Featured

The unicorn skill

Work has been absolutely grueling recently. A short staff and big upcoming deadlines have meant that I’ve been getting into the office at 6 a.m., working weekends, and falling asleep on the couch right after dinner. That has also been the primary reason that blog posts haven’t been regular (sorry!).

Because my job has been a trial by fire, I’ve also had a crash course in imposter syndrome and a chance to hone my skill of being able to quickly make up for resources I don’t have.

Enter the unicorn skill. I now act as the team lead for a small number of colleagues, and am part of the interview process to fill more positions. If there is one thing that I dearly want to improve myself and see fellow emerging adults improve at, it is the ability to figure sh*t out.

I have long since given up counting how many problems or questions I face per day that I don’t know the answer to. Sometimes it’s helping a coworker with a task, sometimes it’s diving into an assignment with minimal training, sometimes it’s digging up resources on topics that aren’t clear.

The trick is that there is no way to ever completely master this skill, but it is crucial to succeeding both in many professional roles and when figuring out this whole adulting thing.

Know what you don’t know. There is no such thing as being overprepared; however, you will much more often find yourself accidentally underprepared. If that underpreparedness is your fault, figure out how to fix it for next time, but sometimes there is nothing you can do to avoid it. If you can identify the key elements of the problem that you don’t know/have, then you’ll know exactly what to look for.

Own what you do know. What do you already know about the topic or task? Is it similar to something you’ve encountered before? Don’t sell yourself short when it comes to experience. For example, I just wrapped up a project at work updating a big product catalog. It wasn’t something I had done before in this capacity, but having spent most of high school and college doing yearbook and then student journalism, I knew the bones of the process were the same. I knew how to work backwards from a deadline, brushed off some InDesign skills, and made it happen. Anything you’ve done in the past that you think could help probably will.

Dig first, and dig well. Google is your friend, as are any other resources at your disposal. When I’m asked a question I don’t have the answer for at work, I go digging — through our files and management systems, through emails, through our website, and then through some thoughtful keyword Google searches. Often, I find the answer within a few minutes. Even if I don’t, I usually get more information or a clearer picture of what’s missing.

I cannot tell you how many times someone has messaged me a question, and then figured it out on their own before I’m able to respond a couple minutes later (of course, I’ve done the same too many times). The moral: don’t. Learn how to use what’s at your disposal to help you when the answer isn’t obvious.

On the other hand, know when it’s time to ask for help. There comes a time when you’re wasting your time by continuing to search alone if someone else could either 1) provide the answer, or 2) assist you in the search. Once you’ve done the legwork to make asking for help as useful and easy as possible for the person you’re asking, being able to ask is important. It’s not an admission of failure or incompetence to ask someone with more expertise or resources for support.

We’re all in the same boat. Figuring things out on the fly is a skill that I think we all need, and which most of us are forced to develop at some point. Remember that it’s always someone’s first rodeo, and it’s likely that anyone you’re working with also wants a good outcome from the task. Imposter syndrome has a habit of making you feel like you’re the only one who is underprepared, and everyone else has it all figured out, when that is a bold-faced lie. None of the rest of us know what we’re doing either — we’re just working on knowing a little more some of the time.

What’s your favorite tool when you feel underprepared? Let me know in a comment below or on Twitter @ohgrowup! Thanks for reading, and good luck adulting.

(Photo is a free stock photo because I’m busy, y’all.)

Experience for the inexperienced

Meeting the qualifications for a job isn’t easy. Being actually prepared for the job is even more difficult. And though I will admit that my experience is limited, I’ve found that the big long list people often cite of things that will prepare you for the working world can really be boiled down to a few major things.

So, particularly if you’re feeling like you’re lacking in experience or are just starting out in the emerging adult world, focus on these things:

Interning. Interning somewhere you love is great, but this is really about base experience. Get your foot in the door somewhere. First, future employers will see that you’ve at least put in some office time, or the equivalent for your field. Second, you get to know if you do or don’t like the type of work before you commit to an actual job. Third, you’ll just become more familiar with the working environment and hopefully feel a little less lost once you step into it permanently.

Of course, a part-time or full-time job is also great experience, but in a lot of fields that’s nearly impossible to get without internships. NOTE: This is not the case everywhere, but in lots of places there are legal requirements regarding compensation, usually meaning that if you aren’t being financially compensated you’re obligated to receive school credit. If whomever you’re interning for isn’t on board with either of those, it might be time to consider other options.

Group projects. I know you hate them. I do too. And there was a time when I was naïve enough to look forward to being done with school so that I didn’t have to deal with them anymore. The truth is the rest of your career will be, in some way or another, filled with group projects. In other words, learn how to handle them well. Also keep track of significant experiences in group projects as examples to give during interviews with potential employers.

I’m really fortunate in that my major in college provided a billion and one opportunities, including multiple classes where we had semester-long, large-scale projects. None of the direct results were groundbreaking (though one project did get published!), but the skills I got to hone in those projects have made me much better-equipped to handle myself now. So yeah, they suck, but they can actually pay off.

Hard skills. I can’t emphasize this one enough. It’s great that you know stuff, but employers want to know that you can do stuff. I actually wish this is one that I had been more proactive about, because while I have some hard skills (particularly with Adobe CS), more computer skills (like HTML) would have qualified me for a wider range of positions. I made up for it a bit in this area by having very specific softer skills under my belt, like experience with writing/editing styles, certifications, and work samples — so it can also be worth looking for opportunities like that if they can apply to your field.

The good news is you can always learn hard skills, whereas the window of opportunity on interning and group projects is a bit more limited. But that doesn’t mean you should put it off until post-college or late in the game if you can help it. Find a basic coding class, or take a shop class that relates (even loosely) to what you want to do.

Be nice. This one feels obvious to the point of debating its inclusion, but it’s no joke. Being not only polite, but amiable and gracious, can do just as much to help you land a job as a lot of experience. And guess what? You can gain experience in that literally whenever, and it very well may set you apart from other applicants. Just remember, people hire people who they want to work with.

I hope that was helpful, and I’d love to hear what you’ve found served as the most valuable experience. Let me know in a comment below, on Twitter @ohgrowup, or Instagram @oh.grow.up! Thanks for reading, and happy adulting!