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Why Being Awesome At School Can Make You Terrible At Work

If you only take your cues on how to learn from school, then you'll be ignorant at work. Brazen Careerist Penelope Trunk unpacks how to move to the head of the class—at the office.

"You have to unlearn the habit of waiting to be told what comes next in your education if you want to take control of your adult life," writes Brazen Careerist cofounder Penelope Trunk. Why? Because if you're going to create your own value in the workplace, she argues, you have to make your own learning path.

When education gets in the way of being able to learn

As Y Combinator cofounder Paul Graham has written, most of us folks in industrialized countries belong to one institution or another until our twenties, so much so that the group that institution represents is part of our identity: following our name and age, the high school we're at or the college we attend is who we are. All this time, the institution is telling us what we should learn.

Unless we're wacky and spend a few years abroad—(ahem)—it's time to join the workforce. As Graham describes, there's a subtle yet major change afoot:

When John Smith finishes school, he is expected to get a job. And what getting a job seems to mean is joining another institution. Superficially it's a lot like college. You pick the companies you want to work for and apply to join them. If one likes you, you become a member of this new group. You get up in the morning and go to a new set of buildings, and do things that you do not ordinarily enjoy doing. There are a few differences: Life is not as much fun, and you get paid, instead of paying, as you did in college. But the similarities feel greater than the differences. John Smith is now John Smith, 22, a software developer at such and such corporation.

In fact. John Smith's life has changed more than he realizes. Socially, a company looks much like college, but the deeper you go into the underlying reality, the more different it gets.

Graham's essay examines how an individual makes wealth for a corporation—and it's required reading if you ever want to know how to ask for a raise and actually get it. But for our purposes, it's important to note that while every institution used to be able to tell you what you needed to do to function best , the innovation-centric workplace will always be hungry for new, different, un-mined ideas. So if we're going to become exceptional there, we need to become exceptions.

Disassembling the argument

When Trunk writes about creating your own value, she's talking about contributing something that is uniquely yours or mine—differentiated, to use the startup lingo. And just as a company wants to differentiate itself from others within its marker segment, canny careerists—such as Trunk—will seek to differentiate themselves from their employee segment.

That differentiation, so the logic goes, is the closest thing we can get to job security: If you're the only person fluent in analytics in an organization that's desperate for analytics knowledge (meaning any media brand), then the scarcity of your skill set will mean that you're in constant demand and letting you go would be foolish, to say the least.

The question, then, is how to develop that differentiation.

With a breadth of experience: As Steve Jobs used to say, a lot of it comes through the things that you've lived through: the more varied the bag of experiences that you're walking around the world with, the better you can relate to colleagues and customers—and those connections create value.

With a depth of understanding: Let's go back to that media company example, since we can't help but gaze at our own navels. If we recognize that our organization has a gaping need—like analytics now or social media two years ago—then we want to develop a competency in that systemic incompetency.

But since no one at the company knows how to do it and you can't exactly go back to grad school while you're working, you'll need to get non-institutional. Luckily, you don't need to go back to school; as Kio Stark might say, school doesn't have a monopoly on learning. And the cultivated autodidact will find ways to get at that skill development—it's all a part of cultivating unstoppability, every day.

[Image: Flickr user Thomas Leuthard]

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  • MikeSadofsky

    Being responsible for yourself at the earliest age is what makes kids at Sudbury Valley School grow up to be the kind of people who thrive at work and at college.  Don't take my word for it; here ( find comments of Sudbury Valley School graduates taken from an alumni study.
    Drake Baer is "right on" when he makes the distinction between schools that tell kids what to do each step of the way and that job where your employer and supervisor wants you to "solve the problem."  If you haven't learned to analyze issues and solve problems, you aren't going to do well.
    Over many years I have spoken with Sudbury Valley graduates and heard a similar story.  They go off to a job or to college/university and and find themselves with classmates and colleagues who literally cannot function without being told what to do.  Whether it's a menial task or taking a class, kids from prestigious high schools and academies wait to be told what to do or what to study; Sudbury kids know why they are there and how to get the job done.
    Maybe, just maybe, our society will learn that an education system conceived to produce 19th century armies and industrial workers is NOT what we need for the 21st century world.

  • SFMH57

    No joke. Even Google has stopped requiring the less-than-informative GPA from all job applicants, as they finally (!) concluded that a GPA told hiring managers NOTHING about whether the candidate would be a good employee. Took them a long time to get there and threw plenty of people in the bin and sent them off to other employers. However, we still face a huge problem:  employers still don't have effective  tools to find, screen and keep good workers. 

  • dudeguy1234

    Even "paid" internships often don't cover the total expenses related to such an opportunity, and as such are often limited to the people who can afford them. It's a useful indicator, but by no means an effective gauge.