Hard-learned lessons from a year in the work force

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LinkedIn recently congratulated me this week on my one-year work anniversary with Centers Health Care. I was prompted to reflect on year one of my professional career—and whether the liberal arts properly prepared me for the workforce. As you might expect, my brief professional exposure cannot help me resolve the above-referenced debate simply. Meanwhile, I learned the hard way that there are some stark realities that a young, liberal-arts-trained professional will be presented with as they transition from the halls of the academe.

For one thing, the professional world – the business world in particular – requires effective time management skills. In college, there is substantial flexibility. For me, a typical schedule in college may have included classes from 1:00 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. on a Monday, Tuesday off, 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. on Wednesday, and 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, while freeing three or four evenings a week – leaving ample study time. You can imagine my shock then, entering the fast-paced, post-acute-care arena. At Centers, my typical workday might include two meetings, 10 phone calls, 100 emails, and one or two main projects to be completed – all between 9:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Only after consulting my new colleagues, who helped me to create a strong schedule before the week begins, did I begin to adjust. As time went on, I picked up rules of thumb, such as scheduling only 60 percent of a week, as a supervisor suggested. I also learned hacks like the zero-inbox method, and carving out designated times to address emails, to streamline my day. Finally, after a while, my circadian rhythm adapted to the new demands.

Once in the swing of things, it became clear that in order to succeed at work, there is no substitute for hard work. Now, I am not suggesting that college is easy. But, I will point to the oft-repeated Woody Allen quote, at the tip of many a professor’s tongue.

“Eighty percent of success is just showing up,” Allen said.

Granted, with test scores as the metric for achievement in school, there is some truth to Woody Allen’s aphorism. Augmenting class attendance with some study is the simple guide for the honor-roll student. That said, I cannot help but look back at my year at C.H.C. and attribute my small success to grit, a willingness to put in long hours and a willingness to step up to the plate when called upon. Each evening in the early months of employment, spent side by side with my supervisor, while all others were gone for the day, felt like a small accomplishment. Being accessible by email 16 plus hours a day, in this hyper-connected age, felt like a victory. And gladly accepting a months long revenue-cycle project, calling upon general skills cultivated in college and elsewhere, was a badge of honor for me. Now, each day I walk into the office looking to say yes to hard work, eager to contribute, while keeping my head down.

Similarly, the understanding of office politics can make or break a budding career. For its part, college requires mastery of subject matter. As an economics student, learning to discount cash flows would earn me passing grades and scholastic recognition. Insofar as professors are people, each class is a universe unto itself; having bad rapport with one professor will rarely translate into a poor relationship with another. It is only in the office, though, that you must learn

“to be soft on the people, and hard on the problems,” as Fisher and Ury suggest in their seminal work “Getting to Yes.” I learned this lesson the hard way, when a supervisor sat me down to admonish me that “you catch more flies with honey.” This same supervisor taught me to begin a search for information by starting with the people who know the most – seems obvious, right? After I inflamed a dispute between team members. Granted, colleges will teach of organizational charts, but only once in the workplace can you learn your colleagues’ likes and dislikes, whether your company lauds those who break the chain-of-command as courageous or spurns them, or what it feels like to be in a decentralized vs. centralized workplace.

Reflecting on this past year, it seems that the skills discussed above are learned in spite of the liberal arts education, in the school of hard knocks. Specifically, I have found that learning time management is a trial-by-fire experience, in which only the capable survive. The hard work requirement of the workplace, meanwhile, is something that can be learned through some attentiveness and willingness. And learning the ropes of office politics is an ongoing affair, which demands increasing finesse as one progresses professionally. Still, as I eagerly embark on year two, I ask wouldn’t it make sense to teach these skills in college, so that young professionals can learn the easy way?

Issac Sobel is a graduate of Queens College.

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