Occasionally I’ll see a meme posted by one of my 50-something friends about what sorts of skills they wish young people “should be taught in high school” or the equivalent. Today I’ll take a shot at my answer, keeping a little humility in mind, as the future is likely to outguess me.
My friend LaDeana reposted the following tweet recently, and it’s part of what (I hope) will keep me humble during this post:
It’s not just about trying to forecast social or economic rules that no longer apply to the current environment. Technologies will inevitably become out of date and my advice would undoubtedly be silly. The “rules of the game” for the workplace and career advancement are undoubtedly going to change. Understood. So what advice could an older person possibly give to a younger person that would prove useful?
You might have seen some of the “Young Boomer” memes, which show the disconnect between Baby Boomers and Millennials. (I’m a Gen Xer, for what it’s worth, and tuition was something like $1,500 when I went for my first degree.) But trust me: I get it. I’m still going to try to convince you that there are some pieces of advice that are worth learning even if I’m older and grayer than you. Most of it is about working with people and how they operate on a day-to-day basis. As my sister puts it to my niece and nephew occasionally, “Uncle Bart means well.”
- Learn to be polite and pleasant. This doesn’t mean all the time. There will be times when stern or pushy or standoffish will make sense. I’m just talking about little things like saying please and thank you. Those don’t go out of style and can smooth your way in the business world more than you might imagine.
- Respond to calls, messages, or texts, even if your response is that you’ll have to respond at greater length later. If I have one pet peeve, it’s when I try to reach someone with access to multiple channels of communication (phone, Twitter, FB Messenger, Outlook meeting requests, text, etc.) and the other person responds on none of them. I don’t know if this is a passive-aggressive thing or a social cue that an older person doesn’t get. We’re all busy, I understand. However, we’ve got all these ways to communicate; if a professional colleague reaches out to you through one or more means, they clearly want to reach you; not responding is rude. Sometimes it’s a text saying, “In a meeting, call you back later.” Then do so. Please?
- Learn the rules of your particular career advancement game, then figure out how to circumvent them if they don’t work for you. That’s pretty straightforward, isn’t it?
- Whatever your role, learn to do it well. This means things like getting your work done when and as requested, using the “language” (jargon) of the job; dressing the way other people in your workplace or profession dress, and working within the known organizational rules or chain of command.
- Keep your superiors, colleagues, subordinates, or customers up to date on what you’re doing. This is more politeness; it gives others an insight into what and how well you’re performing your work.
- Assume that if you don’t know something, you can learn it. This is a basic survival skill for a technical writer. If someone asks you about a specific fact and you don’t know the answer, say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.” Then go find out and let the other person know. If you’re presented with a writing assignment about a topic you know little to nothing about, go do the research. All that time you’ve spent in the library or the bookstore on the internet digging up information? It has practical applications in the business world. A willingness to learn is a lot better than flatly telling a boss or customer, “I can’t do that.”
- Related to the above, be willing to volunteer. This includes boring, unglamorous tasks like helping clear a bunch of boxes out of the office to challenging projects dealing with a new technology or initiative. It will be appreciated and remembered.
That’s it. End of speech. Go forth and do good things for yourself!