Polished shoes. Sharp freshly pressed suit. A whistle on my lips and a spring in my step. I remember the first time I went into New York City for an interview out of college. Head in the clouds and ready to change the world. Now I would love to say over 15 years later that fateful day changed everything, but then I would be lying. In reality I went on a handful of interviews in the city that never sleeps, and in the end I ended up working at a real estate company in Morris Plains, NJ, because as a sales associate my Mom was able to get me an interview. Equipped with a Bachelor of Science in Economics, a Bachelor of Arts in Music, and a minor in Mathematics, I began my professional career as a Project Coordinator for a real estate recruiting department, which was a made up title for the new guy who did whatever my boss asked of me (my boss incidentally had just started in his new job in this recently created department a week before).
My first project is one that I will never forget and laid the foundation for the advice I would give to anyone starting out in the business world. Monday morning my boss came into my office, which was comprised of four cubical like work areas, and dropped a bag on my desk. This was it! The big show. The moment I had been waiting four years for was finally here! All of the classes. All of the studying and papers. All of the thought provoking debates till 3 a.m. with roommates (also 2 a.m. runs to Dorians for their mouth watering Hot Turkey and Bacon toasted sub). In this bag was the start of my rise to the top! Business books about my life will contain this bag and the unknown contents within it. Was it the financial records of my company and I was going to be asked to cut 30% of the budget? Was it a new proposed merger and I needed to analyze whether or not to go through with it (I may have watched The Secret of My Success a little too much as a teenager)?
No. It was none of those things.
It was just a bunch of business cards.
Apparently there was some real estate convention over the weekend and multiple sales representatives collected hundreds of business cards. My job was to figure out some way to itemize them, search them, and be able to print out labels to mail them real estate marketing materials to try and convert them to our company. Fun right? OK so not the most glamorous project, but it was a start, and one that would teach me the foundations of what I now know about business and office work. Now remember this was in the ancient year of 2001, a very barbaric time period with no smartphones, no scanning apps, no business card apps, just a “desktop” computer. I know right. How did we even function?
Here’s what I learned:
If you don’t know how to do something, figure it out
If someone asks you to collect the information from hundreds of business cards, and you aren’t smart enough to invent a smart phone and then build a business card scanning app (and app framework to host them), you were left with pretty much two options at the start of the 21st century (without buying a contact management system): Microsoft Excel or Microsoft Access (granted there were other software companies with similar products, but as anyone who works in an office knows Microsoft Office dominated the office suite of products back then, and in most cases still does today). I had worked with Excel of course in college, and had never before worked with Access, so naturally I chose Access as my tool for this project. Mainly, because I feel like when you build anything in business you should build it for the masses or in this case my office (this thought process about reusable processes and software has permeated into my career as a product manager of milSuite). Entering data into a spreadsheet was fine for this project, but frankly annoying and something that I wouldn’t have wanted passed off to anyone, so I decided to build a front-end form in Access for better user experience (still all about the UX). Access would also enable me to create reports to spit out a listing of labels (I knew none of this at the start, but after my initial hour of research I felt good about my choice). The good news is even back then there was the internet and lots of resources online about how to use Access, so I just plowed ahead looking up whatever I couldn’t figure out. I probably gave myself a day or two to research and execute my new business card form, but by the end of that week I was semi-dangerous at Access (and learned some simple SQL) and used the knowledge I gained in multiple other projects in those first few years. The lesson here is if you don’t know something there are a ton of resources to figure it out. You just need the intelligence, the persistence, and patience to learn it. Don’t let your lack of knowledge stop you from being a superstar employee, and if you are really at a loss stay at a Holiday Inn and see if that helps.
Sometimes work is boring and tedious
Another lesson I learned is that work isn’t all high fives and rounds of golf. Some of work is going to suck, and during those times you will most likely need an IV of coffee to survive it, or a few bathroom (see coffee IV) and hallway runs to shake up the monotony. I ended up calculating how quickly I could enter one business card, and then after counting up the total business cards determined how many hours I would need (minus much needed mental breaks and meetings, although they may be synonymous) to finish all 300-400 business cards (it was a long time ago so I don’t have an exact number, but 357 popped into my head when writing this, and as we know trauma leaves marks so I’ll go with that estimate). Needless to say I finished the last business card sometime Friday morning, leaving me ample time to learn how to produce reports and thus labels. Yet it had to be some of the most boring hours I have ever worked in the last 15 years (alright maybe some business proposals are up there), but it needed to be done so I did it, and I didn’t whine about it either. Just do the boring work, and then try to work your way out of it by automating as much as you can along the way (clearly the person who made the first business card scanning app knows what I’m talking about).
Work the hours that are needed and make efficient use of that time
Let me first say that my lessons for business are specific to “corporate” culture, and do not always work with every career. This is one that will vary with job, but if you are starting out or a 20 year veteran one thing you will generally need to do to be successful is work your ass off (wait so you don’t just play Pokémon Go). I know that some places don’t allow overtime or some jobs have unions and shifts and whatever else you think of to rebuke this point, but if you want to get ahead in a corporate environment staring at a clock waiting for the end of the day isn’t going to cut it. Yet as the cheesy saying goes, “work smarter not harder,” maximizing the hours you work to get the most done is better than working 14 hour days with little results. I definitely worked more than 8 hours per day that week, but I calculated how much time it would take me and knew that I needed to work roughly 12 hours a day straight to meet my goal (I worked a lot of hours the first 5-7 years of my career, but I have since learned a lot about the efficient use of my time, and I can now walk away to go be with family knowing that work will still be there). Remember though work and life balance is key, and sometimes that balance isn’t going to be perfect week to week so try your best to manage both equally (see my Life Quote post). The key is to not watch a clock and just do the minimum needed and expect promotions. You need to earn all that you achieve in life (or inherit a fortune and run for President, but I feel like that’s been done).
Learn how to deal with disappointment and don’t take things personally
The bag of business cards taught me a lot, but the lesson that may be the most important one I learned the following week. After a long week of researching, teaching myself databases, queries, forms, reports, the monotonous task of entering close to 400 business cards, and working 12 hour days to do it, on Monday I presented my labels to my boss and let him know that I had setup a system to capture future business cards. Captain Awesome was reporting for duty, and I felt pretty cool knowing I met the deadline. Yet what happened next taught me one of the most important lessons of business, because after getting those labels my boss never again asked me to use or do anything with that system I had created. He may have even said we don’t need them anymore (I can’t recall exactly but that feels right). Something else came up and whatever it was it took priority over the business card application I just built from scratch with no knowledge of anything I had done when I started. As you can imagine I was pretty ticked off initially. Yet a phrase I try to live by is, “it is about the journey not the destination,” and although my work was probably never used I learned a lot that week. I have since seen too many people in business get personally affected by drastic course changes, constructive criticisms, or frankly things not going their way in general. Never let yourself get emotionally attached to something in business as business is sometimes a volatile place. Sometimes you don’t fully understand why things happen without seeing the full picture. Just take a deep breathe, smile, and move on to the next task (wait staff and service industry personnel are great at this skill, since they get to see the worst kinds of people, and make great future corporate rock stars for this reason). Check your ego at the door and suck it up, because, “Life is pain, highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.” Get used to disappointment. It is how you recover and take on the next challenge that will truly define you.
A bunch of business cards won’t cover everything you need to know (other bathroom locations in your building as an example), but it lays the foundation for many of the lessons you will learn along the way. I’m thankful to my first corporate boss for giving me such a mundane task that I took as a challenge and probably went far beyond what was expected of me, but it was a great learning experience and I still look back on its lessons. This was the same boss who once told me he had been given a bunch of interns that he didn’t have enough work for, so he gave one group of interns a project to print out paperwork, then he gave the other group a project to shred that same paperwork the next day and vice versa (a true champion of the trees and the Lorax just felt a sharp pain in his chest as I wrote this).
I guess there could have been worse projects after all.