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.
Dredging up Genuine Emotions for Professional Purposes — I love when people say that someone is “just acting.” Acting is hard. Acting classes typically involve all kinds of gravitas-violating exercises designed to teach you to reach into the inner sanctum of your psyche and muck around in there and take all the stuff that you find and offer it to other people. (I dropped Acting I at Dartmouth after I was asked to allow my inner six-year-old to freely encounter others without preconceptions. I don’t have an inner six-year old. I have an inner forty-two year old. And very specific ideas about when it is appropriate to roll around on mats in front of other people and when other people are allowed to tell me how to breathe, both of which are basically never). Acting isn’t fake. It’s taking real emotions and learning how to channel them for specific purposes.
Certain careers, such as nursing and childcare, have obvious caring requirements. Some professions (trial lawyer in a class action lawsuit against tobacco companies) require a person to show up on time with a slow-burning furnace of aggression or righteous anger. Even in seemingly unemotional, office-based professions, it is tremendously beneficial to note when others are overwhelmed and you can throw them a bone, or even when the boss (often a person regarded as having no feelings at all) is feeling under-credited; employees often work on big projects that culminate in some kind of end project that can be celebrated and that attracts compliments, while the boss who steered the effort, warded off problems, and made the project possible in the first place doesn’t obviously produce a lasting, tangible product. How astute would you be to be able to offer your boss a genuine compliment on what it is that your boss does best, and that others rarely notice?
But whatever emotion it is that your job needs, a very important career skill is being able to cultivate and produce that emotion on demand. I teach test prep classes to adults. I bring a fuckload of empathy to my work. The minimum requirement of a competent teacher is presenting the material in a clear and understandable way. But think back to the last time you were in a class. Much of what runs through your mind isn’t about the material — it’s about various feelings of nervousness and anxiety (about being called on), and — based on your grasp or lack thereof of the material — possibly feelings of inadequacy and failure, or else arrogance and boredom. A teacher who reads facial expressions well will be able to note who’s feeling lost or intimidated and check in with those people by making eye contact at critical junctures to see that they’re following, and note who’s on top of the material and at the risk of being bored and call on those people for the big “a-ha” moments — there’s certainly a pleasure in revealing The Big Answer, and it is an emotional gift to give that pleasure away to others. And, of course, even when the teacher is not actively trying to check in — even when the teacher is shuffling papers during a break — other people are reading the teacher, and they can tell whether that teacher is open to being approached for questions. Empathy and openness are exuded even in our posture at the coffee station, in which way our bodies are facing when we’re opening those tiny packets of nondairy creamer. You can’t fake and micromanage those million tiny signals. Those million tiny signals come from a common core, and you have to bring it for real.
Personally, I find that, if I listen to my iPod all the way to work, I don’t have enough empathy when I arrive. I need empathy before I get in the elevator. I need to shut that magazine three stations before the train arrives. I need to imagine my most recalcitrant, least pleasant student, and then imagining being that student’s mother, and how much that student’s mother wants him to succeed and be happy. It takes three subway stops and a three-block walk. I usually arrive around the same time as my students, so I usually end up packed in a crowded elevator with at least one of my students. If I’ve been listening to my iPod, I do the “office nod” of acknowledgment. There’s no one in the world who would tell me that that’s not living up to the standards of my job. But if I’ve done the work, then I do better: I greet that person by name, and ask how her studies are going, and maybe am even able to offer an insight that benefits others in the elevator.
And this can be exhausting. In What to Charge for Your Work, I talked about jobs that it’s not even possible to do for 40 hours per week, and how someone performing such a job (tightrope walking, deep-tissue massaging quarterbacks, etc.) needs to charge accordingly. But, as with any skill, your capacity can improve with effort. Did you ever begin learning a foreign language and discover that you could learn maybe 8 new vocabulary words per day — but then, after studying the language for awhile and getting a feel for it, you could learn more like 20 vocabulary words in a day? It’s not just that the number of words you know is growing due to adding new words every day, but that the rate at which you can add words is also growing. I think this is possible if you practice deliberately cultivating emotions. When I first began teaching, I brought enough empathy to do the job well, and that was all I had: I was gruff to the people at the front desk, and possibly a total bitch to someone at Starbucks later that day. Now I have more empathy. I can help people and also give directions to tourists and also smile sympathetically at children who cry on the train all the way from 23rd to Wall St. You can grow this.
How do you develop this skill? I’d be a bit of a hypocrite to recommend an acting class (although I’m sure this is effective for many people), but I don’t think it’s a skill you need any special training for. Don’t use your commute to mentally escape. Use your commute to make yourself into the kind of person who wants to contribute to the job you’re about to do. Spend ten minutes visualizing the first ten minutes of your workday. Make a short list of all the people you see in the course of your workday. At some free moment, glance down at it: what do you think each person’s mental state is right now? Is there one person on that list you’re particularly well-poised to assist or to accomplish something with? This might be as simple as an email to someone prefaced with “no action required, just wanted you to know this is moving forward,” thus recognizing that the recipient is busy, and that you’re here to make that person’s life easier, not harder. It might mean waiting before presenting your brilliant idea to a manager damping down a crisis; your brilliant ideas aren’t about you, they’re about what you can do to provide value to whoever signs off on your checks.
Of course, there are other skills (besides being speedy and emotionally on-point) that provide a competitive advantage in a difficult job market. Not falling into the trap of doing something just because you’re good at it (never volunteer to take minutes at a meeting). I might add having an allergy to pre-defined roles (as I often tell high school students wondering what summer activity will most help their college admissions: do things that don’t have applications), and having the ability to compete with others without being a jerk. Can you always stay one step ahead of your coworkers without undermining them, taking credit for their work, or obviously muscling for position? Can you stay one step ahead of them while also … helping them?
The personality qualities I’ve brought to the fore here are characteristics that we often presume to be inherent parts of ourselves; we are or are not caring, altruistic people; we are or are not fast movers. I don’t think those things have to be true. Dredging up real empathy — or whatever emotion a task requires — is a job skill. You don’t have to be born a certain kind of touchy-feely person to make it happen, any more than you have to be born knowing Excel. You can become this kind of person, at least for the part of your week that you sell to others, and, fortunately, there’s no student loan debt involved whatsoever.