I have always been very concerned with becoming a respectable job candidate, even before I really knew what I wanted to do. I’d thought the goal was to master information that would set me up for a successful career. I took school seriously and got good grades, and I believed that doing well on tests was a good indication that I was doing well, that I would be successful in life.
I am a very self-motivated and occasionally anxious person, which means that at work I'm often in good shape in terms of my to-do list while simultaneously feeling quite worried about getting everything done. As I've gotten further into my career and taken on more responsibility, I've also worked longer hours, and have started to use more of my free time to think about work, to respond to emails in off hours, to delay outside interests, and to sacrifice good habits (like getting more exercise or making time for breakfast). This soothes the consistent feeling that I am somehow not doing enough.
On April 8, President Obama signed an executive order to address unequal pay for women among federal contractors. In his speech on the issue, he promised, "We are going to work to make sure that our daughters have the same chance to pursue their dreams as our sons." It horrifies me that in an era of delivery drones, equal pay is at the forefront of the feminist movement. Sometimes I get a panicky feeling—is this it? Will it ever be better?
Reaching out to complete strangers to ask them for help is something we all have to do from time to time.This essential skill is something few people feel comfortable doing. It can feel both futile and presumptuous. How do you get attention and input from a busy person who doesn’t know you?
In many respects, the skills that we learn in school are not very good preparation for work. Success at work often doesn't involve being obedient, following instructions, or even necessarily completing assignments on time (all the abilities that school achievement is built on). There is one way, though, in which being in school and being in the working world are quite similar: having to collaborate and work closely with different, sometimes non-compatible, personalities.
My friend Mark is the type of person who regularly reads the business section of the newspaper, and I often go to him for financial advice. He has a well-paying job and owns a house. So I was surprised to learn recently that he didn't start out being very knowledgeable or responsible with his money. In fact, Mark started out with credit card debt and car payments, just like many of us. Since then, Mark’s way of thinking about money has shifted as he has learned more and entered new stages of life, or "stages of financial development" if you will.
In Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes an encounter with a woman she works with: the women describes wanting a mentor that is willing to meet with her once a week for an hour to talk about her career. Sandberg responds: "No, that’s a therapist."
"I'm not sure I like California," my mom said the last time she was out here to visit me. "You can't order coffee here without them asking you how your day is going." She's a New Yorker. She insisted that her barista didn't really care how she's doing, and that this polite inquiry was just wasting her time.
Last year, a Gallup poll found that a lowly 30 percent of Americans are actually happy at work, and many complained of "bosses from hell" as a major reason. The truth is that it's difficult to be a good manager. A good manager should, ideally, both direct your work and help you grow in your skills and career. She should be supportive, provide timely feedback, and help when you are stuck. She should be able to do all of this on top of the work that she needs to do herself. It's said that people are promoted to the point of their incompetence, and this is especially true when it comes to management, since dealing with people is a skill that few people actively cultivate. And there are so, so many ways to be a bad manager.
My friend Rebecca and I have an expression for when someone says something at work that immediately makes us react with defensiveness, anger, or frustration. We call it "getting a puffy tail." (Yes, we are cat owners). As in, "When my boss said I’d have to redo the report I just finished, my tail puffed so hard…"
"I think if we make a special effort to cultivate good relationships with people at work, get to know the other people, and bring our basic good human qualities to the workplace, that we can make a tremendous difference," he writes. "Then, whatever kind of work we do, it can be a source of satisfaction."