What I learned from work

I have been thinking about how a résumé captures what one has done or accomplished in previous jobs; but I am hardly ever asked what I learned. Which is, to me, one of the biggest rewards from the effort I put into work: I walk away with knowledge and experience that invariably prove to be super-helpful in future work environments.

[Learning is great in non-work situations, too: I think about how I have grown as a home cook over the decades, and also how I have taken Pilates classes for almost twenty years. I will admit that I first started Pilates with a different goal: because I wanted Janet Jackson’s abs and I wanted to wear cropped baby-doll tees the way she did, but when that didn’t happen, I started learning other things: how to improve my posture, the alignment of my joints, and the strength of my core.]

I don’t know if it’s possible to go into a job with clear learning goals, but I do think it’s possible for learning goals to emerge during a job, even if it’s a job that’s not going particularly well for other reasons. If your work environment is hopelessly toxic and your boss is a jerk, well, no, learning is not going to be your first priority, getting the hell out of Dodge should be your first priority, but even in my worst job situations, I’ve walked away a little smarter and wiser about how certain things work.

So I started thinking about what I learned from each job and then I thought it might be worthwhile to write down those gleanings here, so maybe you could think about what you’re either inadvertently or purposefully learning in YOUR job:

  • Children’s book publishing was the job where I learned how stories are shaped, sometimes in novels, sometimes in picture books with gorgeous artwork. I learned that some of my favorite children’s book authors were delightful and charming in person and others were not, and I learned that I was most decidedly NOT good at administrative tasks like filing and answering the phone.
  • Working as a special assistant in a criminal justice nonprofit is where I learned about all of the structural inequities and racist behaviors embedded in our very system. I had my eyes opened to the relentless cycle of crime and poverty experienced by so many in our society; it made me feel like I could never, ever write another children’s book again. (Then the Hunger Games came along, and okay, people like bleak I guess?) At that job, I also learned a lot about the passion and intellect of people involved in social change work, and on the skills level, I learned how to write across different business mediums: correspondence, annual reports, board reports, contract monitoring.
  • Law school is not a job, but I had several jobs while in law school—federal and criminal judge internships, and research assistant stints. I disliked almost everything about law school, especially the dogmatic, rigid conventions that governed legal writing, but I think it is an immensely valuable education; I learned what my rights are, as defined by statute and case law, and I learned that the law is a tool and can be deployed accordingly in the hands of good and bad people.
  • The first philanthropy communications job I had was at the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation; this is where I learned about the influence foundations can have (everyone wants to talk to money), and also about the institutions created from the deep commitment of some wealthy families. Some families sit on their hoards of wealth, like dragons; some create foundations that at least strive to do good.
  • Then the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, for ten years, which taught me EVERYTHING about strategic communications for social change, about advocacy and policy, about how the public and private sectors work (or don’t work) together, and so, so much about health and health care in America. (I once wrote a blog post about explaining the Affordable Care Act and individual mandates and insurance exchanges to my children’s daycare teacher; this was the height of my communications glory.) RWJF is where I learned about life stuff, too, at lunch tables and from loving mentors and friends. And finally, it is where I discovered a talent for designing and facilitating creative and fun meetings, simply because they let me design and facilitate creative and fun meetings.
  • The David and Lucile Packard Foundation blew my horizons open to encompass international perspectives, because the issues it funds are SO global and so critical, like climate change and conservation and reproductive health and early childhood education. These issues require a great deal of courage to tackle across many different cultural contexts, and to this day, I feel a deep respect for the Packard family for their commitment. Oh! And, this is where I first learned how to build and manage a team and how to lead communications in what was then a communications-averse work environment.
  • I was not at Environmental Defense Fund for very long before I was recruited for Earthjustice, but it was my true introduction to the nuts-and-bolts of the environmental movement, and I learned how many different types of expertise a big organization like that would bring to bear on a problem; during my short time there, I worked with lawyers, scientists, and economists. EDF is where I learned how intense local politics and communications can be; I was responsible for communicating about EDF’s California climate and clean energy work and it was one of the fastest-paced jobs I’ve ever had—we’d be putting out reports and then blogging, tweeting, and pitching it within hours. I learned how to move fast and communicate in real time across multiple platforms.
  • Well, Earthjustice: the most brilliant environmental lawyers in the world, fighting with heart and soul and grit on the front lines of every possible type of environmental legal challenge you can imagine. Because I had the most talented and versatile communications team I had ever seen, with capabilities in digital media, visual storytelling, and advocacy communications, I learned how to try and maintain strategic focus and elevate the quality of our work when there was so much going on at any given time. When Trump was elected, I learned how to bring principles and practices of crisis communications into the mix, and finally, I learned, painfully and with much heartache, how to distinguish the feelings generated by being unjustly called out and accused from the ability to always, always see a person’s strength and challenges with compassion and clarity.

A footnote: I was only at my ill-fated corporate communications job for two months, but even in those two months, I learned some things. I learned about the vast systems and innumerable processes required to support and govern a vast corporate enterprise. I learned that the fundamentals of communications are the same regardless of whether you’re communicating for profit or for a cause, internal or external. I learned, once again, that my essential quality of cutting through all of the bullshit and faffing about is highly, highly regarded by some, and absolutely terrifying to others.

Writing down this list of what I’ve learned from my various jobs was an unexpectedly lovely experience, because again, it is not so much about focusing on what I did at these jobs; it is about what these jobs did for me. And for all that I learned, I am thankful.