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.

Why Being Awesome At School Can Make You Terrible At Work

“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]

About the author

Drake Baer was a contributing writer at Fast Company, where he covered work culture. He's the co-author of Everything Connects, a book about how intrapersonal, interpersonal, and organizational psychology shape innovation.