In last week’s column, Personality Qualities Way More Important Than Anything on Your Resume, I noted that “An impressive resume is the new high school diploma.” A resume is a formality, it’s background information and you’re in the foreground — if you’re looking for work, you should depend about 20% on your resume and 80% on your skill in pitching ideas, your ability to make money for someone who can pay you a paycheck, and the reasons that others would want to be around you for eight hours a day.
Welcome to part II of that column. Here are two more personality qualities that trump anything you can write on a resume. And they’re a lot easier to get than that PhD….
Doing Things Faster — If you’re a freelancer, the faster you work, the more you get paid. I will point-blank tell people “I don’t think an hourly compensation structure is appropriate here. I’ve deliberately become very fast and efficient at what I do, and I’d like to be compensated based on the value of the work I’m providing.” That’s not quite as point-blank as “I’m twice as fast and I expect to get paid twice as much,” but that’s exactly what it means.
Schools almost never emphasize speed (although standardized tests do, which often leaves students woefully unable to perform under time pressure on these tests, even while knowing the material). Surely, there are some tasks for which time, solitude, and leisurely, creative thinking are paramount. I am all for giving students an entire semester to spend on a big term paper, or an entire class period to analyze a complicated calculus problem. I’m also for giving students 30-minute in-class essays, and math tests that require students to do math at a speed that would actually be useful to someone trying to solve a problem in physics, engineering, or business. Both approaches are useful and necessary. Just as college admissions is based on a mix of timed tasks (standardized tests) and more in-depth intellectual products (your application essay, which you can work on for years if you have the foresight to begin early), so is success in virtually everything else.
In sixth grade, my teacher would give the world’s … slowest … spelling tests. I mean, she would say “pacifist,” and wait thirty seconds, and say “pacifist” AGAIN, and wait another thirty seconds. It was infuriating. I got in trouble for reading a book in my lap during a spelling test (thanks, Mrs. Coleman); I could read entire chapters of books during one of these maddening spelling tests. The point of spelling words correctly is that you need to do it at about the speed that you talk — you can’t even maintain a train of thought if you’re writing at a rate of 30 seconds per word.
It’s important that small children not be frustrated, sure. Some kids take a really, really long time to learn to tie their shoes, and they turn out fine. We must not stamp out their natural love of learning, etc. But sometime before college, that gravy train has to end.
My high school age students are often flabbergasted when I tell them that, in college, it is totally normal that several different professors would assign entire books to you to be read in a single week. “I’ve got four books this week” was a common refrain in my undergrad years. Do you read every word of every book? Maybe not. It’s important to be able to sort through huge swaths of information and see what’s important. And it’s an enormous competitive advantage to be able to read really, really fast. There are numerous books on the topic of speed reading; there’s also just practicing more rigorous reading habits where appropriate. There’s the lazy reading we do for fun, the studious reading and re-reading we do of a serious work of literature, and the efficient, rigorous reading we do of a technical manual or textbook. The latter is the most applicable to the majority of careers.
You know what’s useful as a professional blogger and textbook writer? Being faster than everyone, and barely needing to proofread. Doing it right the first time. When I tutor, and we get something right, we’re not done. I say, “Great, let’s do it again. Let’s try to systematize what we just did so next time we won’t have to go through so many steps.” Not coincidentally, this is how I do nearly everything else.
If you’re writing a novel, feel free to take a decade. If you’re doing most of the sorts of things people pay you for, you’re going to need to speed it the hell up.
Here’s a suggestion: whatever your profession is, there are undoubtedly books being published on that topic all the time. Pick up a book you think most of your coworkers haven’t read. Plow through it efficiently — wrap your mind around the table of contents before you start, skip the parts that don’t apply, recognize when what you’re reading is just padding or an anecdote illustrating a point you already get and move on to something more on-point, write in the margins. Then, somewhat casually, write up a report on what you read and email it to your boss. “I was just reading this book on how to do X better and thought I’d share the best points of what I learned in case anyone else is interested.” Give three or so big points with about a paragraph under each. See if that email doesn’t get forwarded to a whole lot of other people, prefaced with some kind of note about this awesome thing you did on your own time. See if others start coming to you for expertise. See if you aren’t presumed to know more than what everyone in the office knows, since you obviously have an intellectual life in your field outside of the office. This is an area in which speedier people know more and it is obvious to everyone.