For Better or Worse, Five Years Ago Changed My Life

I just recently completed five years at my current place of employment, and I thought I’d answer a question once posed by a friend. I actually started this thought process some time ago, but I figured this would be a fitting occasion to share my thoughts on the subject.

What have I learned from my job?

Before I answer the question, let me say something. One of the things about my job is that there aren’t clearly-defined projects or overall goals, so I had to think outside the proverbially cliché box to figure out what I’ve learned. Some of the things I’ve learned don’t necessarily pertain to my line of my work, but they apply to what I’ve learned beyond my job and even about myself.

  1. Start at the bottom. Work your way up to the middle.

I don’t currently work at the top, but I’m also not in the same position I started, and you know what? It’s okay to start at the lowest position; you may learn things you wouldn’t otherwise know. At my current place of employment, I had initially applied for one position but did not meet a certain qualification; however, I was offered an alternate position, one that was lower than what I had applied for. I did not know anything about what I was getting myself into or even the value of either position, but from that initial position I have learned things I would not have understood had I gotten what I originally applied for. What I learned in my first position carried over into ones I later moved into, aspects of the business that those who start in higher positions may not fully grasp. I know this because there are people who started about where I am now, but they don’t fully grasp some of the stuff I learned from being in my previous position. My original position also required me to perform a certain function every day that better prepared me for advancement. While it is possible to start at a higher position and learn basic information, I found it has been advantageous to know the basics before moving up to higher level stuff. Not only did I learn things I might not otherwise know, but it gave me a certain perspective and appreciation by knowing what goes on at the lowest possible place within the organization.

  1. Step up or step out

Speaking of starting at the bottom, don’t get stuck only doing what you started doing when you joined a company; if you’ve been with a company for long enough, at some point you should be doing more than the basics. So always be willing to try new things. If someone asks you if you wanna learn something new, go for it; after all, you may end up liking the new things better or even better appreciate what you did before. Some people start at the bottom, but they don’t really move beyond that, and sometimes it’s by choice, even if they are capable of more and there is opportunity, and eventually they stop growing. A friend of mine once gave the analogy of pushing a button for twenty years; you’re not growing if you’re still pushing the same button for that long.

When you feel stuck somewhere but don’t want to change yourself, it becomes easier to complain about a situation that won’t change either. I should add that sometimes you will get stuck in a certain place for a certain, possibly unknown, length of time, but do the best you can with what you have, even if you’d rather be doing something else or be somewhere else. (Admittedly, I don’t always do this myself.) If you’re not satisfied with your working conditions, do something about it, if you can. It’s easy enough for people to complain about anything and everything, but it’s more productive to actually do something useful. If there’s a job opening, whether where you work or elsewhere, go for it. If you live in the US, no one is forcing you to stay at your current place of employment; if you hate it so much, quit. No, it’s not always the best course of action, but sometimes it’s necessary. Yes, it might be hard to find something different or new, but if you do nothing but complain about your circumstances, they won’t improve themselves either.

  1. “I’ve never done that before.”

Part of the previous problem mentioned is too many people will give some variation of this phrase. Whenever used, the phrase amounts to “…and I’m not gonna give it a try either.” (It could be said with a positive spin, but odds are you’re rarely, if at all, likely to hear anyone use it that way.) We didn’t start out knowing how to tie our shoes, but somewhere along the way, people will spout out this line when asked to take on new tasks, tasks that might not even be that challenging. I’ve heard people use it as an excuse, and it keeps them from doing their job better. If you have the attitude of being incapable of even trying new things or doing your job better, you won’t make it far no matter where you go. Not to mention, this is called having a poor attitude and can lead to a poor work ethic. Believe it or not, the quality of work from people who say they don’t like new things can actually show how much they don’t value constantly doing the same thing either. Additionally, when others feel compelled to be obstinately unlearning, it can have a ripple effect. (If they don’t want to learn their job, why should someone else be compelled to pick up the slack?)

God didn’t create us to do mindlessly repetitive tasks; rather, He created us with the capacity to think about so much more than assembly line processing. God made people, and people made robots. God made people the way He did, partly because He values creativity; people made robots because they value someone or something else doing mindless work. (That might be an oversimplification for the robot example, but I hope it conveys the point.)

  1. Don’t focus on mistakes. Or even not making them.

Accept them, learn from them, and move on. As I mentioned, there are people who are so unwilling to try new things, and part of that is because they fear making mistakes. But the truth is we’re all humans, which means we mess up and make mistakes. However, if we get too focused on making mistakes or even not trying to make mistakes, we risk making them worse. I used to worry about not making certain mistakes in my work, but I learned early on doing so made it much easier to make mistakes, even if they were different ones. I’ve also worked with people who are very hesitant to learn and scared of making mistakes, so they don’t want to do one task or another. They try to safeguard themselves from making mistakes by only sticking to what they’ve known for however long. But you know what? They still make mistakes, and in some cases, they make more mistakes or even worse ones because they focused on the wrong thing. That isn’t to say we should callously avoid mistakes or not think about what we’re doing at all, but when we get so caught up in not wanting to mess up, we paralyze ourselves in a way which hinders us from just growing as people (forget as employees for a minute). In a sense, we become our own worst enemies. Aside from hindering ourselves from growing, it also puts pressure on other people to pick up slack for work we won’t do because we’re too afraid of what might happen if we mess up. So yes, try not to make mistakes, but don’t focus on it, or you’ll miss the big picture, whatever that may be.

  1. Know how things work independently and interdependently.

I mentioned how important learning new things is, but there’s more to work than simply learning. If you end up only doing the job function you started with, you may never really understand how things affect each other or how what you do affects someone else. After a certain point, you might not really be growing anymore either. Even in something as basic as an assembly line, each step in the process can be drastically different, but one misstep can ruin the whole process or cause setbacks, so it can be helpful to know what other people do, even if you’ll never do what they do. You don’t have to fully understand how everything works, but it helps to have at least a basic knowledge of what others do and how each person’s actions affect other people.

In my line of work, there are three areas of basic workflow. I won’t go into detail, but suffice it to say that each one is different, yet each one is vital to the whole process. I have experience in all three areas, but I did not fully understand how much they were all intertwined until I had gained experience in the third area. I have learned how each role functions apart from the others and how one area affects another. This allows me to see things that other people may not be aware of. (I’ve caught things I wasn’t even looking for, but I’m also detail-oriented.)

Even though it isn’t related to what I do, think about this. The Bible talks about how Christians are different parts of the body of Christ and each person is necessary. In other words, we are not the same, and we need each other. Why? Partly because we each have different functions. I am not you, and you are not me. You can’t do exactly what I do or I what you do, but if we at least know something about how each of us operates, how each of us is different, it can be a little easier to work together.

  1. Learn from others, adapt as necessary.

At my current job site, I know quite a bit about what goes on, in terms of functionality, and I know how to effectively and efficiently accomplish certain tasks using different techniques. But these techniques are not in any handbook, nor will one technique apply to ever situration; they came from other people and personal experience. Part of me is detail-oriented, so I can understand to an extent how things work. But I did not come to learn all that I know because of my own ability and know-how; in fact, I picked up different tips or tricks from so many other people. Some of what I learned I was told and/or shown directly, while other things I learned simply by watching someone else as they were doing what they did. In most cases, each person whom I learned something from showed me maybe one thing that nobody else showed me, even if it was in the same area; ultimately, I figured out how to bring these different aspects together to do my job to the best of my ability and in ways that no one else explicitly told me it should or even could be done. It is this culmination of learning and experience that I like to impart to those willing to learn; unfortunately, without knowing the how and why, it’s sometimes hard for others to grasp what I’m telling them, no matter how many times I tell them.

  1. Sometimes metrics are meaningless hindrances to job performance.

Where I work daily requires employees to fill out paperwork with numbers, and these numbers tell how much of certain tasks a person has done for certain lengths of time each day. (Ironically we have production sheets, but we don’t actually produce anything.) However, numbers sometimes don’t really tell you what you need to know, if they tell you anything at all. What good are physical measurements if there is no overall goal to measure myself against? If my numbers fluctuate daily based on any number of unpredictable factors, am I getting better or worse at my job? Honestly, if you’re not advancing towards anything specific but are constantly performing the same tasks, it’s kind of hard to tell if you’re getting better or worse at whatever you’re doing. If you have a job which requires you to perform daily repetitive tasks and track what you do but you have no big picture or goal to shoot for, it’s really hard to know how/if you’re improving, especially if there’s a constant ebb and flow to your numbers, and/or some of the numbers are for intangible items (part of what I do is key data).

Not only do numbers not necessarily tell you anything useful, but as I mentioned about not focusing too much on mistakes, it’s also easy to fall into the trap of focusing on needing to meet certain quotas that somehow measure job performance. The reality is that they may in fact hinder you from doing your job or being willing to perform certain tasks that might require more time and yield fewer results. The other thing I learned early on, besides not focusing on mistakes, is that if I have to try to measure how well I’m making numbers while trying to do my job, I can lose focus on doing the job itself. I learned it was easier to do my job, and let the numbers fall where they may. If I got caught up in the “need to make my numbers” mentality, I also tended to be less willing to do something that would take away from working towards some quota, even if temporarily. Besides that, there are some tasks which cannot be effectively measured but still need doing, some which need constant attention. After I stopped focusing on numbers, I eventually became more willing to do what others wouldn’t necessarily do, since what I learned wasn’t measured at the time. Now I’m in a position which many times requires me to change what I’m doing at a moment’s notice, so trying to keep track of every minute change hinders things from getting done. Seriously, if I have to stop to record each instance of a change or precisely what I’m doing as I’m doing it, I would never get anything done, and the numbers I’m supposed to use for measurements would somehow be inaccurate. (“5:10, stopped to answer a coworker’s question. 5:13, went back to making my numbers. 5:14, dealt with a different issue entirely. 5:16, the system blew up. Crap!”)

  1. Be willing to do more than others or what they won’t but know your limitations.

In life, you’re going to find those willing to do the bare minimum far outweighs those willing to go the extra mile to do what needs to be done. (There’s something called the 20/80 principle. Look it up.) However, if you don’t say “no” or stop before replying when asked for more than you’ve given, you may obligate yourself to more than you can handle or something you’d rather not do. Part of why I am where I am and know what I know is because I stopped focusing on mistakes and numbers but was also willing to do what other people didn’t or to learn what others showed me. Now I understand things that others don’t; however, I don’t know everything, nor can I do everything by myself. I still have limitations and need help from others. I also have a life that doesn’t revolve around my job.

Yes, we were created to work, but we were also created as thinking beings, not mindless robots. We have our personalities, tastes, desires, and limitations. If you don’t consider consequences, you might regret a decision to take on more than you really wanted; there’s no shame in rejecting someone else’s offer for extra work. If you’d rather not work on your day off, don’t volunteer for it; in the end, don’t overwork yourself for some job, but do pull your own weight and be willing to make sacrifices. There is no shame in asking for help, as long as you’re not doing it for simple tasks on a regular basis, especially if you’re capable of doing said tasks. Whether or not you receive such help is a different story, but at least be willing to admit you do need help. (I’ve gotten better with this one, but it’s also because I’ve been around people who have been willing to help me.)

  1. People fail. Great people fail greatly.

Though it’s sometimes hard for me to tell or remember, I am in a leadership role. Temptation is common to us all, but there are temptations those in leadership roles face that may not be as felt by those not in leadership positions. A certain amount of stress can be a good thing, as it can motivate us to get things done, but more responsibility brings extra stress, and extra stress adds the temptation to buckle under pressure. When we’re in a situation that we feel over our heads, how easy is it to want to escape, and given the right circumstances, it’s all too easy to make the wrong choice. This is why we should not be so quick to judge those who have risen through the ranks, only to be undone by their unprotected weak points. Had we been in their position with the same pressures, do we know for sure we would’ve acted differently? This is also why putting people on pedestals is unwise; even King David, the man after God’s own heart, had a pitfall from which his family never fully recovered.

  1. I crave things to do but sometimes need directions on how/when to do them.

I tend to be pragmatic but can still be uninformed as to how things work; unfortunately, I don’t always realize I’m not fully informed when I need to realize it. Yes, I am detail-oriented and know how to extrapolate data, so I can figure out how certain things work without too much input, but I am not completely beyond the need for instruction or training. I am still human, and I don’t always have the time or necessary information to figure out what I need to know, especially if there are constant deadlines. I also don’t always realize I should be asking certain questions or know certain information until after the fact, and reading words on paper doesn’t always translate what visual/audible information can. Sometimes there are even contradictions, confusion, or unwritten information. When it comes to doing things a certain way, I have had people tell me to do them one way at or by a given time, then change on me that expectation when I attempted to follow through with what I was originally told. (That kind of thing annoys me.) If things need to be done a certain way, it’s helpful to know this from the outset; telling someone midway can be more frustrating than helpful.

In addition to knowing how to do something, it is also helpful to know when it needs to be done, especially if there are overlapping priorities and deadlines. I like variety in life but don’t want my proverbial plate too full of too many different things at one time. If I don’t know what’s most important at a given time, I feel overwhelmed and get frustrated trying to do anything, especially when there are deadlines to maintain or my attention is demanded in multiple places. There are times when I have had too many people asking me to do too many things at the same time as other problems that need to be addressed, and whatever is going on might even require me to be in more than place. Some things don’t get accomplished, and I tend to forget something in the process.

  1. Mathtasking is a lie.

Multitasking. Doing many things at one time. I kind of alluded to it, but is it really possible? Humans have limitations, and it is mathematically and physically impossible to give 100% attention to more than one thing at a time. People who seem to be able to split their focus will eventually implode on themselves or explode on those around them, if they’re not careful. It’s only a matter of time. Chances are they’re probably already moving at a hectic pace because of multiple demands on their attention. From a work standpoint, those calmest might be the ones who have the fewest types of tasks in front of them. (Of course, they might also be asleep, especially if they work nights.) Some of the positions in which I work don’t actually require attention on more than one thing anyway, but the positions which do may need a person to switch gears at a moment’s notice. This is not technically multitasking, as it’s more switching one thing off in favor of something else; realistically a person can only fully focus on one specific thing at any given time.

Let me add that people like to say women or men are better at multitasking, but how accurate is that? Does it even matter if one type of person is better at doing the impossible than another? (I can jump higher than someone else, but I still can’t fly of my own ability.) Sure mothers can seem to be doing many things at one time with minimal problems or effort, but have you ever noticed how exhausted or even less patient they can become by the end of the day, even if these women normally have a calmness to them? Odds are there is something their attention isn’t catching either anyway. Ultimately, one’s attention is still divided, even if the mind quickly switches focus. And while it might be good if you’re able to do many things at one time, it’s better to do one thing well than a thousand things poorly. Besides, most of the job functions where I work don’t require multi-focusing, so the required focus factor for most people is about the same.

  1. There is an infinite, personal God holding everything together.

Having written all that about many things or people needing attention, I have been in the middle of somewhat chaotic environments, the kind of environments where there seems to be about a million things that need to be done at the same time with not enough resources or people to accomplish any goals or objective effectively, if at all. What I have learned is that it takes many individual persons to keep small things running smoothly or reasonably so. Unfortunately, one of the problems with people is that we grow tired and are limited by whatever energy we possess at any given time; no matter how much energy you have, eventually you will exhaust your supply.

Now I imagine it happens several times over in a world that at times feels like pure chaos with all Hell breaking loose, yet somehow the world doesn’t completely fall apart. It still spins around the sun each day. Each of us can experience a microcosm of all the chaos of the world at any given moment, but if there is no infinite, personal God orchestrating the very existence we hold dear, I cannot fathom why there is not more chaos every moment of every day at every location.

  1. Working at night screws up the perception of time.

I go to my job on one date at 11 PM and leave the next date about 7 AM or later. (I don’t even drink caffeine.) The time I work and what we process is counted for the date I leave. Too many times people will say yesterday, today, or tomorrow without designation of a specific date, and others won’t know which date is being referenced. Add to that, even if the date is referenced, it must sometimes be specified which part of that date, or it can still be confusing. And this is just among people who all work overnight. If I talk to others who work and live during the day, I have to remember they don’t face this same time complication. Because I work through the date change and sleep during the daytime of a given date, my day technically never begins or ends. I have times when I don’t even remember what day or date it is. If I wake up and it’s dark outside, I can be overcome with a sense of having overslept. (I don’t like to be late to places.)

  1. Working nights robs me of energy.

I used to consider myself a night owl, until I started working nights full time. Before my current job, I had worked nights, but it wasn’t until my current job that I had to be awake all night almost every night. I used to stay awake through the night, maybe not going to sleep until daylight of the following morning (or even the afternoon). For many years, I took sleeping at nights for granted. At my current job, I have had times when I probably spent more energy trying to stay awake than actually being productive.

Sleeping or attempting to sleep during the day can be one of the most challenging, frustrating things about what I do. Besides either wasting my day trying to sleep or just being sleep deprived, during the day the sun is up, and it’s warmer outside. Sometimes I can find energy to make it through the night, but I’ve found there’s a kind of energized feeling I can get from being awake during the day that does not necessarily transcend to the night life. Not to mention, working at night is against the natural design; a passage from the Bible comes to mind when I think about this natural order:

You appoint darkness and it becomes night,
In which all the beasts of the forest prowl about.
The young lions roar after their prey
And seek their food from God.
When the sun rises they withdraw
And lie down in their dens.
Man goes forth to his work
And to his labor until evening.
-Psalm 104:20-23 NASB

  1. Don’t let a job keep you from living your life or pursuing other interests.

A job shouldn’t define who you are or what you will become, but it’s sometimes easy to get caught up in how we spend a lot of our waking hours. This is why some people get stuck at jobs they hate and later regret not doing or even trying something else. I usually do my job to the best of my ability, but once I leave the building where I work, what I do stays there (except that I run across businesses I process checks for). When I’m not at work, I’m allowed to express myself in ways that being paid to do what someone else wants doesn’t allow.

  1. I am the creative (or artistic) type.

Believe it or not, one of the things I’ve come to embrace about myself has happened as a result of being in a place that is basically the polar opposite of artistic expression. I work in an environment in which doing the same tasks on a daily basis is a constant. I sometimes sit or stand for extended periods of time, doing the same things day after day. I look at the same walls and same screens almost every day. To put it bluntly, there are times in which it can be painfully and mindlessly BORING! (One of my managers once said it best.) If I’m not doing something that requires much physical movement or mental involvement, my mind wanders; admittedly, my mind still wanders even if I am moving around, yet somehow I maintain enough focus to accomplish whatever task I am currently doing. But sometimes not at work I find myself in a place of “go, go, go” or “build, build, build,” and I can become very alive until I burn out of energy. I edit images, video, and audio. I construct word play. I design my own t-shirts and posters. I occasionally dress up in crazy costumes or put on ridiculous hats. THIS. IS. FUN! (Not always, but a lot of time.) I’m 30 years old, and I still build with LEGO.

One aspect of creativity is that it’s essentially making order from chaos. I like organizing things, solving puzzles, and applying logic; these are things that require some sort of mental exercise. There’s a part of my job that results in chaos, and one of the things I like to do is organize that chaos. It’s a somewhat nonessential thing, but it is still useful to those who need such organization. (I’m not able to do it as much as I used to, but someone else still does it regularly.)

  1. Do what you gotta do and don’t spend too much time worrying about what may happen if you don’t.

This goes hand-in-hand with not being defined by a job. I’ve worked with at least one person who wanted to leave but was concerned about how things would go when s/he left the company. This person did end up leaving, but before the decision was ultimately made, kept coming up with reasons not to leave. I’ve sometimes felt that way myself, and I’ve also had people try to hold me back, but I’ve also found ways to advance within my company by just going for something without dwelling too much on possible consequences. This applies to life as well; sometimes it’s easier to get caught up thinking we’ll know how things will turn out, so we hesitate so long until the choice has been made for us. How many regrets do we have for the things we don’t try?

  1. Know when it is time to leave a company but don’t just drop out

I’ve been where I am for five years now, and there are times I’ve wanted to quit, but I’ve kept going. Sometimes for specific reasons and other times I don’t know why or how I keep going each day. In these five years, I’ve seen people come and go for any number of reasons, in some cases very soon after they started. I’ve also worked with people who gave the only reason for staying so long as something to the effect of not wanting to start over or this being the only line of work they’ve known. It all goes back to things I’ve mentioned here and in other posts about change and fear. I’ll have to admit that I’ve never been very good at this one, since I don’t always know when it’s a good time to leave a company, nor do I like to just disappear. Seriously, I only left one job after I cracked my wrist elsewhere, and I left another because I wasn’t going to have enough time off to do some things that were important to me at the time. I have a certain way of thinking about being part of a company: leave too soon and you may lack dedication; stay too long and you may lack drive.

I’m sure I could write more (and make this post that much longer), but these are just some of the things I’ve learned during the time I’ve been at my current job. Maybe it could be better written, and it might not be quantifiably tangible for any kind of resume I know of, but I’ve still learned some things throughout the course of my job that have helped shape me into who I am and how I function today. I’m not who I was five years ago, yet I still am the same person.

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