Make It Work: 5 Things I Wish I Had Known About Work

Most of us enter the working world pretty ill-prepared for the harsh realities of office life. Even college isn’t much of an education in that regard; hell, arguably the most valuable thing one learns in college is how to bullshit your way through a class you didn’t do the reading for — a life skill with many practical applications, but not necessary for the mechanics of modern work until you level up. For the basic, entry-level stuff — your first job after college that wasn’t at a coffee shop or a restaurant — there are quite a few sobering moments. Here are five things that I learned the hard way about work.

1. You will not end up doing what you thought you would be doing.

When I was little, I wanted to be either the editor of Vogue or The New Yorker, or a professor. I also wanted to be paid a quiet sum of money to write novels that I would publish and print myself, and distribute to a grateful and hungry audience, clamoring for whatever brilliance I came up with next. Somehow, right now, I have achieved a semblance of that dream. I’m not clamoring for Anna Wintour’s job, but I write words and a few places pay me money for it. That’s the closest I’ve come to unlocking this achievement, and it’s a relatively new one. Before this writing thing became a full-time-ish arrangement, I spent an awful lot of years making weird career mistakes in industries that didn’t make any sense for what I thought I should be doing. But then again, sometimes what we think we should be doing isn’t what we should be doing at all, so don’t be afraid to let your career aspirations evolve through the jobs you take on.

2. Work uses a lot of skills that you simply don’t have when you graduate from college.

College prepares us to be really good at making excuses, kind of okay at time management, and mediocre at any skills that are valuable or actionable. No one uses Excel for their wishy-washy liberal arts degree, and yet, so many entry-level jobs that you end up taking find you staring into the abyss of baby’s first spreadsheet, trying to figure out how to make a pivot table. College — nay, life — should better prepare you for whatever is coming once you’re out of school and looking for entry-level work that will let you use your dual degrees in French philosophy and 19th century metaphysics.

3. …But, the skills you learned in high school are going to come in pretty handy.

Navigating the shark-filled hallways of high school — or any other situation where there’s a miserable amount of human energy bursting at the seams –will prepare you nicely for the rigors of the modern workplace. Not every place is like high school, but a lot of places are. You found your place in whatever social hierarchy existed back then, but the best part now is that you have the wherewithal and the experience to transcend all that bullshit. If you were part of the theatre kids that ate lunch over by the dance studio and didn’t talk to the rest of the school, chances are you’re chilling with the people at work that don’t buy into company culture immediately. Keep this up. Never change. Don’t feel any immediate pressure to cave and transform. Recognize that it’s a choice, not a requirement and transcend.

4. Work is (sometimes) easier than you thought. 

Okay, so, a secret that no one will ever tell you about entering the modern workforce is that sometimes, just sometimes, it’s easier than you think it’s going to be. That entry-level job in whatever you’ve picked for your profession turns out to be a pretty easy, simple job. You don’t have long hours, you get paid a decent amount of money, someone lets you get up from your desk once a day for an hour to get an overpriced sandwich at Pret A Manger and walk around the block for 20 minutes, and you get to go home in time for “Jeopardy!” If you need an emergency root canal, you have a dentist that’s covered by your insurance who will fix it, and a boss who’s cool with you taking the rest of the day off to recuperate. You can slink into work on a Friday, a tiny bit hungover, still do your job adequately, and leave on time, with no one the wiser. SOMETIMES. No one tells you it’s going to be easy sometimes, but I will and dammit, when it is easy, it is a beautiful. It certainly helps make up for all those times when work actually, legitimately sucks.

5. Sometimes, whatever you’re doing at work doesn’t really matter. And you have to be okay with that.

If you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a nurse, a firewoman, or anyone who works directly with other people, helping them with physical or mental ailments, or defending the little guy, or saving kids from burning buildings, then rest easy — everything you’re doing truly matters. Someone is standing in front of you with a bloody leg and severe pain, and you fix that pain, stop the blood, close up their leg — that matters! The people I’m speaking to now are the rest of us, the glorified paper pushers who sit in an office, in a badly designed desk chair, at a computer and type things and send email all day. This is the kind of work that your bosses will try to convince you really matters, but at the end of the day, when you step back and look at why you were freaking out at 3 p.m. about the email you forgot to CC Athena on, and what that means for the rest of your process, you’ll realize that none of it matters. It’s okay that none of this matters, because you are not defined by your work. Care enough to do a good job, but don’t get caught up in the feedback loop in your head telling you that you spend eight hours of each day doing essentially nothing of any real impact. It won’t make those eight hours anymore meaningful.