May 30, 2024

Dear Graduate: To Succeed at Work, Set Aside (Most Of) What You Learned in School

Two young fish are swimming in the water when an older fish swims by and says, “Morning boys, how’s the water?” As he swims away, one young fish says, “What…is water?” So begins the late David Foster Wallace’s famous 2005 graduation speech at Kenyon College. In a genre notable for its advice to find your passion and feed your soul, Wallace talked soberly about blind spots, arrogance and the overwhelming danger of certainty. Education matters, he asserts, not because it teaches you how to think but because it enables you to choose what to think. Your educated life is about consciously getting free of the chatter in your head to become aware–really aware–of what is happening around you and make informed choices.

Your first job is the place to start. In a workplace where change is happening faster than even seasoned veterans can keep up with, keeping pace feels all but impossible. And the youngest workers are struggling: the most recent Gallup surveys report an 11-year low in employee engagement, with Gen Z dropping the most. So many disengaged young workers are sleepwalking through work, eager to finish the workday’s drudgery and get on with their “real” lives.

Work is not like school. After all, you’ve spent your whole life accumulating knowledge, checking the boxes, proving what you know and earning grades for everything. Now you have to get good at unlearning–letting go of the systems that made you successful in school to empower you to excel at work. A good education has given you the skills to rethink and reframe. Work requires you to use them: to question what you think you know, challenge your assumptions and open yourself up to new ideas and perspectives. As you move from the top of the heap to the bottom of the totem pole, what got you here won't get you there. Here are five ways to make the shift, to unlearn the habits that worked in school so that you can build the skills to succeed in your career.

Ditch The Homework Mindset

A bright young woman worked for my organization right out of school. She had been first in her class in high school, and she excelled in college by fiercely attending to her homework. When she came into her first job, her successful school formula betrayed her. Her fixation on homework came up short when she faced the ambiguity of work. Work doesn’t fall neatly into a curriculum with explicit things to do and homework to complete. While a task orientation is a great starting place, it’s not enough to simply check the boxes. Today’s workplace dishes out challenges without clear answers, problems that generate countless tasks that generate still more. Your job is to look for the big picture, to prioritize and surface what you need to better understand the context and the questions, not just the answers. It takes time and pretty relentless focus. Shifting from a check-the-box homework approach to a connect-the-dots mindset means understanding that only when you look beyond the tasks will the real learning begin.

Ask Lots Of Questions

Remember that guy in the back of the class who always had his hand up? If you worked hard not to be that person, it’s time to flip the script. To be successful at work, you must develop the comfort–at times the bravery–to ask many thoughtful and curious questions. To approach work with a beginner’s mind, listening and watching for new insights. Good questions are an unsung superpower. A good question signals respect and an eagerness to learn. It’s more than asking for instructions or advice–it’s about recognizing what you don’t know. Good, curious questions unlock the wisdom of others and help you to navigate a workplace that is changing as fast for the veterans as it is new for you. And finally, questions are the key to unlocking the future–whether you work with AI or other new technologies, a curious, learning mindset is the key to becoming adept at the new tools of your trade and aware of the trends shaping your work. In school, it’s imperative to prove what you know. At work, you must shed the fear of not knowing, opening yourself to new ideas, new ways of thinking and new things to think about.

Don’t Compete, Collaborate

School is an individual journey. No matter how many group projects you had in school (including those wonderful moments where you did all the work while your groupmates loafed), you got tested, assessed and graded as an individual. But the vast majority of workplaces rely on successful teams–groups of individuals with diverse talents that work better together than they do alone. The best teams are not successful because they have smart individual team members, they’re effective because they are collectively intelligent. Sensitive to each other’s insights, they make space for everyone’s voice and celebrate their diversity. You can’t do this if you focus on your individual contributions more than the output of the team. School is inherently competitive. But today’s workplace depends on collaboration, on individual colleagues developing the skills to work better together. It’s a departure from the transactional in favor of the relational, where strong connections power the most productive teams.

Manage Your Own Expectations

As you go out into the world after graduation, you will be inundated with well-meaning advice (like this). But the thing about advice is that it tends to fit the giver more than the receiver. Your parents, teachers, mentors and employers have a lot invested in you, a lot riding on your success. And 9 times out of 10, they will foist their expectations on you. Learning to define your own success is a critical requirement for shaping the career that matters to you. It’s not just about passion, but about a set of realistic goals and objectives that you define for yourself. Your boss will change, your employer will change. If you spend your time trying to meet the expectations of others, you will be constantly beginning again. Of course, you need to be a team player. But in a world where work is changing faster than anyone can keep up, having your own sense of what you want to accomplish (and the skills you need to get there) is critical to forging your own path.

Be An AI Power User

Using AI to help you with your school work may have been viewed as cheating. At work, the opposite is true. If you don’t start getting comfortable with AI, the only one you will cheat is you. While many companies initially banned ChatGPT and LLMs at work–just like many schools and universities did at the outset–the winds have changed. Now companies are actively looking for employees to use it, to get familiar with its powers and pitfalls. Many employees aren’t quite sure where to start, fearing they could render their own jobs obsolete. And their employers don't yet know how to teach them. A just-released study shows that 75% of knowledge workers are using it, with massive opportunities for those who are willing to build their AI skills. AI is here to stay. Adoption may be slow in schools, but your success at work depends on you quickly embracing AI.

In his advice to new graduates, Foster Wallace observed, “The real value of a real education, … has almost nothing to do with knowledge and everything to do with simple awareness.” The key to a productive career is being attuned and aware of opportunity in a rapidly changing world: reframing your thinking and building new skills. It means listening (and watching), asking questions, challenging what you thought you knew and choosing to embrace new ways of working. Your career will be a constant journey of unlearning old ways to make space for new ones, of reminding yourself not to get so comfortable that you lose sight of the very water you swim in.

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