Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Advice I Would Give My Past Self (in Work & in Life)

Courtesy of
I find myself in a position I have not been in for a very long time.  Most people would be afraid to say that they currently are unemployed, but for some reason, I do not feel any fear.

In a few days will be the one month anniversary of my last day at the job I'd held for so long, a job that yielded many relationships with students and colleagues, and that helped me to grow and learn a lot about myself personally and professionally.  I was able to develop a women's leadership program, what I call the "dream I never knew I had".  I started working there in my mid-thirties and I am now two years into my forties.  When I started that job, I was a completely different person from who I am today.  Like I said, I learned a lot about myself professionally and personally, and now that I am "free", I can share some of the things I've learned.

Here are some of the things I've learned in the past seven years:

1. Learn your own job first.

I'm sure I'm not the only one, but when I first started my job, I wanted to learn everything that everyone did at my job, not just my own job.  I was so excited about obtaining my "dream" job at the time that I wanted to understand everything about the department and the programs that we were executing.  I joined committees (of course with my supervisor's blessing and consent), I tried to meet and get to know everyone regardless of whether I worked with them or not (which is not a bad thing), and I said yes to almost everything that was thrown my way.  While none of this sounds negative, it did place unrealistic expectations on me, from myself and everyone else, which led to pressure that was difficult to handle at times, as well as some serious people-pleasing behavior.  Additionally, some of the people who worked there when I started were used to getting the attention that I was unknowingly seeking.  In other words, I was trying to be the star when there were already a few divas who didn't like the idea of sharing the spotlight.  That did not help me build positive relationships with my colleagues.

If I could advise my past self, I would tell myself to learn my own job first.  There is nothing wrong with meeting people and taking on responsibilities outside of your job description, but you get evaluated on what is on your performance program in black and white.  There are opportunities to exceed expectations once one has met the necessary expectations of the job.  This may take some people three months, six months, or even a year, but it is so important to be able to say that you have mastered the basic expectations of your job, and then grow to add other things that will improve your performance and reputation.

2. Be an observer.

I tried to do, do, do when I first started my job, and that is the opposite of what I usually advise people to do when beginning a career.  I can look back now and see where I made mistakes and told people the wrong information because I didn't take the time to read and listen to others who had a lot more experience than I did.  I also didn't trust people very much, personally or professionally, and I often found myself in competition with others (mostly unspoken).  Therefore, if someone shared information with me, I didn't often take that person's word for it, which is smart in many ways, but also didn't allow me to develop mentoring relationships in which I was the person being mentored.  And if you aren't mentored, you don't develop the skills necessary to mentor others.  You can learn a lot by shutting your mouth, sitting down, and observing the people and events around you, especially because you need take the time to find the right mentor.  I learned this lesson in the third year of my tenure, which gave me an ample amount of time to stop trying to impress everyone I worked with and to find the right mentors.

3. Ask for what you want, when the time is right.

During the second semester of my first year there, the person in charge of coordinating our summer orientation program for incoming first year students resigned abruptly, and I asked to take on the opportunity.  I had observed the previous year's summer program, and I had an idea of how it worked and what went wrong, so I thought it was a good time to ask.  It took my supervisor a while to give me the opportunity.  I'm not sure why it took so long, but maybe he hadn't come to know me well enough to know if I was capable.  When he finally told me I could be the coordinator, there were a little less than three months left to learn what I needed to do and to develop a staff training program for the staff that was hired (that I had very little say in hiring, since I was not officially coordinating).  I had a new intern working with me, and we had to learn what to do together, rather than me knowing what to do so that I could properly supervise her.  Needless to say, there were a lot of mishaps that occurred that summer, and my leadership skills were in question.

Later, I asked for other opportunities that I was ready for, and didn't get them, which got to be really frustrating and made me question my value to the department.  Additionally, while one person was usually the summer program coordinator, when I got the chance to volunteer again, my supervisor decided that year would be the one in which we would work with a colleague to coordinate the summer program.  I knew that he didn't trust me based on the mistakes of my first attempt; I realized that when he told me I couldn't be as "high-strung" as I was the first time.  (And yes, I know that he was wrong in saying that, but that was the perception I gave.)  So here's what I would have advised my past self: even if you THINK you are ready for a new opportunity, you might not have gained the trust and confidence of your leader, and you may not get it. But don't stop asking, because in asking you are developing your confidence and assertiveness muscles.  Just trust that, if you've applied the first two lessons outlined here, you will be given the opportunity when the time is right.

4. Ego will get you nowhere.

I would say that the previous three lessons taught me this one.  Trying to be a star, competing with colleagues, and trying to take on tasks you aren't ready for are absolute signs of an ego problem.  I definitely have been known to walk around proclaiming my virtues (hello, I have a "What Makes Me Awesome" list!), and while confidence is great and necessary for success, I know that some of the people I worked with may have felt suffocated by my ego whenever it arose to suck all of the air out of the room.  I observed others' egos in how they took credit for or refused to acknowledge others' work, or in how they were proprietary about their ideas or programs (myself included).  Whenever I saw ego rise up in others, I had to remind myself how much I disliked it, and that it wasn't any different when my ego rose up.

Don't get me wrong, it is a good thing to know what you're good at.  You should never sell yourself short. The many humbling experiences I'd had led me to sell myself short on many occasions.  However, depending on ego rather than a good work ethic can only take you so far.  It took me a long time to learn this lesson, but once I realized my ego was in the way of truly enjoying my work, I chucked it and became a real person who could relate to others genuinely and authentically.

It was the abandonment of my ego that helped me know that it was time to leave my job.  Once I got through all of the blunders I'd made, I had many successes.  Ego can make you think that things won't be successful without you.  The last summer program I co-coordinated went phenomenally.  The women's leadership program is having one of the best years since its inception in 2007.  Ego would have kept me right there, thinking that I was the reason for so much success.  But if I had bought into that misconception, I would still be in the same place, living the same life, and not growing into the person I am supposed to be.

5. Let go.

Relationships, both personal and professional, are very important to us. We think that if we move on from people the way that we change jobs or cities, we are being heartless.  But I learned that some relationships aren't meant to last a lifetime.  Personally, I have had to let certain people go because they were holding me back in some way or another.  Either they were using me, manipulating me into believing I didn't deserve better treatment, or they were focused on the negative and continually blamed me for things that had happened in the past.  These are people who place the responsibility for their growth (or lack thereof) on other people. I know that relationships are testing grounds for our personal growth, but I cannot be responsible for others learning the lessons they need to for their growth.  I am only responsible for my own growth.

Professionally, I learned that a place or a position can only teach me so much.  It teaches you what you are open to learning until it is time to move to another place or position.  And, once you move on, let go.  Let go of any frustration or negativity that held you down in that old place.  Move on from relationships that don't uplift you.  Let go of what made you hurt, and move forward, armed with the lessons you've learned, into the new place where you will learn new lessons, and continue to grow.  Let go, and be grateful for who you have become as a result of those relationships, whether positive or negative.

6. Be open.

There is so much that we don't do because we say, "I can't" or "I don't know how".  Every opportunity may not be the opportunity for you, but for those that are, you will only gain from them when you are open to them with a spirit of "I can" and "I will learn".  Take that openness into the next adventure.  And it's all an adventure when you approach everything in life with an open spirit.

Over and over again, we are given the chance to learn what we need to in order to become the person we were born to be.  I am glad that I was able to learn in a place with so many great people and experiences, and so I don't fear what's next, because where I am going can only be greater than where I have come from.