Adapt or Die (Good grief, another serious one…)

“For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”
― Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Trust.  They seldom spent the energy to made busts in the ancient world of people who didn't know what they were talking about.  Except Caligula - he was cracked. (via)
Trust. They seldom spent the energy to make busts in the ancient world of people who didn’t know what they were talking about. Except Caligula – he was cracked. (via)

I’ve been watching a parable in motion the last little while, minions, and the results of pondering on it have been varied.

I’m training my replacement at work.  She is a very kind, good natured woman who loves her dogs and is a bit too generous to unappreciative family members.  But she is getting old and is increasingly unable to do the job she has now, and the department (in an effort to care for its people) wants to shift her somewhere else without letting her go.  It’s a very noble idea and I admire the sentiment behind it, but the application of it has been really frustrating to adapt to.  Because, though she is a lovely woman, she lacks some basic work skills that people take for granted these days.  I thought I would have to train her on responding to media requests, it turns out I’m teaching her how to cut and paste in electronic documents.

It’s uphill work and sometimes I get frustrated with her lack of focus and memory retention (she is older and not in excellent health), but working with her has been an insight into how I must look coming out of survivalist mode and into a new professional landscape.  Here’s the problem I (and a few other friends I’ve talked to about this) am facing.  I’m ambitious, I want to work hard, and I want to learn new skills.  But I’m mediocre.

I’m not talking about personality or aptitude (although that may be a conversation to be had when my ego is less fragile), I mean that I am indistinguishable in many ways from a lot of other workers.

I work at a university, and every year the incoming class of freshman – though admittedly growing, in my opinion, more loutish every year – have skills that I don’t have.  For the purposes of creating and marketing content, there are more ways now than there were when I graduated less than a handful of years ago.  These kids understand them almost intuitively because they make up the world they move and operate in.  I was born before the internet, the nephews and nieces we visited this evening have known how to operate smartphones since the could scoot haphazardly across the floor.  Frankly that same dubious personality and aptitude might be my best selling points currently, because looking over the skills and resumes of friends (to say nothing of these freshmen)…I have got catching up to do!

When I say I’ve been in survivalist mode, I mean it.  An entry level job where I have been able to gain some work skills, but precious few for the industry I want to work in, and even fewer local opportunities to pursue them elsewhere.  There was no other work to be had when I graduated, and within two months of my graduation work got even harder to find.  I was lucky I had the ability to put food in my mouth, so I hunkered down and focused on surviving – I’m only in retrospect realizing how stressed and scary it’s been, just surviving.  I see how people get stuck doing it.  I’ve always believed that to lever yourself up out of anything, poverty, ignorance, or bad circumstance, required a foothold of some kind, something to push yourself off of.  I believe that now more than ever because I’ve been living without a foothold for a long time (with a good education even) and it’s rough.  It’s limiting.  It doesn’t allow you to pay enough attention to peripheral developments that can help you.

That’s what happened to my trainee.  She learned how to do one thing and one thing only.  In the meantime things developed (like email and word processors) and she was so busy surviving on her one skill that now she can no longer do it, the road to learning to do something else is a hundred times more challenging for everyone involved.

Moral of the story: never quit adapting, minions.  Mediocrity is optional.

To that end I’m reaching out to friends and acquaintances I admire who can help point me in the direction to gain skills I lack.  I’m using every interaction I have for the MP to try and learn something useful and use it to be more effective.  I am trying to remember how to be creative and more proactive after a few years of monotony and prescription.  I’m trying (and gah, the sentimentality of this hurts physically to type) to be more optimistic and brave than I’ve needed to be for a long time.  It feels a bit scary and uncomfortable, to be honest, like stretching muscles and parts that have atrophied when I wasn’t looking.  I’m not special at all, and that’s okay.  It just needs to be remedied.

Alright, that’s it!  Everyone out of the confessional!  Er, unless you have some wise words or musings to add in which case let’s just quietly snag those wafers and wine to munch on and slip back in to chat.

2 thoughts on “Adapt or Die (Good grief, another serious one…)”

  1. There was an employee I once supervised in the exact same circumstances. She was a super-nice older woman who tried really hard and really needed the money. Unfortunately it was a small company without other positions, she didn’t really have the skills or efficiency we needed and she made a lot of little mistakes. Learning new things was so overwhelming for her. Letting her go was one of my hardest days in that position, and I’m sure it was nothing compared to how she felt about the situation. Here was a woman who had made the culturally-approved move of the day to stay home with all of her children and focus 100% on her family, while always scraping by. Eventually she returned to an entry level job in the workforce and did the same task for many years. At the end of this she was a fantastic and compassionate person, which is so important, but was weak in employment areas, which is important too.

    We all have survival times–I’m going into one right now–but it is too easy to get stuck there. Here’s a toast to willpower, right?

    As a side note (and this is probably going to sound shallow), is that position being re-listed? I am going to be there in a week and would probably throw an application in.

    1. Yes, your story seems very similar to my coworker. The powers that be made this decision without really any input from me or my division, a major top down problem all around to be frank, and as it’s playing out they are realizing it’s going to be a lot tougher than they thought. Honestly if we worked anywhere else, I think they would let her go. Like I said, they are trying to take care of their people,” which I do admire, but the way they are going about it really is potentially detrimental to the office. I’m surprised they’re standing by it, but there it is.

      Not shallow at all! I have no idea if they are relisting it, but I will let you know if I find out that they are. I’ll also send you an email privately about some other postings in the area, the turnover rate is pretty decent so it’s worth checking in regularly to see if any positions at the university are posted.

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