At my first job after college, I wound up working on a data organization project. Originally, this was to be at least a three-person project, but shortly after the project began, the third member of the team was let go.
This was fairly distressing, because the third member of the team was supposed to be the expert on the data we were organizing. She was supposed to understand what the data meant, I was supposed to build the interfaces, and the other guy actually kept the database running – the database administrator, in other words.
So, for most of a year, the database administrator and I were shuffled away into a separate office from the rest of the team. There were definitely some overtones that the project was in trouble, not from our own efforts, but from events going on outside of our control.
Unsurprisingly, over that year, I began to build a really strong relationship with the database administrator. We spent a ton of time studying the data that we had, figuring out relationships between the data sets. We looked at lots of different interfaces for similar data sets and tried to borrow from the good things about those interfaces.
It worked. Our project did spectacularly well at each and every review milestone and we changed the perspective of some of the decision-makers higher up the food chain. Eventually, we were offered much more permanent jobs.
So, why am I telling you this?
The database administrator, the one who was crucial in making all of this work, was trained as a high school teacher – and not a computer science high school teacher, either. He taught agriculture classes at a rural high school in Iowa.
So, how did he wind up as an Oracle database administrator? He didn’t have a degree in computer science or information services. How did he get there?
The truth is that he simply applied a bunch of skills that were completely unrelated to computer science in order to get there. He applied skills that everyone already has. The only difference is that he actually applied them.
If you want to move up in your career or switch to a different career, going back to school can certainly help. However, you likely already have most of the skills and traits that you need to make that shift.
Here are seven skills and traits that you already have that you may not be applying as well as you could. If you can execute these things, you’ll have a massive leg up on the people in your field and find it easy to get your foot in the door if you want to make a career change.
When someone needs something from you, do you come through for them? Do you only call in sick when you’re legitimately sick – and that’s pretty rare? Can people depend on the fact that you’re doing what you’re supposed to do at work?
Surprisingly enough, reliability is actually pretty rare, even at higher level jobs. I know many people that, when you email or call them for a particular task or item that you need from them, will say “sure!” and then never deliver anything. Similarly, I know many people who seem to never go to work – they’re always out “sick” or “on vacation.”
Those people aren’t reliable, and the people in their workplace are bound to notice this and be adversely affected by it. You can be the most skilled person in the world, but if you’re not reliable with those skills, they’re not really very useful.
Almost every organization in the world would prefer to have someone reliable and relatively unskilled at the desk than someone highly skilled but unreliable. The reliable person might not be able to produce amazing things, but when you ask them for something, they’ll produce it; they’ll also be there when you need them. The unreliable person? They might produce something great, but they also might just produce nothing at all.
What can you do to improve your reliability?
- Show up. A big part of success is simply showing up. Yes, everyone wakes up sometimes with a desire to not go into work. Everyone has days where they’d rather hang out around the house than work. A reliable person goes in anyway, and in doing so becomes more valuable in their workplace.
- Keep track of the things asked of you and fulfill them promptly. Maintain a to-do list and spend your time working through that list as efficiently as you can. Put a priority on things that other people are relying on to do their own work.
- Don’t waste time. There’s always something you could be doing, even during the down times. Work on tasks that will make it easier to deal with the challenges during the busy times. Keep your workplace organized. Build skills.
Be a Good Listener, Especially in Meetings
Yes, many workplace meetings are incredibly boring. Most of the time, you’d rather be anywhere else, doing anything else. Of course, it’s that very unwanted nature of meetings that makes them such a valuable place to be.
All you have to do to stand apart from the pack is pay attention when you’re meeting with others, whether it’s a one-on-one meeting or a large group meeting. Stay as focused as you possibly can on the moment and react naturally to what you see and hear.
Here are three specific steps that are well worth taking.
- Ask questions. Whenever someone is presenting something and you’re unclear as to what they’re talking about in any way, ask about it. There is no such thing as a stupid question, period. Not only does it give you the information you need, it also keeps the presenter on his or her toes.
- Take notes. If I’m supposed to be at a meeting, there’s usually a reason for it, even if it’s not obvious to me. Thus, I consider whatever is being discussed or presented at a meeting to be worthwhile and important, even if it doesn’t seem to be. My usual solution is to have a pocket notebook or a hard-backed steno notebook and a pen with me and I take notes on anything and everything that might be remotely relevant to me. I then look over those notes later and see whether or not there’s really anything there I need to take action on. If I can find even a thing or two, then I’m a step or two ahead of the game.
- Follow up. If you find yourself with questions after reading through your notes, follow up and ask those questions. Not only, again, does it provide you with more information, it also provides a great opportunity to build a professional connection with a coworker or a supervisor.
Step Up to Unwanted Tasks and Challenges
There are always tasks that people don’t want to take on. Few people relish speaking in public. Few people like leading small groups. Few people like being in charge of collaborative reports. Few people like cleaning up the worst messes.
As un-fun as those tasks might be, they’re also incredibly valuable for separating the successful people from the unsuccessful people. The people who step up and take on these challenges are the ones who are retained. They are the ones who are looked at positively for promotions. They are the ones who find doors opening for them. They are the ones building new skills that others really value.
Here are three steps you can take to make this a reality in your own career.
- When no one else raises their hand, raise yours. Yes, you’re probably going to wind up with a task that’s difficult and unenjoyable. Yes, your day would probably be easier without it. On the other hand, you’re probably going to build some skills along the way, and your supervisor is going to notice that you stepped up to the plate. That comes with real perks.
- No matter how miserable the task, put your nose down and take care of it. Yes, sometimes your job is going to be terrible. Yes, sometimes you’re not going to want to do it. That’s life. The difference between those who succeed and those who don’t are results. Did they take care of the challenge or not? Are you going to take care of the challenge?
- Take the extra step to get good results. There’s often a big difference between simply completing a task and doing it well. Take the extra few minutes (or hours, or whatever is needed) to do things well rather than simply doing the bare minimum.
Avoid Negative Conversations
It is really easy to fall into the trap of bashing a coworker for any number of reasons. Maybe they’re not living up to the expectations that you have. Maybe that person has a personality problem. Maybe that person is causing undue conflict within the group.
Sure, those are all valid reasons to harbor potentially negative feelings within yourself, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to release those feelings into the wild. There’s never a good reason to bash coworkers or speak negatively about others in workplace conversations. Nothing good ever comes out of it in the long term.
One of the biggest negative outcomes of such negative talk is that the person doing the negative speaking is eventually seen as part of the problem. Bashing coworkers – even when the conversation is private – can come back around and haunt you in ways you’ll never expect.
Still, most workplaces still have negative conversations and backroom gossip. People have negative feelings and vent them all the time. Here’s how you can take those situations and make sure you’re not dragged down with it.
- Never initiate negative comments about someone or something at work. There’s no reason to ever bring up your negative feelings about someone or something, especially out of the blue. Just keep those feelings in your back pocket and find something else to talk about.
- Be positive toward everyone, even when it’s hard. For me, I find it really useful to think about people that I know and look for good things about them. Everyone on Earth is a mix of good and bad traits; if you spend your time actively seeking out good traits in people, you’ll end up seeing them in a more positive light.
- If you have strong negative feelings, find another way to vent those feelings. Yes, we all need to vent sometimes. If you need to vent, find friends outside of your workplace to talk to. Write in your journal (I prefer this route myself). Go to the gym and punch a bag. Anything that doesn’t introduce more negativity at work is a good thing.
- If you overhear other negative conversations, just avoid actively participating in them. You can stand there and listen, of course, if it’s difficult to be doing something else. I usually just find something else to do if the conversation turns negative.
Learn and Build Skills All the Time
Many jobs have downtime while you’re at work. Many jobs involve a commute, which means even more relative downtime. Many people also have additional spare time at home.
One of the biggest keys to success is how you choose to use that downtime, especially the extra time at work. Do you spend it sitting around twiddling your thumbs? Do you browse websites and engage in idle chitchat? Do you go on long bathroom breaks?
Sure, those things might pass the time more quickly, but they don’t help you improve your career or your value to your employer. They just waste the minutes of your life.
Try spending your downtime and perhaps a bit of your free time on other things.
- Take some online classes. You can earn a lot of certifications and even some degrees from online courses, but even if you’re not progressing toward a degree, you can learn a great deal from taking an online class. Choose ones that build skills you might use at work or might use in the next step of your career.
- Start a blog to share your professional explorations. When you’re learning about something new, re-explain it in your own words with analogies that make sense to you and post those writings to a blog of your own making. Then, get on social media and share those posts on Facebook and Twitter, particularly with people who share the same interests.
- Learn from your coworkers. What kinds of things do they do? What skills are they bringing to the table? What are they working on? What skills do they have, and how can you learn them? Bringing these kinds of questions to your coworkers can be flattering. Plus, the more you know about the various skills and tasks of others, the more useful you become, too.
Be Well-Rested and Have Plenty of Energy
When I worked in that office with the database administrator, as I described above, we were eventually given an hourly worker whose job it was to manually enter data for us. That was a frustrating experience, to say the least.
When the student was alert and awake, he did reasonably good work, albeit at a slow pace. However, half the time he showed up to work half-awake at best and would sometimes simply fall asleep at his desk.
Not only did this mean that he wasn’t producing anything while he was there, we often had to stop our own tasks and rouse this hourly worker.
The reality is that if he had simply showed up to work with a fresh night of sleep, not only would he have been far more productive at his work, he also wouldn’t have fallen asleep and wasted our time as well.
This simple lack of energy turned what could have been a great career opportunity for him – one that could have built a resume and provided some great references – into a disaster, where he was eventually simply let go. The one thing he needed to do but didn’t do was bring enough energy to work with him.
Here are three steps you should consider taking so that you don’t fall into this kind of trap.
- Adopt a routine where you get adequate sleep and nutrition. If you’re finding yourself tired during the day, you’re either not getting enough sleep or not getting appropriate nutrition. Try going to sleep earlier and, if that doesn’t help after a while, call your doctor.
- Understand your energy levels when you’re working. I’m at my most energetic first thing in the morning, so I try to take on my most challenging tasks first thing in the morning. I save lower-energy and lower-focus tasks for later in the day. That way, you can seem ready for anything throughout the day, even when your energy and focus isn’t the strongest throughout the day.
- Exercise. But doesn’t that burn energy? Our bodies are actually pretty amazing. It turns out that if we get adequate exercise, our bodies and minds actually become more energetic once we’re used to that change. Getting mild exercise will help you to become a better performer in the workplace by bolstering your natural energy levels.
Set Personal Goals
Where do you want to be five years from now? Ten years from now? What does that life look like? Feel free to throw in as much detail as you’d like.
Now, what do you need to do between now and then to make that happen? What needs to change in your life between now and then in order to make that vision a reality? You should be able to come up with a nice list of changes.
Now, what can you do today to move forward on the things on that list? Today. Not next week. Not “someday.” Not when you feel like it. Today.
Once you start thinking in terms of goals and how you’re working toward them, so much of your life begins to fall into place. You begin to see how your day-to-day choices aren’t just isolated things, but they’re connected to where you want to go in life.
Here’s how to dig in.
- Think seriously about where you want your life to be going. This is a wonderful task for your morning and evening commute. What do you want your future to look like? What does it look like personally and professionally? Be optimistic, but don’t be unrealistic. Keep things within the realm of possibility.
- Develop a plan to get from here to there. Now that you have this future vision, what needs to be done to move you from where you are right now to where you want to be? What steps need to be taken to make that transformation happen?
- Ask yourself every day what you’re doing personally and professionally to get there. What are you doing today to execute that plan? What are you doing right now to build that great future? Are you achieving that great future when you waste time at work or when you don’t step up to the plate for a challenge or when you don’t bother furthering your education?
The seven strategies mentioned in this article merely scratch the surface of the things you can do with the skills you have right now. You can escape from your low-paying job. You can get a promotion. You can get a better job.
You just need to start applying the things that you have.
You can be reliable, if you choose to. You can make a plan for the future. You can listen. You can be more organized. You can build new skills. You can show up well-rested. You can take on the hard tasks.
Those are things that you can do. Right now. Every day. Those are things that will build you a better job, a better career, with more pay. Those are things that will open up more opportunity than you can imagine.
All you have to do is open the door.
- The Value Line: Building More Skills for a Better Life
- Job Skills: What Are You Learning Today That Your Next Employer Would Desire?
- Finding Meaning Within Your Job – Even If You Don’t Like It