I recently overheard a conversation between two friends. One guy had just started a new job, but there was trouble in paradise – he was not enjoying his new position as much as he’d anticipated. Of course, the conventional wisdom is, “If you don’t like your job, why don’t you quit and find another one?” or “Time to start that business that you’ve always dreamed of!” Those options were briefly discussed, but he was worried that leaving so soon after starting would be a resume red flag. It was a flag that could certainly be explained away in an interview, but would a questionable resume item prevent him from scoring another interview in the first place? It was a valid question. I don’t pretend to have enough experience in career counseling to say whether or not that would be the case, but what the other friend said next blew my mind:
“All right. So you don’t find a new job right now. What you need to do is think long and hard about what you can get out of your current position. Treat it like an internship. You are there to get certain things, certain skills, certain credentials, etc. Get what you came for.”
This really struck a chord with me, because I think so many of us fall into the trap of settling in at a job and seeing it as static, a state of being rather than an educational process. We live day-to-day, taking care of business (and perhaps even kicking butt at it) without paying attention to professional development or even altogether forgetting to get what we came for.
In my field, people pursue higher education for years or even decades, immersing themselves in what is essentially professional development for many years before entering the workforce. During the long years of graduate school and post-docs, we learn to use each project to get what we came for. So why, then, do many people forget this mentality so rapidly once they enter the real world of work? Why do we espouse the attitude of, “I’m finally done with school; now it’s time to do my job.” Wait! Yes, it is time to do your job, but it’s not time to stop using your job to teach yourself specific skills. The craziest part of this falling-off-the-development-cliff once we start work is that we forget that at a university, you have to pay for that development! And now, when our positions inherently give us opportunities to teach ourselves new skills, no tuition required, we often don’t capitalize on that opportunity.
Perhaps the reason we cling to the “get what you came for” attitude during graduate school (or a post-doctoral stint, or a low-paying internship) is that we need something to get us through the phase where we pay our dues, the phase where the hours are long and the paychecks are small. The incentive to finish that degree and graduate provides the motivation to get ourselves out of our comfort zone. In contrast, in the world of work, there’s no finish line. There’s no graduation. This is why I think many people view their position as a static one, rather than a dynamic one.
Listening to that conversation made me see my work differently. I am in the process of learning to view my work less through the paycheck-for-product lens and more through the this-is-actually-a-really-long-internship lens. Because when we take internships, we have the goal in mind of learning a particular skill by the end of the summer, or becoming an expert on subject X by the end of the semester. Thinking about my skill set as it relates to project deadlines really lights a fire under me to maximize what I’m learning. After all, this project won’t last forever, and when it disappears, so too does the opportunity to milk that project for all it’s worth.