I’ve had a few people ask me recently about my experiences and even ask me for advice on what to tell their High School or College aged kids. As weird as that has been for me, as I still kind of consider myself a kid from time to time, I’ve realized that I may actually have some decent insight into these kinds of questions.
While I can’t say that I always take my own advice, here is my advice in a nutshell, you can read my further thoughts below if you’d like to.
1. Do hard things, for the right reasons. (The right reason is not a pay raise, it is experience.)
2. Volunteer. Work in childcare or other areas at your church or in your community, help with tedious paperwork, help coworkers or others with tasks that may seem menial. (Many times they are, but ultimately they have a significant impact on your company’s morale and on your standing within the company.)
3. Don’t despise entry level work. Yes, many times, entry level work in various fields requires 1-3 years of initial experience. It sucks, but that’s the way it is in a world where everyone is going to university. Do the work that no one else wants and make yourself as important to your organization as you can.
4. Make sure you understand the most basic, underlying principle of your work/position and make that your top priority. (I.e. cashier- customer service)
5. Ask questions. When you don’t understand something or don’t know something, ask someone who does. A good boss will appreciate the questions and tell you. Even a bad boss will answer just for the mere fact that it will make you more productive. As a side note to this, do your best not to ask the same question twice. Learn the first time. Take notes, even if you never look at them again. Using more senses than just your hearing to take in information will make it stick better.
6. Learn to resolve conflicts. Work on your EQ, your “emotional quotient” as I’ve heard it called. This was a huge lesson for me, and still is. Learn to apologize, take responsibility, and fix your mistakes. Bottom line, gain some humility.
7. Keep a good work-life balance. Most employers are finally coming around to this idea. There may be times when you have to put in extra hours, but keeping a healthy mind is probably just as important to your organization as completing your work. With that in mind… USE YOUR TIME OFF. So many of us, me included, try to use our downtime to get more work done or catch up on things. While this can be a good use of time, make sure that you take time to unplug your brain when you can.
8. Learn to recognize opportunity. Many times opportunities come as a result of failure (the opportunity to learn from it) or maybe a position that no one wants comes available (the opportunity to broaden your experience base). Most opportunities aren’t going to be draped in a promotion and a pay raise. Look for them.
9. Become a writer. Although my writing skills are not everything I wish they were, it is important to be able to communicate clearly and accurately.
10. Say as many things in person as you can. Email is the easiest way to be passive-aggressive ever. Talk face to face or over the phone as much as possible.
My professional life hasn’t been a long one but it has had some interesting twists and turns. I graduated university Summa Cum Laude with my BA in International Relations. I worked hard, often 30+ hours a week with 18.5 credit hours a semester, to accumulate as little debt as possible, but even with a great scholarship I still left with $10k+ in debt, at least it was well below average.
After graduation, I took a job working in Kabul, Afghanistan. I started off making only a stipend from my work, I won’t even tell you how much, but my room and board were covered as well as my transportation to and from my work post. My position was an assistant to the director of the school where I was working. They never would have hired me, an untried university grad with little to no experience if I hadn’t been willing to work for the small amount of money they offered (there’s point number 1 there). After a few months, I was, thankfully, moved up to a full salary position. Within months from that, I was the point of contact for the entire school in the finance area. While this was responsibility I did not want, circumstances dictated that I should accept the position for now. I worked at it as hard as I could for about 8 weeks, still maintaining my other responsibilities to the director, and also handling the HR needs of the school while on the ground.
Here’s an important point. You have to know your strengths and weaknesses. While I did enjoy somewhat the extra responsibility in the finance area, it was painfully obvious that I was out of my depth. The summer in between my first and second years in Kabul, I was asked to stay on in the finance department with a significant pay raise. Although the raise would have been nice, I knew that 1.) I couldn’t do the job as effectively as it needed to be done and 2.) I would make myself crazy with the effort. While it may seem nuts to have turned down a promotion and a pay raise at the outset, my reasons for doing it were sound.
In my second year, I took on the responsibility of developing badly needed fund raising and networking initiatives. Another thing no one else wanted to do in country. This year was beyond frustrating. I met with some success, but far more failure than I had ever had in my life. I finished off that year frustrated but willing to trudge on should I get the chance. However, a new position opened up, again… another one that really no one wanted to do (at least no one that was around me), and I took it. It came with way more responsibility and management needs and no pay raise. I’ll spare you the details of how I took it over, suffice it to say that I suddenly found myself in charge of 30+ employees, none of which shared my nationality and many of which I couldn’t even communicate with in the same language. The job wasn’t glamorous, but it was important, and I set to it. I immediately had to make decisions that would not only effect myself but the entire campus where I was working, and I got a lot of initial kick back from those I was now supervising.
I spent the better part of the next months trying to fix problems that I saw in how things were being run, mediating employee complaints/problems, and focusing on what would generally be called customer service. My customers were the teachers and administrators I was working with/for. My job, as then my title was Operations Manager. Often times this meant going into work early or staying late, getting called on my “day off” or other things. My main responsibility was to make sure that everyone else had the means to do theirs. (Yes, this may seem contradictory to other pieces of advice, I didn’t say there weren’t overlaps or conflicts.) It was often a frustrating experience. On several occasions, I shot off mean and/or passive aggressive emails or comments to my staff an coworkers… And several times I had to stand up in front of all of them and ask forgiveness. I’m thankful for a boss that made me do this. I didn’t want to, but the humiliation but also acceptance of my apologies from coworkers and staff taught me a ton.
Lastly, my experience in Kabul was abruptly ended by extenuating circumstances beyond my control. I suddenly found myself unemployed, in debt, and living with my parents. Thankfully, I now have a steady, good-paying, full time job in my field. But there were some agonizing days in between. Not that everything is all rosy now. There is a steep learning curve in my new position, there are still financial worries, there are still emotions that need to be explored, embraced, and worked through from leaving Kabul and entering a new phase of life (for me, this new phase includes marriage to the most wonderful, beautiful, intelligent, and understanding woman in the world!).
Anyway, I know that I’ve left out a lot of details about my life and work. My generation has an attention span of somewhere around 11-15 minutes. I’d be happy to explore any more of these things with people who are interested, there is a lot more I could say. But I’ll save that for later posts.
Anyway, I hope that my thoughts here have been helpful to you! I hope your day is excellent!