It’s just about the time for my annual review so I’ve been reflecting on my strengths and weaknesses lately. Most of what’s kept me afloat through my working life (and through our recently challenging economy) haven’t been a high-powered degree, a blazing intellect, or insider connections; it’s been a few simple things. Whether you’re in school and wondering how you’ll make your way in the world or looking for a change, let me extend these small bits of wisdom.
1. Learn a foreign language
I finished university in 2007, my senior paper on the developing perception of self in the Middle Ages, specifically as seen through the treatment of death and violence in the evolving short narrative form.
Do you want fries with that?
Actually, I had several job offers right away that summer that were at a living wage. In fact, I was getting offered pay premiums. Why? I spoke a foreign language. Yes, these were call center jobs in the suburbs and far from glamorous. However, I didn’t have any insecurity about whether or not I could find or keep a job, even when the economy crashed that fall. Not only that, I could afford to only work ONE job for the first time in my adult life.
Since then, I’ve had a much easier time finding employment and advancing my career simply because I speak at least one foreign language. It doesn’t have to be French or Spanish (although if you have to choose between the two, take French. Trust me.), but you should practice it every day and get to know the cultures where the language is used. New worlds will open up to you, both in your personal and your work life. Speaking a second language is invaluable.
2. Be able to apply math to the world around you
Everyone groans in school about how useful math really is and scoffs about “when will we ever use this?” We were only half right when we professed that we’d never use algebra in real life, since your boss or a customer is not likely to hand you a quadratic equation to solve. The word problems, though… those are everywhere. Being able to handle basic applied mathematics makes you the person your coworkers go to for insight. Hate your job and want to move? Learn how to solve word problems.
If you’re in customer service, even retail, there are so many everyday tasks that require intermediate math skills.
- Customers trying to work within a budget is an algebra word problem.
- Trying to figure out how many of something will fit in a certain space is geometry, whether it’s stocking shelves, packing a shipment, or helping a customer choose a product.
- Registers will break, so it’s good to know how to figure out something correctly on a calculator.
- When it comes time to your own performance evaluation you should be able to have a rough idea if your metrics are being calculated accurately – are you handling calls or selling items at the rate your company is claiming?
My job technically has nothing to do with math. My job is to manage the performance of customer service teams, and our company has reporting teams and tools that give us reporting for us to be able to manage performance. However, being able to take one of the bosses’ problem statements and give them analysis of the metrics has made me near-invaluable. While it might sometimes be frustrating to always be running numbers and explaining the methodology to others, it’s a feather in my cap that helps me stand out and stay valuable.
I couldn’t tell you how helpful it would be if more of the people I’ve worked with throughout my career could do more math, or at least learn the applied math I’m describing. It’s the algebra and geometry we learned in high school basically, not any of the fancy statistics and standard deviation. If there were more people to share these projects with, not only would I have been happier but our projects may have even been more successful and provided greater insight. HELP ME HERE, PEOPLE.
3. Travel on your own at least once
I don’t mean disappear in Thailand on your own for three months, although if you want to do that sort of thing go right ahead. Whether it’s a camping trip in the next county or a full-fledged trans-continental or international flight, being able to travel on your own demands the self-reliance, risk assessment and planning skills that are vital in life. How will you cope with unexpected changes in timeline? Will you be able to entertain yourself? What new things will you learn?
Traveling on your own imparts a kind of self-confidence that is difficult to tear down. Going from Point A to Point B will always have unexpected challenges, from a schedule change to a flat tire, a missed bus, or figuring out exchange rates and navigating new cultural phenomena. In these scenarios you’re forced to problem solve, and sometimes you’ll have to decide whether or not to ask for help and then how to do so.
Then if you end up in a job that requires travel you’ll already be at least a little bit prepared. That never hurts.
Whether it’s drinking with strangers in a new city, negotiating with long-hauling taxi drivers, or suddenly finding oneself in the middle of a riot, you learn what you’re capable of and how you handle difficult situations in strange surroundings. While these aren’t always pleasant stories, being able to say you survived it and learned a valuable lesson goes a long way towards knowing you can handle anything. You learn what you didn’t know in a visceral way.
4. Have a hobby that involves teamwork and deadlines
This comes straight from my own list of weaknesses. Often in high school and university I would either go off on my own and finish a project because I didn’t want to “deal with” people who weren’t as sharp with the subject, or else I took charge and did the whole thing on my own because the team didn’t know the material as well. As a result I’ve learned to do and enjoy a lot of things on my own; however, it’s been a bit of a struggle to work in team environments and, yes, deal with helping the team learn the parts that I know better than they do.
As such I’m not good with deadlines, either. When it was just myself I didn’t mind taking a lower grade because things were late, and I didn’t learn enough of the self discipline to complete tasks before they’re due and give others time to collaborate. Teachers would always say that not doing your work doesn’t fly in the real world and – shock – they’re right! Sometimes I still practice my “coast until the night before” tactic but I wish I didn’t. It’s a tough habit to break, and I wish I’d learned to jump in line with deadlines much earlier in life.
There’s more to life than work, and most of these tips will help you find more enjoyment in life. Except maybe the math, unless you’re a nerd like me. We’re capable of more than we know: all it takes is a little bit of risk to grow.