School Did Not Prepare You for Work


Congratulations! You’re out in the real world, living on your own, holding down your own job, building your career one day at a time. You made it through high school, through college, through the job hunt, and now you’re here: at work!

But you’re not entirely comfortable, are you? Something is slightly wrong with the world, but you can’t put your finger on it. You like your job, more or less. You like your company and coworkers, more or less. Your career seems to be on track. And yet you feel anxious, out of place, rudderless.

I think I know what’s bothering you.

The Past

The first twenty years of your life have almost no similarity to the rest of your life, and the rest of your life can be a very long time. The crucial difference is that for the first twenty years of your life, your existence is highly structured, more than you ever realized.

Every year, you move up a grade in school. Every year, you get a “promotion” complete with a new job title: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. You get a new set of classes with new teachers, with new classmates. You get to choose some or all of your classes, every semester. You receive individual grades for each class, for each paper and test!

Middle school, high school, college, grad school. You know the whole process from an early age, and there’s little question about your future. You can look ahead five, ten, fifteen years and know exactly where you’ll be. And there is a profound security in that kind of knowledge.

The Present

You’re at work. You were hired for a particular job for a particular boss at a particular company…and nothing’s changing.

Title

You have the same job title, year after year. If you are just starting out as a Junior Researcher or Assistant Developer, then maybe after one or two years you’ll get to be a regular Researcher or Developer. But then what? You may go five or ten years before you get another change in job title: Senior Researcher, Special Developer, etc.

In school, your “title” changed every year, and that change carried with it a sense of progress, a sense of change and growth and importance. Now, you have no idea when you might be promoted, and it depends on the economy, on your coworkers, on your boss or clients or a hundred other things you can’t control. This can be frustrating.

Feedback

In school, you got grades on everything. Gold stars, check marks, letter grades, numerical grades, report cards, SAT scores. Constant, measurable feedback on how well you were doing on every little thing. You can develop a very clear picture of yourself with that much feedback. Good or bad, the knowledge is reassuring.

But now, there are no grades. You submit reports and hear nothing back. You write drafts and get minor editorial notes. You develop software applications and just get tasks crossed off your To-Do list. At most, your boss says, “Good work” in passing.

An entire year passes in this manner, during which time you feel adrift, nervous, uncertain. Hoping that you’re doing well, hoping your contributions are being noticed and will be rewarded. Finally, you have a performance review, an awkward and semi-formal meeting in which your one little mistake is blown out of proportion and you’re too nervous to remember all of your accomplishments.

Activities

Your life in school prepared you in just the wrong way for your life at work. In early school, your classes are chosen for you, the class material is outlined by the government (of all things). In later schools, you have some say in which classes you take, and what sports or arts you’re involved in.

Then in college, a world a freedom! Of choice! You can pick all of your classes, pick your major, even invent a major! Study abroad, switch from economics to veterinary science just by filling out a form, play sports, start clubs, join a fraternity, take summer and winter classes. You’re in charge of everything!

Then you get a job, and suddenly, all of that freedom is gone. At work, you do what you are told to do, on someone else’s schedule, to someone else’s standards, regardless of whether you think it’s the right thing in the right way. You have just fallen from the pinnacle of being in control to the depths of being controlled.

The Future

As I said, back in school you knew the shape of your future: where you would be, and when. But now, who knows?

You can hope for a cost-of-living raise, you can hope for a performance bonus, you can hope for a promotion, but the bottom line is that you don’t know if they will ever happen, not for certain.

Sometimes at interviews, you’re asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” This is one of the most ridiculous questions imaginable in our day and age. When you consider the unpredictable nature of our global economy, and the radical impacts of new technologies, it becomes more and more impossible to predict the future. Whole industries are springing into existence every day, and whole industries are becoming obsolete, albeit a bit more slowly.

Unless you work in the military or the government, there is a high likelihood that you will work for many different companies in many different roles, reinventing your career and your goals as often as every five years. Some people find that fact unsettling, even frightening. Others find it exciting.

The bottom line is that you start working as early as 20 and could still be working at 70, or later. That’s 50 years of totally unstructured career time. 50! Take a moment to consider how much time that really is, how much time you will spend muddling along and figuring things out for yourself.

How to Cope

  • Be patient. The first thing you need to do is accept the fact that working life plays out much more slowly than school life. There are fewer changes, and they can be quite far apart. This is normal.
  • Be yourself. Stop comparing your career path to those of your friends, your peers, and especially your parents. You are none of those people; you are you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the exact same job as someone else. Your life, your work, your career is a completely unique thing of your own creation. It will play out at its own rate, in its own way. Focus on yourself, and let others take care of themselves.
  • Be flexible. There is no way to predict what sorts of challenges or opportunities will arise for you, personally. Just being in the right room at the right moment could mean the difference between getting an exciting new assignment, or suddenly (and unpleasantly) realizing that you want to find a new job, or a new career path. Pay attention to the big picture, and remain open to the possibilities that present themselves.

Want something more concrete? Here are two examples from my own life:

  • I went to college to become an aerospace engineer, and left with a BA in English Literature. I have no idea whether one is any better than the other. I only know that I graduated with the skills and knowledge to support myself and my family in a career I enjoy, which is really all that matters.
  • I took a job as an executive assistant. It was just supposed to be a way to pay the bills until I found a “really good” job, but I discovered a way to turn it into a “really good” job and spent the next six years publishing books and journals as an editor and artist for that same company.

Take the time to reassess what you are doing and your reasons for doing it. Where do you think your career is going, and why? Are you happy with where you are and your apparent progress along your career path?

School taught you to follow a plan. But in life, and at work, no plan survives first contact with reality. The ability to adapt (and a sense of humor) will take you farther than any plan.


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Joseph Lewis is a writer and editor who has worked in the public and private sectors, including military, health care, and technology firms. Visit Joe's site

Discussion

  1. Luce on the 22nd October

    It’s a really great thing you wrote this article because I felt that way not a long time ago. It’s just a bit scary when you start your career while all your friends are going to the university, etc etc. Right now I love my job and I see challenges every week so it’s great and I’m not so worried. I’ll trust myself in knowing what’s good to do with my life.

  2. Nikki Jeske on the 23rd October

    Wow, you really hit the nail on the head with this one. I’m still in a state of disbelief that I’ve reached that “adult” point. I’m finally in a full-time job, and while it’s not in a field I went to school for (Writing), it’s something I enjoy (web design). But I do feel like I was never really prepared for this sudden stop in progression. It makes me want to go back to school. I guess I understand why so many people talk about going back to college. It’s familiar and it allows you to learn more than what you do at a stagnant career. Here’s hoping things start moving faster here at work. Maybe with a little more on my plate, it won’t feel so lack luster.

    Awesome article.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd October

      Thanks, Nikki.

      One way to keep work interesting is to be more proactive. Dream up new projects that you can do and propose them to your boss. Take some initiative. Do what you want to do, and find ways for your company to benefit from those things.

      You’re in Web design? Awesome! Keep suggesting new features and lines of business to your boss or clients. Throw ideas at people until something sticks. Not only will it keep you busy and happy, but it will make you a more valuable employee!

  3. ArleyM on the 23rd October

    My alma matter still teaches web design with table based layouts. CSS, RSS, CMS, PHP, JS are all out the window.

  4. Justin on the 23rd October

    So true. This is exactly where I am in life right now. Figuring this out…

  5. Mark McDonnell on the 23rd October

    Good article, sums up a lot of the feelings I think people go through after 10yrs (or so) in the business.

  6. Troy Peterson on the 23rd October

    Nice Post!
    I completely agree that school (especially college) did not prepare me for the Real World.

    Much of the work is the same, but the deadlines, the pressures, everything is intensified and shortened.

    Internships greatly improve your readiness for the “Real World” but at the same time, you typically don’t rely on an internship to pay for your food, mortgage, and living expenses. So, there’s not as much pressure to succeed.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd October

      @ Troy,

      I encourage every young person I meet to get a job while they are in school, even if they don’t need the money or don’t think they need the experience. It’s not always about the resume; sometimes it’s just about seeing what Real Life is really like.

  7. Jen on the 23rd October

    Great article! I had trouble with this last year and I know some of my friends do too. I think coming to terms w/ ending up doing something totally different than we went to school for originally is tough. But if it makes you happy and pays the bills who cares!

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd October

      @Jen,

      Exactly. Unfortunately, I think many young people struggle with this transition more and more. We have continued to evolve the education system to include more control and flexibility. And while some employers have embraced those same ideals, most have not.

  8. Cindy on the 23rd October

    Thanks so much for this article! I’ve been working for a company since January (graduated with my MA in December)..they hired 2 of us, myself and a BS level person, and threw us into a brand new program (that our supervisor personally knew nothing about, either, her supervisor had written the program)..We really didn’t have much instruction, or supervision, but were doing the best we knew how (and were being told we were doing well, from what they saw). Well, about a month ago an outside agency began an audit..and is finding a lot of things which did not match our contract (which we never saw, and many of the things we have documented that we were TOLD to do 2 different ways by the 2 different supervisors)..now we are basically getting in trouble for not doing things right, when we were never told how to do them! It’s very frustrated, especially since I previously (thought I did anyway) loved this job, and could see myself working for this company for a long time..I now want to at least finish up this year, so I can clean stuff up and not leave on a bad note, but will be more than ready to start looking for something new come January.

    I really appreciated your statements about how things can change so quickly, and your advice to just “be flexible”..my first thought was that Id be failing if I do not stick it out here, but I am starting to realize that’s not necessarily the case. We are not living in “our parents world.”

    Thanks again!

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd October

      Cindy,

      It sounds like you’re already figuring out the most important things about professional life in the 21st century. Adults make mistakes, no matter how senior they are. And things can go wrong, no matter how much you do right. To be successful and keep your sanity, you just need to roll with the punches.

  9. Alison Rowan on the 23rd October

    I absolutely LOVED this article. In general, I skim blog posts. Very rarely do I read one in full, word for word. This one, I did. You make a ton of great points. I’m still in high school myself, so I have yet to experience the jolt from the constant grade progression to working life. I had never thought much of the constant moving up in grades, but I do think you’re right. I will miss that. The lack of feedback with be a difficult adjustment, too. I thrive on positive feedback. I’m driven to work hard by my desire for top marks.

    That said, I have no idea what the solution to this problem would be. Making school as mundane as a desk job would definitely discourage students from sticking with it. Some classes are already unbearable. But every workplace can’t be expect to promote every worker regularly and give constant feedback. It’s not feasible, efficient, or affordable. So, what’s the solution? You’ve got my mind going!

    • Joseph Lewis on the 23rd October

      Alison,

      Most employers today operate very similarly to those of ten to thirty years ago. The same business models, treatment of employees, etc.

      The progressive companies with outstanding work/life programs and exciting atmospheres are regrettably few and far between.

      Being in high school, you’re in a great position to think and plan holistically for your career. Don’t just think about the tasks you want to do (art, medicine, law, etc.) but the kind of world you want to walk around in all day. Do you want to work with kids/animals/customers or just with coworkers? Do you want to work alone or on a team? Do you want to be in an office or outside? How important is job security to you?

      If you can get the details right, you’ll be doing yourself a huge favor in the long run.

  10. Aaron on the 23rd October

    Very interesting post!

    I completely agree with you: the Prussian education system we’ve adopted in the United States does not prepare you for real life, because real life is [fortunately] about freedom, responsibility, and self-development — not being an indoctrinated drone of the system in the way Prussia concocted the system for. Reading the history of this education model is pretty astonishing, there’s no guise about its original design and propagation: state control. Wow, no wonder!

    I consider myself extremely fortunate because I was home educated. Your curriculum is very hand-crafted for your own needs, not a package delivered benevolently from the state. The concept of a “grade” often doesn’t even really apply because you may study various subjects at different “grade levels.” Your education is very much your own responsibility from a very young age, with the guidance of your parents and/or tutors whose instruction is very specific to who you are, not a generic system. You can even make starting a real business part of your education!

    Just a few thoughts to think about. :) Great blog, been enjoying it for couple months now.

    • Joseph Lewis on the 3rd November

      @ Aaron,

      Actually, my point is just the opposite. School gradually builds you up with greater freedoms and control over your life, until you are designing your own education in college.

      But then in the real world, you really don’t have that much freedom. You can only take the jobs you are offered, which are usually quite few (especially in this economy). When young, your job is usually tightly constrained, you have no freedoms, you are expected to follow instructions and not rock the boat.

  11. Alison Rowan on the 23rd October

    Joseph,

    I’ve been putting a huge amount of thought into that lately. I’ve settled on the idea of working full time freelance in graphic design, for now, anyway. Preferably in New York City. 8D That’s my ultimate dream, and though it may change, I think it would suit me well. I work very well independently. I’m a bit of a control freak, and love the feeling of accomplishing something big on my own. I’ve been working to improve my work habits this year, as well, which I do see improving. Obviously, this is important when acting as your own boss. Honestly, I don’t think there is such thing as job security anymore in the vast majority of fields, so the idea of freelance doesn’t scare me. I think one thing I’m doing right is that I’ve already started doing freelance work, so I’m able to get a taste of what it’s like, so the transfer shouldn’t be a total shock!

  12. Vijendra on the 23rd October

    Hi Joseph great article as I’m a web designer and i wanted to became a 3D Artist but by luck i got in to this business … so i think personally that this article is very relevant to our real life… thanks once again for sharing your views with us.

  13. Florian Rohm on the 24th October

    Very good article!
    Though I’m german I know another type of school, but in fact it’s the same way things go.

    I must admit the article let me see things clearer (as it’s written in the perspective of one who lived those things through) but also frightened me a little bit since I’m not quite sure what to do after school and whether my plans, once made, survives the future.

    Thanks,
    Nym Traveel aka Flo

    • Joseph Lewis on the 24th October

      Florian,

      Odds are, your plans will changes several times over the course of your career. But don’t focus on the negative aspects of your old plan falling apart. Instead, look at each change as an opportunity to rethink and reinvent yourself for even greater success over the next few years.

  14. Taylor Satula on the 24th October

    Really great article. I really enjoyed it.

  15. Stephanie Lewis on the 24th October

    I couldn’t have put it better myself. :-)

  16. C.44 on the 24th October

    Even though i’m on the other side of the pond, i’m experiencing the exact same probem. Got out of school, turned an internship into a fulltime job and went from there.

    All said and done that lasted about a year and a half. After that i looked around wondering what to do next for about half a year. Then bills started to pile up and it was time for a decent solution. I started working for my fathers company and that lasted a good 5 years. That company eventually went bellyup because the two owners basically couldn’t disagree more on just about everything.

    I still wanted to help my father out and we each started our own little business. I’d hire him for some jobs and vice versa. But both our companies are having a very hard time to find new customers. When i first started out in 2007 i had as much clients in a month as i have now… in a year.

    Obviously this isn’t paying the bills and i really am starting to dislike certain parts of the itself aswell. Problem is, i really don’t know what else to do. All the degrees and certificates i once got and earned are just about worthless nowadays. Plus i don’t even know if i really actually still like any of those things.

    The only thing i know is that i NEED something new. I already thought of going back to school and learn something new, but i also need a fulltime job to pay for the stuff on my plate at the end of the day. And rent wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

    I’ve also been thinking about moving 300km to a, for me, completely different world. Much bigger city, much richer economy (judging from all of the lambo’s and porsches driving about) and overall a much more relaxed feeling/mood. Somehow this idea has been following me around for a couple of weeks now…

  17. Ann Teeter on the 25th October

    I don’t think school is designed to prepare you for a job in ‘real life’ – never has been. It could/should prepare you to think critically and teach you how to verify facts for your self. It should also teach you what past generations have discovered or written. What does reading or watching A Midsummer’s Night Dream really teach you for ‘a job’ unless you are a Shakespearian actor? Aside from all the phrases and characters you will encounter (Lord what fools these mortals be!) in plays, books, the web, etc not too much. The study of history does teach you quite a lot of things past generations have tried and failed or succeded. Like dont’ start a war in Russia and try to retreat in the winter. All empires fall eventually. Washing your hands before delivering a baby increases the mortality of mother and child. Real estate will never go down in value. You might not do these things but when you see others doing this, you can say – hey this has been done before and I remember from history it did/did not work out too well.
    Above all you need schooling just to get the jokes.

  18. Jen on the 26th October

    Great post. And we wonder why so many of us are having mid-life or, god forbid, quarter-life crises. You just get to this point a few years (or months) into your “working life” when you look around and go, what’s the point? How did I get here? It’s easy to forget just how much control we all have over what our work life entails.

  19. monica from hola!design on the 28th October

    great post! I agree, school doesn’t prepare you for the real life and it can be scary. I specially like the part when you mention be yourself and don’t compare your career with your friend’s .
    thank you!

  20. Azizuan Aziz on the 1st November

    Couldn’t agree more! But sometimes I can’t be myself because of my boss are so bossy. “Do this”,”do that”,”do this first” . All those can ruin my mood and rhythm and work tempo and everything. I even lost my concentration on some task because I have to do something else. Patient is the most important at this moment because you might get emotional anytime which I almost get pissed off some of the times. Besides, school also didn’t prepare us to the babbling stuff. I can handle the work load but babbling is such a burden to my mind. It makes me lost my motivation to work. It’s good to have a boss that love to babbling but at the same time know how to appreciate their subordinates. But when things doesn’t be like that, you’ll feel like you just want to quit after throwing the PC monitor.

  21. Silvia on the 24th November

    From what I read in this post, it seems as if you expected schools to prepare people for life, not just work. Schools may prepare you for work (or not), and you could also acquire some skills that you could use in your life, not just at work, but as big a part of life work may be, I think it shouldn’t be expected that people will learn in school everything they need in life.

    What I find ironic about schools not preparing people for work (and I mean work specifically), is that some people consider going back to school as an option when they get fed up from their current work and want new career opportunities.

    Freedom in school, lack of choice at work? That depends on the point of view; others could say school is too structured and work is more open. I have friends who feel more at ease now they’re working than when they were students.

    Regarding the titles you get, here’s another point of view, just for the sake of reflection:
    Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior? Your title doesn’t really change during your school years, you’re just a student. Your title in your professional life could change as you said, from Junior researcher to Assistant Developer, and even to some other type of profession; it could change as you make choices.

    On the other hand, I totally agree that when you’re a student there’s a sense of assurance that for at least some years you won’t have to trouble yourself with decisions on where exactly you want to go next.

    Bottom line is, the subject is too complex to make loose statements.
    By the way, I loved Ann Teeter’s reply :)

  22. Isabelle C. de Andrade on the 30th November

    Hello!

    This post is just awesome!

    It just reflects the situation of ex-students/new-employes from every country around the globe.

    Being this the case, I was just wondering: can I translate this article to Portuguese and post it in a blog or something (with the proper credits and links, of course)?

    Thank you very much for the read.

    Best regards,

    Isabelle.

  23. Clint Carlson on the 9th February

    “I took a job as an executive assistant. It was just supposed to be a way to pay the bills until I found a “really good” job, but I discovered a way to turn it into a “really good” job and spent the next six years publishing books and journals as an editor and artist for that same company.”

    I love that. A lot of people are afraid to made radical suggestions and don’t want to rock the boat at work. I have no idea why. I’d rather have an employee that suggests 9 unworkable ideas and 1 good one than none at all. I started as an admissions advisor here at Herzing University and after doing well playing around in social media (thus getting more enrollments) I was recently offered a Social Media Manager position. I pays to ask and experiment! Just keep trying/reading/implementing!

    Clint Carlson

  24. boohoo on the 16th February

    I am a little late to the party, but for me work is a flashback to all that I hated in my K-12 education. Basically a highly structured day with little to no say in how things are done. Essentially, designated leaders give work and you finish it by the deadline. If you do those tasks in a manner they like and communicate ideas they perfer to hear you will get “gold stars” (in the form of promotions, bonuses, raises etc). If you mimic their beliefs efficiently and put on a good show they give you the equivilant of a student leadership position (year book, student council etc). It drives me to exhaustion, just to keep the perfomance going day to day.

    Second, my degrees have no function in the jobs I can get hired for. It seems the result is that I went to school for appearances only. I wonder if I will EVER get to use one iota of the education that I spent money on. Its not that I don’t like the people I work with, but I have to compromise everything I believe in to keep the total situation civil. If I had choices in life I wouldn’t likely associate with any of them other than acting cordial for the limited periods in which I needed to be engaged with thier company. I know life is not a barrel of monkeys, but I also didn’t expect my working life to have no cognative engagement other than being the equvilant of a reluctant shakespearean actor day in and day out.

  25. anonymous on the 5th September

    Whoever made this article’s an unappreciative hypocrite. Without school, you won’t be able to function well in the real world. Think about it.

  26. Bryant on the 13th September

    Identified you website by way of google I must say I m amazed along with your content!

  27. Some dude on the 16th September

    Really great article.

    I can relate to EVERYTHING you have stated. One point I’d like to add is that learning in general doesn’t work the same way in the real world as it did in school. Teachers were paid to do nothing but teach you material that they are very familiar with. Books were made to teach you EXACTLY what you needed to know for the problems or situations that you were given in school. In the real world, there’s rarely documentation that shows you how to solve a particular problem. You are at the mercy of your coworkers to teach you. They probably don’t have the time to sit down with you and teach the material to you in detail. Even worse, some coworkers purposely hoard information in order to keep a leg up on you. Who can blame them? Who wants to part with their knowledge when it’s the closest thing to job security that exists this day and age? You have to learn by trial and error and learn by your mistakes. I was so unhappy with my first real world job because I learned VERY little compared to what I learned in college. It always felt like pulling teeth to extract the info from coworkers that were just too busy or annoyed to help out the new young guy.

    Also, there’s no longer any “right” or “wrong” answers and even if there were, you couldn’t check the back of the book to make sure you “got it right”. Now there’s several solutions to the problem and knowing which is the “best” answer usually requires a crystal ball and extremely good fortune telling skills. You have to pick one of many possible solutions and usually your decision is questioned by bosses and coworkers and you end up having to defend your position.

  28. Ed Hamilton on the 16th December

    All true. But short on answers. I can also make long descriptive posts with little bit of coping skills for it. The challenge is, what’s the answer. Coping isn’t an answer.

  29. Old Miller McMillerson on the 18th January

    I went/go to Purdue University. The only thing I learned from school is that most of my competion for jobs were stupider than random crack addicts I’ve met while wandering around in Detroit, but were white and had families with more money. My proudest achievement was getting hired for software development engineer position at a small, elitist company without having a degree yet. This is my first “real” job, and after years of working kitchens, cleaning up shit, and spending months eating nothing but white rice whiel trying to pay bills and tuition (and being laughed out of classrooms by idiotic little pricks who never worked a day in their life because I couldn’t afford new clothes), all I can say is that if the worst of your problems at work is that somebody isn’t coming along huffing your farts and telling you they smell like roses every few weeks… wow. I’ve never seen anything more worthy of being listed as a “first world problem”.

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