Class of 2013: Four Things You Must Unlearn Immediately

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Daniel Shapiro wrotes: “I learned a lot in college, not all of it right. Here are some things you learn in college that I had to unlearn to be successful at work.

1. The longer the paper, the more you know

I was assigned many long papers in college. Six pages on natural selection. Eight pages on Plato’s Republic. Ten pages on the rise of the gold standard. For each paper, I’d reach a point where I’d run out of real content and needed filler to hit the page target. I’d spend hours finding those pages. I’d even change the fonts and page margins (it’s embarrassing to think about).

At work, no one has time to read 6-10 pages. It’s all about the summary. As a manager at Bain & Company, I’d write, re-write and re-write 1-page executive summaries until I’d boiled them down to the crux of the issue and only the essential supporting points. Those long hours were some of the most valuable, and hardest, of my job.

My advice: Write clear and concise summaries and supporting points. The shorter the better.

2. Partial credit for half-baked answers

I was a math major and often came across questions I couldn’t answer. Rather than leaving the space blank, I’d fake it. I’d write down something that looked reasonable, but I knew was wrong, hoping that my teacher would give me partial credit – perhaps 5 points out of 10, which was definitely better than 0 out of 10.

At work, acting like you know something you don’t is perhaps one of the worst mistakes you can make. In my first two years out of university, when clients would ask me for an answer I didn’t know, but I believed I should, rather than saying “I don’t know” I would fake an answer. That got me into more trouble than you can imagine… it nearly got me fired once.

Partial credit for being partially right doesn’t exist in the workplace. In fact, leading others to believe you know the answer when you don’t, is far worse than no answer.

My advice: Say what you know and admit what you don’t.

3. Getting help = cheating

Giving or getting help from someone in school can get you kicked out. At work, it’s just the opposite. It’s essential. When I was a manager at Bain, I would ask recent university graduates to build a financial model. When they showed me their work, I’d ask if anyone helped them. Some would respond, proudly, “no, I did it myself”, not realizing that was a bad answer. The right answer was, “Yes, and I made a few changes based on the feedback I got.”

If you’re not learning from your colleagues and teaching them what you know, then you’re not doing your job!

Advice: Give and get help liberally.

4. Work, work, work, work… turn in assignment

(Perhaps I should have written. Wait, wait, wait, work, work, work, turn in assignment)

The work process in school is:

  1. Get an assignment
  2. Complete assignment in set period of time
  3. Turn in assignment and
  4. Receive grade.

That process is designed to assess your capabilities more than create great work product.

First, getting feedback early and often is key, particularly when you’re new to the job. You’re not being tested to see how much you can do alone (like school). Your manager should expect you will need help. I remember several “proud” moments when I showed my manager my fantastic piece of analysis which I did “all by myself” … to which my manager replied “Great. But you would have been done a week earlier if you’d asked me for a few tips.” Oops.

Second, the more involved your manager is in your work process, the more likely he will have confidence in your outcome. Also, if the assignment provides harder than expected, your manager will understand why, and help redirect your efforts earlier. The longer it takes to identify a problem, the more challenging it is to change direction.

By the way, believe it or not: Asking for help is not a sign of failure at work — it’s a sign of confidence. Really.

My advice: Get your boss’ feedback early and often.