If there is one single piece of advice that is true for all fields, it is:
Be as specific as possible about what exactly you want to do.
I heard this as a young person, and it was not helpful at all, because I had no idea what I wanted to do! It turns out, over 25 years later, that the reason for that is that my ideal job did not yet exist.
But now it does.
The next most valuable piece of advice is to always learn as much as possible.
Even if you hate your job - even if you feel like you’re working for the worst company, in the worst field, in the worst company culture, with the meanest boss, the most awful coworkers, and the worst commute - learning new things is the only way to get out and do something else.
Another way to look at that is that if you’re going to work at a terrible job that doesn’t pay, make sure it’s in a field that you find interesting.
And if you’re not sure what that is, you’re just sure it’s not where you are now, then learning new things will help you figure it out.
I’ve started to look at my job as a kind of internship where I am continually paid to build skills.
I started a new job in May, and it is not an exaggeration to say that I have been learning new things every single day. I don’t know if I’ll ever be “caught up.” As a person who is motivated by curiosity, this is great news, because it means I’ll never have a chance to be bored.
I hadn’t had a traditional day job in over ten years. I knew all the basic enterprise software; in fact, I’d been a trainer for some of it. In the meantime, I hadn’t had much cause to use this stuff, and it turns out that a lot of features had popped up that were unfamiliar to me.
My first order of business was to reacquaint myself with all the basic Microsoft Office tools. For those of you who haven’t had to use these things on the job, that means Word, Excel, PowerPoint, and Outlook. I also had to bone up on SharePoint.
Next, I had to get used to using videoconferencing tools. We use all of them. We were using Skype, until a few months into my new job, when it was announced that Skype will be discontinued and we will be moving to Teams. I might use Skype, Teams, Zoomgov, and something like GoToMeeting on the same day, and then my boss will FaceTime me.
Then I had to get up to speed on a bunch of corporate tools, including our timecard system. I have payroll-adjacent duties, so I have had to learn to adjust other people’s timecards as well.
Right now I’m learning how to edit videos in Camtasia and upload them to Microsoft Stream.
I’m also learning more advanced Excel skills that I never had to use before. Those include conditional formatting, pivot tables, macros, and a bunch of new formulas.
For 2021, I’m going to learn Tableau. This is the most complicated new tool on my list. What it really means is not the technical aspects of the software, but data visualization in general. An easy way to stand out in a data-driven field is to be even marginally better at presenting the story behind the data. Or: can you make boring things interesting?
When I first joined Toastmasters, everyone said that presentation skills will help you in your career. I didn’t care about that - I was just done with my intense public speaking phobia and I wanted liberation. A few years down the road, with a DTM under my belt, I know it’s true. A lot of brilliant people are terrible presenters. Even a couple of months of coaching could lead to an almost magical transformation, but nobody wants to do it.
These are my broader work goals: To be seen as a go-to person for solving problems; to be regarded as a dynamic presenter; to observe and absorb what it takes to go to the next level in my organization.
Broad goals can either be very useful, or not useful at all, depending on what you choose.
I find broad goals most helpful if I am having a crisis or a low-energy day. I just remind myself of what I’m trying to accomplish by the end of the year, and it helps to put it into context. “Remember, you said you wanted to be a go-to person, and this is probably what that looks like.”
A goal that is too broad or vague, though, won’t get anybody anywhere. This is why it’s helpful to have a list of very specific things to learn, like “Excel filters.”
Some of our goals come down from the top level. We have division goals, and subdivision goals, and department goals, and goals that are assigned to us by our boss. I love this! If I’m going to “check the box” on a goal, I want to make sure it’s the thing that matters most to my superiors.
Rule Number One: Make your boss look good. Even if your boss doesn’t deserve it, even if your boss is an orc, everyone else probably knows that. It’s good for your reputation if you show that you can do a good job getting along with a cave troll.
People are the biggest issue in most jobs. That means it’s not usually a specific individual person who wakes up every day ready to cause friction and deliberately be irritating. Usually it’s some kind of systemic issue that, if discovered, could help everyone get along.
The best way to have people like you at work is to be good at your job. Get stuff done and be responsive.
I have worked with people who didn’t wash their clothes, had plumber’s crack, or fell asleep on the job. In each case, they continued on for years and years, because they were good at what they did. Also in each case, if they fixed that one little problem (doing laundry, wearing a belt, getting a standup desk?), their reputations would have been all the better.
For the brave, ask someone else what your work resolution should be for the New Year. Put an anonymous suggestion box out. Actually that might be the worst idea for the worst reality TV show of all time, but it is an interesting thought exercise. What would you wish other people around you to be doing differently, and what do you think they would ask of you?
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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