I firmly believe that some of the best lessons we learn in life come from beyond the bindings of a textbook. Don’t get me wrong, I have always loved being a student; there’s something very special about the ability and privilege to absorb knowledge. In a practice-centered field such as student affairs, however, there are numerous moments where experiential learning shapes us as professionals and people more than our classroom education. With Careers in Student Affairs Month well underway, I want to share some of the key lessons I've learned from my first job that have helped me be a bit more successful in my second and current job, creating a base for my long-term career growth:
Some solutions to problems are much easier than you think. If you ask anyone who knows me, they will probably tell you that I’m an overthinker. I actually used to keep a sticky note in my backpack a former supervisor wrote to me stating “slow down your thinking.” I experienced an intense pressure to make every approach to an issue highly unique and found that it wasn’t always received exactly as I planned. The lesson from job one was a no brainer in hindsight: keep it simple, silly (the KISS approach, for those who are familiar). Ask someone what help they want rather than overplanning solutions. Repurpose old programming that has good potential to address new problems. I feel such a sense of relief in job two now that I am better able to decipher what type of problem solving is needed from me when issues arise. Assess the task at hand and determine the extent of creative energy needed to reach the best outcome.
A good calendar is EVERYTHING. I know a lot of people enjoy using calendars, both personally and professionally. My calendar gets a LOT of attention with meetings, presentations, and visits with my best friends. In fact, it is these purposes that taught me a lesson from job one: book appointments with yourself. When I began my first job, I viewed open calendar time as my time for administrative catch up which always fell to wayside. Others saw that same open time as “he must be available for me.” Spoiler alert: that was NOT always the case. In job two, I started using calendar appointments like “conduct work” or “manual edits” to have a more realistic and, hopefully, uninterrupted opportunity to fully focus on those projects. Beyond just getting your work done, this approach also helps give your time a level of priority and importance that we often only think about with the time that others need from us. Consider the moments where booking time with yourself helps to best prioritize your success.
The work will always be there. My supervisor/mentor from graduate school had two key phrases he would also say. The first is to “communicate your needs” (I’ve never been shy about that). The second is “the work will always be there.” In my first job, I was the person who wanted to crank out just a few more email responses even on weekends. I was the person who wore the “stayed late in the office” badge with pride. None of that made me better, more capable, or even more likeable within my job. The work will always be there. New struggles, new students, and new concerns will always find their way to your inbox or door in this field. But only YOU can be welcome in the activities and events that let you relax and recharge. Only YOU can create those boundaries. Ever since my first job, I intentionally bring this topic to my supervisors and supervisees to make sure I am supported in this just as I would support them. Busy seasons aside, work time has its set, respected place in your day and so should you time.
While there are many more lessons to share, I reflect on these most often within my own professional growth. Take purposeful time to think about what lessons have been most successful for you and find the ways to pay those forward to others while applying them to yourself!
Author:Michael Thompkins (he/him/his) is an Assistant Director of Residence Life at Ursinus College, overseeing the residential village on campus as well as the programming and initiatives within those communities. Michael received his Master’s degree in Higher Education and Student Affairs from the University of Connecticut and his Bachelor’s degrees in both Mass Communication and Psychology from Towson University. Within NASPA, Michael serves as Co-Chair for the New Professionals and Graduate Students Steering Committee. You can follow Michael on Twitter @mikethompkins.