Work as an Education

What do you get out of work? Money, right? Yes, of course you get money, but you can do better than that. If you dig deep enough, you can extract everything of value from work. You can mine an education.

Let’s take the most mundane of jobs – operating a cash register. What could that possibly teach you? Button-pushing is not difficult, and it’s certainly not applicable anywhere else in your life. But there’s more to the job than just pushing buttons.

Operating that cash register can teach you to talk to a variety of people – and being able to talk to people is hugely important to your overall quality of life. So, operating the cash register is a chance to hone your small talk. In every single interaction, you have the opportunity to make 1-2 throw-away comments and see what sort of reaction they elicit. So, working the register can become a sort of social laboratory. Besides, maybe during some slow hour’s you’ll be able to engage with someone interesting.

I’ve heard of elderly people taking jobs at McDonald’s because it offers them an opportunity to socialize.

There’s more to the job than that. Although you might not want to spend your career serving fast food, you are presented with a constant stream of decisions. If you’re very diligent, and make smart choices, you might end up managing a shift, which opens up even more opportunities: dealing with difficult people, delegating, keeping morale steady, etc.

Of course, most people don’t want to work at McDonald’s. But that’s beside the point. Even though it’s a miserable job, you can still learn something – at the very least, about coping with boredom.


Now, if you have an office job, or really anything where there’s opportunity for advancement (ie, something referred to as a career rather than just a job), there are infinitely more possibilities.

Let’s use computer programming as an example career. There’s the first-order education, which is gleaning actual programming experience. Maybe this is useful to you in the long term, if you enjoy the work, or if you want to program on your own.

The second-order education is learning how to think logically and systematically. According to scientists (and Malcolm Gladwell, for what it’s worth) it takes about 3000 hours to master something, and 10000 hours of practice to achieve expert status. If you work an 8-hour day, spend an hour a day in meetings and another hour eating lunch, that means you’re getting paid to think logically for 6 hours a day. In two years, if you apply yourself, you’ll have put in the hours to be an expert. And that’s a skill that is applicable everywhere.

Now, maybe you aren’t a programmer. But odds are there’s some direct overarching skill that you’re exercising through your work. If you’re a mechanic, it’s analyzing what’s wrong with a car. If you’re a personal trainer, it’s being able to motivate people.

The third-order education is things that affect your productivity but aren’t related to your primary function. Are you great at planning time? At identifying opportunities those higher up in your company might not recognize? At managing projects? All of these are useful when retired. Planning time is useful when you want to be productive. Being able to identifying opportunities could let you be entrepreneurial. If you can manage projects you’d be a useful volunteer for Habitat for Humanity.

Finally there’s a whole universe of different social interactions that are important inside and outside work, but which are difficult to quantify. Are you able to engage people in water-cooler talk, instead of just discussing the weather? What about talking to new people in the awkward 3-4 minutes before a meeting begins? Are you able to pitch your product to new clients? Are you good at managing how other people perceive you? Are you good at standing up to pressure from superiors?

That’s a lot of questions! As you explore each one, a universe unfolds. Being able to manage projects, even small ones, means you need to be able to delegate, to liaise with different teams, to prioritize and communicate with clients, to estimate schedules and plan logistics and so many other things. Each of those skills warrants a book – but you’ll learn more on the job.

In fact, it’s patently obvious that most learning is “on the job.” Where I work, they say that 10% of learning comes from books, 20% in the classroom, and 70% on the job.

It’s easy to zone out, in which case you earn nothing but a paycheck. Most jobs don’t require 100% of your attention, 100% of the time. But every day I guarantee you’re presented with opportunities to learn. You just need to recognize them. Then you have a sandbox for developing your skills.

After work I sometimes go to a bar with colleagues. When I talk to those who want to ‘play the game,’ I come away feeling invigorated. It’s not that I have great career aspirations. Truth be told, focusing solely on career is horrendous to me. But these discussions usually reveal a host of skills I’ve neglected or never knew existed.

Having worked at my current job for a bit over 3 years, after these discussions I still feel like I’m on the first or second rung of a huge ladder, or at the beginning of an RPG game, when you start to fill in the skill tree. Except, instead of learning how to cast a magical spell, I’m learning how to plan my day so I can get the most done, or write an important email, or explain something to the uninitiated.

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1 Comment

  1. Under Pressure « SkillsFIRE

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