In December, I wrote a post about how hard it is to learn how to work. In that post, I talked about how one of the biggest challenges for someone starting their career is getting used to the undefined nature of work.
It feels very uncomfortable to go from a protective and easy school environment, where you live without responsibilities, to the professional world, where you are expected to think, prioritize, and deliver.
The only way to get better at it is to stick with it, but many people who have done well in school don’t know how to stick with it. They quit when they reach the point of responsibility in their work and start a new job where they can feel comfortable with lower expectations. After a while, if they don’t figure out how to handle expectations, they may retreat back into mindless work that can support them but never truly allow them to thrive.
What Makes the Adjustment so Hard?
In school, priorities are defined for us. You have projects, papers, and exams that you will complete. You can prioritize in a limited way, but you have very little control over your direction or responsibilities. The teacher is responsible for making sure the workload is manageable. You are responsible for getting all your work done and don’t get to decide what you work on in the first place.
These are things you have never had to deal with before. In school, everything was structured.
When young people start work, it is usually in jobs that similarly require very little thinking. Whether that is at a fast food restaurant or doing some sort of manual labor, you learn how to show up and be dependable (which are very valuable things to learn), but they still don’t develop the skills you need to thrive in a work environment where you could always do a little more.
As you progress past the first layer of low-responsibility work, you enter into an environment you have never experienced before. You now have core day-to-day responsibilities, but you also have many other ways that you could invest your time. You have projects you start that you have to put on the side to work on more urgent things. You have deadlines you set that you struggle to make or sometimes miss. You don’t know how to set accurate timeframes for your work. You don’t know how to prioritize what is most important.
These are things you have never had to deal with before. In school, everything was structured. Now you have certain things that have to get done, but there are countless options for the actual ways you get those things done.
Here's What You Need
There is no easy way to make this adjustment. The school system puts us in a bubble, and it hurts to leave that bubble.
You need to develop technical skill at getting things done, but also (and probably more importantly) psychological resilience to be able to thrive in an environment where you have to set your own priorities, where you don’t have enough time to finish everything you want to get done, and where you need to quickly bounce back and improve from failures.
This psychological resilience is the exact thing that the best students are missing. They can thrive with the hyper-defined school work, but fall apart when they enter into the professional world where they need to think for themselves about their priorities and the methods they use to fulfill their responsibilities.
There is no easy way to make this adjustment. The school system puts us in a bubble, and it hurts to leave that bubble. Solutions like Praxis and Unschooling are making it easier, but there is no easy way to do it. The only thing you can do is:
- Identify that your school experience has not prepared you.
- Accept that is going to be uncomfortable.
- Get to work and stick with it.