5 Lies About Working That Everyone Learns in School

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Tara Malek14
Co-owner, chief litigator at Smith + Malek PLLC

From kindergarten through college, most of us learn that the world is governed by a set of rules. If we play by those rules and work hard, teachers recognize our efforts with good grades and we won’t find ourselves in detention or the principal’s office. By college or graduate school, students gain more freedom, but there remains a structure that fuels the widespread assumption that the working world operates in a similar way. 

It doesn’t. 

Especially if you are a student who got straight As and identifies as an overachiever, this can be a hard truth. You’re in for a rude awakening if you are expecting your first job out of college (or even your third or fourth) to replicate a school-like setting where there are clear ways to achieve a good grade. Just like adulthood, the working world is more complicated. Here are five myths school teaches you about the working world: 

1. Going to grad school makes you a more desirable employee. 

Post-graduate work is not for everyone, and the additional degree is not necessarily going to pay for itself. From a financial perspective, taking on additional student loans to secure a job you might be able to get without the additional debt doesn’t make a lot of sense. Take a hard look at the probable return on investment. Is an additional degree really required for your dream job? Will those extra letters after your name actually lead to a higher salary? A college degree definitely opens a lot of doors, but a Ph.D., master’s degree, J.D., or even an MBA may not. Don’t blindly seek advanced degrees without doing research on the market you want to enter and the skills and education a prospective employer needs.

2. Work life balance means a 50/50 balance.

Making time to work out, engaging in favorite hobbies, raise children and cultivate relationships are all important to being a well-rounded person. You absolutely deserve a career that offers work-life balance. However, don’t get trapped into thinking that balance means 50/50. Some weeks, you have to pass on the happy hour with your besties in order to work late at the office on an important project. Before you have children, you may need to hustle extra hard to meet the career milestones that will offer you greater flexibility when you need it later. Work and life events occur at different times and will almost always demand an unequal amount of your time. This is normal and the sooner you accept it, the better off you’ll be. 

3. Once you pick a career, you better stick with it.

Most people my age and younger work at many jobs and even have more than one career over the course of their lives. Gone are the days (for most of us) of cushy pensions and sticking at one company for your entire life. Enjoy this ability to experiment. Make mistakes! Explore! You are by no means stuck where you start out. One of the benefits of aging is that you gain experience and perspective. The person you are in your 20s is not the person you are in your 30s, 40s or 50s (thank God). Your interests can change, and trying something new is 100% okay.

4. You will be treated equally.

Life is unfair and people are flawed. At some point in your career, you will experience unequal treatment. School doesn’t necessarily prepare you for how to deal with this. The sooner you recognize that this is part of life, you can adjust accordingly. Getting upset and holding grudges won’t help you. Thinking creatively and using direct communication to address the problem head on will earn you tremendous respect very quickly, and many employers offer affinity groups where you can work together to improve workplace culture. When you do experience mistreatment at work, learn from it and don’t replicate it. If you are a woman, stand up for your female colleagues, even if you haven’t always been treated fairly yourself. If you are male, learn about what it means to be a good ally at work, and think about how you can mentor or sponsor female employees who may have experienced mistreatment.

5. If you work hard, you will receive recognition for it. 

This was a hard lesson for me, but an important one. I remember spending all weekend as a newly-minted attorney working on a huge motion and memorandum. I finally completed it at midnight on a Sunday and came into work at 8 am on Monday expecting that I would receive some form of recognition for jumping in and completing the project. It didn’t happen. In fact, my colleagues acted like it wasn’t a big deal at all. I felt completely deflated. 

External recognition for your work isn’t always going to happen. That’s why it’s important to take the time to reflect on what really drives you. As author Simon Sinek puts it, you need to know your “why." Once you know, you’ll seek out external recognition far less because your work and life will align with your core purpose and values. I spent all weekend on that project because my client was facing a grave injustice and I wanted to help remedy it. Had I realized that, I wouldn’t have expected or needed external recognition for doing something that met my core “why." Discovering your “why” is essential—the earlier in your career, the better. Maybe that means joining a professional development group or hiring a business or career coach. Maybe it’s making time to go on a women’s retreat each year or reflecting through your spiritual or religious practice. However you choose to reflect and learn, know that carving out this time and space is the ultimate investment in yourself and key to your future happiness and success in work and in life. 

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