I thought I’d try out a new series today. Like any good little Type A-er, I keep a list of lessons I’ve learned; I started it sometime early in college. Some of them are, well, obvious (“#3: Don’t take life so seriously.”), but others were things that I learned the hard way.
Life lesson # 21: Never overestimate the competence of your colleagues. You tend to think that just because you’ve gotten to a certain level in life, that the people working alongside you have had the same struggles to get where you both are, and value it to the same extent. But it really is not the case. (Pictured: Sunrise 1/8/10, originally uploaded to Flickr by m.robersonart.)
The backstory here: In my second year of law school, I was thrilled to be on law review. If you’re not a lawyer, the background to law school is that law review is allegedly a Big Deal — only the “best” students get on it, either by “grading on” or by “writing on.” (At most schools it’s a mix.) The second-year law students do the grunt work like fact-checking the articles, making sure the style is consistent, and just doing their best to make sure the article is as accurate, and readable, as possible; the third-year law students are the editors.
As a second year student, I was balancing a lot of other things, and sometimes my editors made me furious with their demands, but I always made time to get done what needed to get done. At the end of the year, I was promoted to one of three Executive Editor positions, and began reviewing assignments from my classmates who had lower positions, expecting all of their work to be similar to what I had turned in.
Gobsmacked is the only word to describe it — I couldn’t believe some of the assignments I got. Yes, it was the end of our second year, and yes, we were all balancing a lot of things, but *I* would never turn in something that looked like the stuff I got. This was the work of the “best” students, my primary competitors? It was an eye-opening experience, but it made sense when I thought about it: people have different priorities, different emergencies going on in their lives, and yes, even different competence levels. Learning this helped me immensely in two ways: first, when I was terrified that my own work wasn’t “up to snuff,” it helped me realize that all I can do is do my best. Secondly, on the rare chance I got some bad work product from a colleague, I didn’t take it as a personal affront — it wasn’t as if I hadn’t inspired them to do good work, just that they had other things going on.
I found this true when I was in BigLaw as well. Some people at my level “took work home with them” to do, meaning nothing got done and there was more for the rest of us to do. Some managers expected me to do all of the work and then they would take the credit. Other times, subordinates would hand in such mind-blowingly unacceptable things that I had to sit down and talk with them about it. Because I already knew not to overestimate their competence, it made it less of a personal affront to me, and helped me handle it in a professional way. Other times, it helped me from feeling overwhelmed or competitive — I just focused on the best work that I could do, and didn’t worry how I “rated” compared to the others.
Readers, what do you think of this life lesson? Have you had similar experiences with colleagues, subordinates, or managers?
Update: OK. After pushing the “send” button and running off for a series of meetings, I’ve just gotten back to a computer and read all the responses. Eeesh, so sorry to be so polarizing on this! For what it’s worth:
- I sort of intended to go into the background of every life lesson, and how I learned it — and here it really was through the circumstances as described. Funny how looking over my list of lessons takes me right back to that moment when I wrote it down… and at that time I was still in the uber-competitive mindset that law students can be in, which (for me) extended a year or two into practice. So… that was where the tone came from. (And I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t start the blog back then!)
- Commenter Lucy paraphrased my post as ““you will not always be able to rely on the work of others, don’t take it personally, learn how to deal with it; oh, and by the way, don’t be so hard on your own work — nobody is perfect.” So, um, yes: What she said. In my youth there were times when I bent over backwards to do a good job because I was terrified I wouldn’t be “up to snuff” with other colleagues, as well as times when I felt like a poor work product was a personal slap in the face to me, like I hadn’t inspired them to do good work… when I “learned” this lesson it was really liberating to me, and released me (to some extent) from those fears. (And the funny thing that I love about this blog is that I really feel like so many commenters have walked or are walking in the same shoes as me, particularly with our fears and insecurities. And while I’m not anonymous any more, you guys can be — as someone said the other day in comments, “this is a safe place,” and I love that about the community here.)
- Finally: I’m not perfect either. Obviously there have been times when I admittedly phoned it in — and there are times when I just haven’t “gotten” something and turned in something subpar, either because I couldn’t get it or I didn’t devote the time to getting it. The liberating thing to me — particularly about this lesson — is that that’s par for the course. Everybody has those days.
- Oh, and re: the “taking work home” — certainly no offense meant to the working moms/flex-timers. The particular circumstances coming to mind when I say that with derision are all single male co-workers who went out drinking or some such, but you’re right — not everyone’s in my head. Point taken for the future.