What I Learned From My First Seven Jobs

static-playbillThere’s a meme making its way around the web in which people name their first seven jobs. Such recollections often involve typical teenage ventures like mowing lawns and selling lemonade. Sometimes people even brand them as ‘my first entrepreneurial journey,’ or claim to have gained great insight from the experience. I won’t. Because the fact is, I really did not want to do any of my first seven. I didn’t do them for love. At the time, I was strictly in it for the money.

That doesn’t mean I can’t recast them now, in the light of how I might have (with stress on ‘might’) learned something that’s now indispensable to my business self. Can’t say with any honesty that any of these jobs were truly meaningful, to me or the world, in any way. Certainly none of them were even remotely as soul-fulfilling as what I’m doing now.

First job: Babysitter. I was thirteen, and ‘teen’ was my primary qualification. Well, that, plus my ability to play the gender card. Babysitting, perhaps the only job in which girls were the preferred candidates over boys, was easy to get…especially in the summer. It consisted mainly of sitting on the porch, swatting mosquitos, reading trashy novels, and hoping that all the kids stayed asleep – and I stayed awake – until the parents came home.

Lesson learned: Taking care of other people’s kids is boring. Note to self, do not try to manage interns when you can get someone else to do it.

Second, I was an office girl. That is not a misprint. It was an actual job title. The office girl was the one who was expected to answer the phone and smile. She was not expected to lift packages or get within a mile of any heavy machinery. Ok, so there are tradeoffs in everything. I did learn the fundamentals of bookkeeping, pre-QuickBooks.

Lesson learned: It is important to know who the real boss is. In family companies, it’s the guy whose name is on the papers in the locked file, not the one you report to who you call ‘Mister’ and everyone else calls ‘Sonny.’ Unless, that is, his name really is Sonny.

Third, I was a bookkeeping assistant. Now, to dissuade anyone who’s thinking, “Aha, she really knows how to build a resume,” I want you to know I got this job because the overworked bookkeeper was my aunt. (Side note: the previous job was gotten because a friend of mother’s wanted to take whole the summer off. They really wanted her to come back, so they agreed. I don’t know what she told them about me, but I suspect she added a few years to my real age – fifteen at the time.)

Lesson learned: If you make a bookkeeping mistake, you absolutely, positively, have to correct it. Because in some areas of business, there are no secrets. (I learned some other stuff in that job too, about boys who were planning to be the Sonny in their dad’s business, but that stuff is not for this publication at this time.)

So I had gained real experience in the world of business. I knew how to calculate taxes and manage a payroll, where the most important thing was getting the right amount in each pay envelope. I knew how to write a deposit slip for my bank account, which paid interest. And I knew that I needed to graduate college because no way was I ever going to learn to type.

My fourth job really wasn’t much of a job, in that it had no other requirement than being a college freshman. But it brought in more money than babysitting, so it counts. The job consisted of being an experimental psychology subject. And here I came away with more than just cash. I figured out their trade secret!

Lesson learned: No matter how authoritative someone looks, do not believe them until they have proved themselves to be unassailably trustworthy. (This was quite useful in a time when ‘question authority’ and ‘don’t trust anyone over 30’ were wildly popular slogans of youth culture.)

Fifth job (so soon?):  A couple of college instructors had a side gig finding smart young people to do intensely boring work that required high-level reading ability. The job was called ‘Survey Answer Coder’ and yes, I qualified. In fact, I was probably close to the edge of being overqualified, at least in the reading dimension.

Lesson learned: Just because you can do something doesn’t mean that you should. Because life is short, and bored is a terrible way to live. Even for a four-hour shift.

Next in line – I took on the job of a nanny, making my sixth job the first one I ever accepted, knowing I would hate it. Now if you have been reading attentively, you know that I was not a great match for babysitting. But I was in college, I needed money, and I was still a girl. Who couldn’t type.

Lesson learned: Job title does not matter. How you are expected to interact with other people, including children, matters. A lot.

Mercifully, I finally graduated. My major in psychology qualified me for two jobs. One was ‘research assistant,’ which meant I would have to type at least 35 words a minute. (Apparently most non-typists could do this, as long as they knew the alphabet.) I ended up doing the other one because it paid more and typing was optional.

And so my seventh job was as a social worker in a major city with more than its share of social problems. I don’t think I solved any, although I know that in some people’s minds, I probably added to them. Turned out that social change or benefit really wasn’t even on my employer’s agenda, so I joined the union and helped organize.

Lesson learned: The lesser of two evils is still evil. And nothing is more evil than not being able to make meaningful contributions to something bigger than yourself.

I am, of course, a lot older now. And maybe even a tad wiser. There have been a lot of jobs between number 7 and the one I have now. While those lessons learned in my youth are still valid, I now have a much bigger context in which to put them. That context is teaming: understanding it; doing it; and sharing it.

The lessons are simple. And like many good things, they come in three.

1. People do best what they like best and they like best what they do best. No matter how smart and talented you are, you are still not an exception.

2. If there is not enough excitement in what you do – or if there is too much, in which case you will feel it as stress – you will neither enjoy it nor be able to give it your best.

3. The more your job requires you to interact with others – whether they be managers, fellow employees, customers, or other stakeholders – in ways that don’t feel right, or that you do not value, the less you will feel good about yourself.

Keep these three lessons front and center, and you’ll likely discover the secret of happiness. Because if you’ve never had them all going for you, maybe your real job is being an entrepreneur.

Being SMART may not be so smart after all. 

christian-rosswag-154067Did you make any New Year’s resolutions this year? If so, I’m guessing that some of them are still in the works, such as those involving goals for the entire year. Are they making you frustrated? It’s no secret that, along with performance evaluations, goal setting is one of those things people never quite learn to love. And yet, setting goals is one of those things everyone (particularly authors and bloggers) expects successful business people to do, despite the fact that successful business people often hate doing things other people expect of them.

But tradition is tradition, so on January 1, I sat down, pen in hand, to jot some notes. And all I could think of was the old organizational command to make your plans SMARTSpecific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. Back in the day, these were supposed to be the delimiters of sure-fire goal setting. If your goal couldn’t stand up to those, it just wasn’t making the grade.

But this is now, and now is the age of innovation. And, being a lover (and creator) of innovation, I asked myself whether I should still be following the processes of an earlier era. Here’s what emerged…

Specific stayed, because if a goal isn’t specific, how do you ever figure out where you’re headed?

And I kept Measurable, because although I don’t like rating systems, I do like to have some idea of how far I’ve come, and whether I’m still on track.

Relevant made me think hard. When you have a very broad range of applications, or you’re trying something completely new, then relevance may not be known at all during the planning stage, and can only emerge from the process. (For the fashion-aware, consider the problem of ‘orphan’ accessories. I once had a fabulous, but useless, beaded belt that I kept around for ages. Then one day an ensemble appeared in my closet that just screamed for turquoise beads.) Sometimes a thing will make itself relevant just by chance, which is a good reason for having a looser definition of the word.

Then there was Time-bound: a no-brainer because I was thinking ‘goals for 2016’ rather than the next decade or millennium.

Which brought me back to Attainable. That, too, seemed obvious…until I did a quick check in an online dictionary and learned that Attainable things are within your reach.

‘Within reach’ suggests that you can get what you want without a whole lot of stretch or effort. Now, if you keep a scoreboard that you like to decorate with a lot of wins, put plenty of ‘attainables’ on your to-do list. But if innovation and change are what you seek, then SMART goals need a warning label: DANGER: Attainable goals may be damaging to your organization’s ability to innovate.

Focusing on attainable goals could also be a turn-off to the very people who are most capable of handling risk, making discoveries, and creating innovation! Those are the people who rarely ask if something is possible or not. They just go for the goal – asking bigger questions, covering more ground, trying harder, and stretching further.

In Lewis Carroll’s ‘Alice’ books, there was the White Queen who said, “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast!” No one would accuse her of SMART planning – and yet, believing the impossible to be possible is a sure way to bypass the barrier of achievability. Can you imagine what might happen if your goals didn’t need to be achievable? I can.

  1. You’d have nothing to lose. With no one expecting sure-fire success, you could feel free to take some wild-ass swings. Sure, some will be whiffs, but you might just knock the ball out of the park. (Believe it or not, fear is the biggest cause of failure.)
  1. You can still go for simple solutions. If they don’t work, you’ll be right: your goal wasn’t achievable. But you’d be primed to succeed, so you’d try an alternative path. And another, and another. And should you eventually get there, so much the better! (Being right and winning are not the same – but they’re not mutually exclusive.)
  1. You’d forever leave the ranks of the narrow-minded; the people who put the ‘no’ in innovation, joining instead the ones who bring positive change and brighter futures.

May your ‘impossible’ of 2016 become your successful innovation of 2017!

The Downside of Power

Ok I’ll admit it: I like power. I like to have it, I like to exercise it, I like it a whole lot. And I even like the responsibility that comes with it.

Sometimes it gets me places I didn’t think I’d ever be going.

Take powers of attorney, for instance. I’ve had a few in my life, especially from relatives who trusted my judgment in an emergency. That’s usually when good judgment is needed, so that the emergency can be addressed without a detailed think-through of potential consequences and if-thens and maybe-buts.

But now I have an emergency of my own, and it has a lot of moving parts. I need to construct a whole end-of-life scenario for someone dear who can’t.

As you get down into the details of something as delicate as this, there are tough decisions to be made. Sometimes basic values apply cleanly. Sometimes they don’t. My usual approach to this kind of ambiguity is to look for situations that are somewhat similar and use them to identify an answer.

That’s how I got to thinking about how end of life is very similar to end of job – also known as termination, downsizing, and outplacement. Having made this connection, three guiding principles came into view. They are:

  1. Maintain a ‘least restrictive’ environment.

In the healthcare world (particularly mental health) this means allowing the person the latitude to do what they need or want to do, as long as it doesn’t compromise their own, or other people’s, safety. For the end of lifer with a cognition-limiting diagnosis, it means no tying them down or stopping them from eating as much ice cream as they want.

Comparably, in the employment world, it means that when you’ve decided to fire someone, don’t pile on a terrible evaluation or otherwise spirit-damaging experience on the eve of their impending separation.

  1. Make the transition as painless as possible.

In the healthcare world, I am talking about paying attention and taking action to ease pain, boredom, or distress, in whatever manner that drugs, comfort accommodations, and/or companionship will be effective. Because anything that takes the mind off doom dwelling, at least for a little while, is a blessing.

In the employment world, I’m saying that when people are on the way out, even if no one really likes them, please provide the courtesy of a farewell lunch or cake and/or group card…whatever. It feels lousy enough to have been cut from the team, especially when you enjoyed and appreciated the job. Don’t compound the pain by omitting the niceties.

  1. Avoid false hope, but be sympathetic.

In the health world, this refers to the DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order. Helpful staff people usually want those who have power of attorney over someone’s final days to sign the DNR yesterday. Any reluctance to do so is generally met with an air of suspicion. (Fear of liability is apparently as strong a motivator to action as, say, a tiger loose in the lobby.) Since this was the most difficult principle for me to define, I tried out a lot of scenarios from other fields. Again, comparison to the world of work was the most enlightening.

In employment world, termination is very much like a DNR. There’s an order stating that a person or persons have to go, and usually the person who carries out the order isn’t the one who made the decision in the first place. (Think about that for a moment. The power of attorney holder is not the one making the decision that the person will be let go. That decision takes place at a higher level, so to speak.) Primarily for this reason, it’s important for the bearer of bad news to depersonalize the whole process. Sad to say, many do a great job of the depersonalization part, but of the rest, not so much.

What if, instead, we made it clear that at least one person in the room really wanted the soon-to-be-departed to stay? In the health world, that would involve an effort to connect at the very end, as a sort of social resuscitation. In the employment world, it could be as simple as adding one small word of regret by the terminator.

Will you ‘love people out’ or will you just leave them behind?

You have the power to choose.