times, and this isn’t hard to do, I compare myself with people around me. In my professional world. People who have years of experience on me. People who pick things up faster than I do. Or schmooze better than I do. Or are clearly smarter than I am. I have a lot to learn from the people around me, and not only am I not necessarily “awesome” compared to them, sometimes I kind of suck. I think it’s good to let yourself play with both perspectives, and it’s good to take them each with a grain of salt (understanding that of course ultimately comparisons are very flawed ways of assessing yourself). Have some fun sometimes and be proud of yourself and tell your friends and family about what you do in a way that sounds smart and impressive. And other times, be painfully aware of just how much room you have for improvement. (Of course, sometimes people who’ve been there years longer than you DON’T do as good a job as you might expect, and that can be a revelation too…)

8. Success makes it all (mostly) worth it. I don’t mean in terms in money. I mean, a good day outweighs a series of bad days. Putting in grueling hours or days or weeks (or longer) on a project or goal, only to see it pay off, is a sweet experience. It’s the stuff that builds character, the stuff you take with you even if you aren’t at the job forever.

9. If you wear high heels one day, wear flats the next. Give your feet a break. More generally, dress up for days that warrant it, go more comfortable on days that allow it. It helps maintain a little freshness and pleasure with either approach.

And these are the kinds of thoughts I have on my drive home.

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