The Little Things

Several years ago I had a discussion with a Millennial intern who resented the notion of “paying your dues,” i.e., being required to do unenjoyable, tedious, boring, or unchallenging work before being allowed to do more exciting work, get a raise, or get promoted. I tried–unsuccessfully, I’m pretty certain–to justify the practice. I will try again here. If you’re a younger person, you might still resent the notion, but hopefully you’ll at least understand the thinking behind it.

My nephew has a bad habit that he shares with his uncle when he was in school: he dislikes doing the routine homework, which affects his grade point average. Upon learning he might be excluded from a family vacation, he decided to focus better and bring his grades up. I asked him when he came down to Florida what he’d done differently to improve his GPA. He just shrugged and said, “Oh. I did the homework.”

I wasn’t much better. In 7th grade, the English department–possibly the entire teaching staff of the school–made a new rule on my account. I’d not done eight consecutive assignments in one of my English classes but ended up with a C because I got As on all the exams. This infuriated the teacher, but he couldn’t do anything about it because I’d gamed the system: tests were weighted higher as a percentage of the class grade than tests. Plus, I was just lazy. I knew the content, the homework just bored me. I got a C-, but the teacher made certain that future lazy geniuses would have to complete their homework so they could not repeat the behavior.

In the working world, of course, you can’t just skip out on doing tasks–or you can try, but not for long; everything must be done, and done well. If your manager or peers see that you’re doing a slipshod job or getting other people to do the work or just leaving tasks undone, they will be unwilling to entrust you with larger, more interesting tasks. It’s that simple. Tedious, unlovely tasks exist on every job. And generally, where possible, senior people will get their subordinates to do them. Yes, that’s unfair, but in the management world, it’s called “delegation,” and it allows the leader to focus on more complex or important activities.

The crud flows downhill, and that crud usually ends up on the desk of the new person on the job or the intern. While the manager might heave a sigh of relief that they have someone new to bore with X report or Y indexing activity, the new person will chafe under the requirement to do a thankless job. Yes, it’s unfair. The work still has to be done.

So when you’re given what you consider a task “below your station,” you can protest, resist, refrain, or accept the challenge to do it well. To borrow from Admiral Kirk in Star Trek II, it’s a test of character. You might not like the process, but that’s the sort of dues-paying by which managers and peers evaluate your future ability to do complex tasks for them. As multiple family members tried to explain to my nephew, “You might know how to do it, and the teacher might know you know; however, they need to see you do it.”

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About Bart Leahy

Freelance Technical Writer, Science Cheerleader Event & Membership Director, and an all-around nice guy. Here to help.
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2 Responses to The Little Things

  1. Larry Kunz says:

    If I might offer a slightly divergent viewpoint….Yes, that 7th grade English homework was boring. But at least (I assume) it had something to do with English. Too many times I’ve seen interns saddled with work that’s not only boring but that doesn’t teach them anything about the job or profession to which they aspire. Stuffing envelopes. Filling out requisition forms. Making coffee.

    Granted, it’s work that no one wants to do. But sometimes it’s work that no one has to do. Instead of having the intern stuff envelopes, for example, can’t we distribute the materials electronically? Yet the intern gets stuck doing it. To me, that’s a waste of an internship, a waste of an opportunity for the intern to learn about the kind of work they’ll do in their chosen (or prospective) career.

    • Bart Leahy says:

      Fair enough. I was talking about actual (but rather tiresome) work, not paper fluffing, toilet cleaning, or coffee making.

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