I’m not exactly ready for my “lifetime achievement” career highlight reel yet (after all, I’m only [age redacted] years old). However, there’s not much point in making you wait for my retirement party to share some professional truths I’ve learned along the way—things I wish I’d figured out earlier. These pointers might have saved me some stress and aggravation along the way.
Even when things are bad, try to relax a little.
Years ago, a friend and colleague astutely pointed out that even when people were freaking out about deadlines and deliverables and general chaos at our educational publishing company, “no one dies here.” There are plenty of life-and-death industries, but unless you’re an actual surgeon or air traffic controller, consequences are not deadly. Everyone lives to work and fuss another day.
The bottom line: Workplace issues are typically not worth waking up at 3 a.m. with a raging panic attack.
There is always a solution.
If you forgot to do a crucial task, or missed a deadline, or are otherwise stumped…there is a fix available. It may not be a pretty one, and could involve either extra work or a large slice of humble pie with blame ice cream on top—but there is always a way out.
One of the most valuable workplace skills I’ve developed, by far, is the ability to stop, tune out the panic or anger, and plot out different ways to resolve an issue. Creative problem-solving isn’t necessarily something you have in your arsenal already…but you can develop it with time and practice. It can be as simple as jotting down a quick outline of the problem, then brainstorming ideas about what can be done. Not all of these ideas are necessarily winners or feasible, but the process can get the lateral thinking juices flowing even when you feel stuck.
The bottom line: Don’t hide or walk away because something seems insurmountable.
Ask for help.
This is one I struggle with all the time. And this is not a new thing—if you ask my parents, they’d tell you that my middle name should probably have been changed to “I Can Do It Myself” by the time I was six years old. It can be really hard to admit that you can’t handle all things at all times, or that you don’t understand the next steps. This is especially true in the workplace, when you feel the need to be The Indispensable Employee, the superstar.
The bottom line: Asking for help prioritizing, or for extra hands on a project, is not an admission of defeat. It means you know your human limitations well enough to let others in when necessary.
No individual is indispensable in the workplace
This was a really hard one to learn. At one company, I watched as waves of people were let go over a period of two years, with little rhyme or reason. I survived round after round, and it created a false sense of security. I had great employee reviews, and a string of promotions! I was well-liked! I was me, darnit! Then it was my turn to be laid off, and it was devastating. Sometimes circumstances beyond your control (economics, social dynamics, a dartboard in HR) will play out, no matter who you are. You are unique, but roles can always be changed or filled as necessary.
The bottom line: There’s no magic way to guarantee job security forever. All you can do is work hard and make yourself as valuable as possible. If that fails you and you find yourself out the door, be ready to take up new paths and opportunities.
Don’t let impostor syndrome pull you down.
If you’re not familiar with “impostor syndrome,” it’s the feeling that you’re secretly lousy at your job. The name is a new-ish and trendy one, but the feeling probably goes back to the first wheel-making company started by our cave people ancestors. It’s a basic human insecurity that you’re just barely scraping by while everyone around you is dazzlingly competent and talented. Yet if you look carefully at your most recent job (and any previous one you’ve held), you got it and kept it because others saw quality in you. Flukes happen. They don’t happen repeatedly, and they certainly don’t amount to a career. You can be good at your job while still having imperfections and leaving room for improvement.
The bottom line: If you’re worrying that your job performance is a fluke, you’re probably fine. Someone who actually wasn’t good at his job probably wouldn’t care very much.
And last but not least, wear sunscreen. (Okay, so that’s not my advice per se, but it still works.) Seriously, I hope you take this advice in the spirit in which it’s given—by someone who knows all of these things, and still struggles to master them anyway. Overall, I think they make me a stronger and more adaptive employee with much to learn, and I hope you find the same.
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