Today, I’d like to add #4 to 6 to my list of things I have learned in my 55 years. (You can find the first three here.) These are:

#4  You were hired to DO shit

Newly-minted PhDs are only marginally the worst, plenty of non-PhDs give them a run for their money. Maybe it is because in school you aren’t required to do much, not actually start a business, or design and build a new product, but simply answer questions on how it should be done or how the company in the case study did it wrong, and cite some sources. I will always remember the day, fed-up with a new employee coming into meetings and lecturing us on what we needed to do differently, one of our senior partners growled,

“Listen, we didn’t hire you to tell us what to do. We hired you to DO shit!”

In other words, if you think we should write a survey, read an article and cite it in a proposal, create a  macro, hold a focus group, meet with schools to recruit subjects, don’t come into my office and tell ME to do it. Do it. If you need my permission, ask me if it is okay. If you want my advice, bring me a draft of your work and have me review it.  Two examples, that just made my jaw drop:

A person with a degree in medieval English literature or modern languages or one of those things that no one actually pays you to do, was hired to do some editing. She sent me back the document with all kinds of instructions on grammar – delete this comma, read the Microsoft style guide on how to do headers, change this to a semi-colon. It would have taken her much less time to make the changes than to send it back to me and no, she didn’t make the changes and track them for me to approve – she had a comment on each one telling me what I should do there.

I gave someone a figure that needed to be reduced to fit within the page size for publication. They sent it back with instructions on what I could do to reduce the size and suggestions on elements to take out.

When I was getting my MBA, a very useful piece of advice came from one of my professors who said,

“No boss ever hired anyone for the express purpose of pointing out problems. Never go to your boss with a problem without at least a suggestion for a solution that YOU can do to fix it.”

This is the reason many people fail as consultants. Although the word means “one who is consulted”, that is asked, what most clients want isn’t for you to advise them. They want you to fix their problem. No matter how brilliant you sound, if you don’t fix it, next time they’ll call someone else.

#5 No, you are not smarter than God

I’m sure you went to a top school and you learned a lot of stuff, some of which I don’t know, because there is a huge amount of knowledge in the world and I only have a teeny-tiny fraction of it. So do you. Don’t speak contemptuously of your boss, co-workers, fellow students or professors because they don’t know PHP or how to code a CONTRAST statement or the author of whatever it is that you last read. It will get back to them and they will probably be annoyed. They may be so annoyed that when you should know something, they won’t tell you because, after all, you know everything.

These days, I try to do at least a little programming every week, but I have two grant proposals do, a report to a client and a book coming out (on groundwork for judo and mixed martial arts). There have been periods in my career when I was lucky if I could write a program a month. That’s when I realized that my old professors or the out-of-date person I worked for way back when was probably not the tiniest bit duller than me. They had other things to do than know the latest technology or every current article on bean-counting, because they were bringing in the grant money, contracts or students that kept the doors open and paid my salary.

Related to this, don’t go charging in anywhere and insist derisively that things need to change here and here and here and here. Wait a while and you may see that the reason we have several very old computers is so that we can test applications on hardware our clients might use, or try to replicate a problem a client had. You may find out that the reason we don’t randomly assign students to experimental and control groups is that we need to work with the school and they can’t really see explaining to parents why their children didn’t get to be in the group using the shiny new toy.

Another good bit of advice from the commencement speaker, also when I got my MBA (in 1980, if you must know)

“Ladies and gentlemen, when you get your diploma, read every word of it. Turn it over and look on the back. Notice that nowhere on there does it say, ‘I now know everything.’ Act accordingly.”

#6 Listen 

Don’t be one of those people who just is waiting for their turn to speak.  Ask people what they think, not as a device you learned for networking or sales or some crap like that. Ask because you really want to learn from them. (See #4 above.)

When young people do all of the above, do I think they are annoying and stupid. (Okay, honestly, sometimes.) More often, I think this is God’s punishment because the above were my  three absolute greatest faults as a young person and I work on them to this day. On the other hand, it may depress you to know that sometimes when the boss says,

“You remind me of myself at your age.”

That it’s not always a good thing.



I forgot how old I was for a while. Someone asked me how old The Rocket Scientist is and I said 57, then I had to think how that could be when he is three years older than me. So, yes, I will be 55 this year. I guess turning 54 happened when I was busy and it kind of came and went. This is the age when one could theoretically retire under a lot of the old gold-plated retirement plans, though people usually don’t. The Rocket Scientist actually retired at 56. Young people starting work now, I think have to work until they turn 82 or drop dead in their tracks, whichever comes first. It’s also the age at which one is supposed to have some sort of wisdom to impart.

Inspired by this really good post from the Chicago Tribune on 50 things I’ve learned in 50 years, I decided to add my own, but since unlike that author, writing is NOT my full-time job, I thought I would try to get 55 out by the end of the year. Maybe even by my 55th birthday. Here are my first three. These aren’t necessarily the most important, but these are three things I learned that were worth learning.

1. Learn tact.

Last week, I was interviewed for an HBO special they  are doing on my daughter’s upcoming UFC fight. The interviewer was incredulous when I said there were some things I would not say, since even someone who has known me for only 20 minutes can see that I am pretty outspoken. Here is when you should not say something:

Just because you have the right to say something doesn’t mean you should. You can’t go through life not offending anyone. That’s impossible. You should try not to hurt people and not to do damage to your professional relationships. In short, don’t be an ass.

2. Find some perspective

For 14 years of my life, I competed in judo. I won a world championship, the first American to ever do so. Even though I earned two degrees, married and had a job, for most of that time, my life centered around judo training and competition. If I lost, I felt as if I had lost my best friend.  Then, I went on to have four children, get divorced, get a Ph.D., bury my second husband and start a couple of companies (not in that order). The first time the national championships had passed months ago without me even remembering to check who won, it made me realize how much my priorities had changed.

These days, I can be working 80-hour weeks trying to get a proposal out and it seems like getting funding for our game is the most important thing in the world. Actually, it turns out that the world is a really big place and that billions of people have never heard of our game. To some of them, this year’s harvest is the biggest thing in the world. To others, it’s that their a capella group wins the nationals (I presume they have nationals) and to others it is finishing that needlepoint that they have been working of for months, or getting tenure as an Associate Professor of Italian in the Modern Languages Department and if they don’t, they’re a FAILURE.

country road

How can I possibly equate a life-changing event like failing to get tenure, failing to complete a needlepoint and crop failure? Two reasons. One is that while it may be of great importance to you personally, to the vast, vast, overwhelming majority of humanity, it doesn’t matter a rat’s ass. It is NOT even close to the end of the world because …

3. Failure is not permanent and neither is success.

Now that I am old, and I have my own office, it often happens to me that I will be looking for something in a file drawer and I will come across a reminder from years ago – a medal, or a grant proposal. At the time, whatever it was meant a lot to me – several hundred thousand dollars that we used to pay staff for a couple of years and provide training to people in reservations across the Great Plains. But now it’s over. Maybe it was an article that got published or a grant that got rejected. Either way, it made me happy or upset at the time but now it is just stuck in a drawer. Even my trophy from the world championships is in a box in a closet somewhere. I’d really, really like to get the proposals I’m working on now funded. But, if I don’t, I’ll just turn around and write another one.

« go back


WP Themes