This is a hard subject for me because I have had a job since I was about 13 and felt naked and alone whenever I didn’t. You spend your money better when you earn it, you know? So along comes the New Republic with a thoughtful story about work, basically in reaction to President Trump’s Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who is calling for something or another to help prep students to enter the workforce.
Okay. I’m for that. But I’m also for renegotiating the whole framework of going to work because we have all been sold such a bill over the past 50 or 60 years that, one would hope, our children will be smart enough to see through it. I don’t think school should be to prepare people for work. It should be to lift up their thoughts and open their minds and expose their talents to some significant challenges.
Knowledge is a great thing that doesn’t have to be applied to any particular discipline in life. It’s just a great thing to have, you know? It doesn’t mean its going to make you better at where you work, or at what you do. In fact, it doesn’t even have to be connected to where you work or what you do.
I recall a conversation with Arthur Martinez, the chairman of Sears, about this subject. He was saying that Sears, back in the 90s when we were talking a lot, basically had to set up its own schools to educate its new arrivals on how to work properly.
He needed workers who could be polite and efficient, know the lay of the land, have an idea of what inventory was where, things like that. On the job training could be a piece of it, but a bigger part was focusing on the question of how to deal with people. Life is a transaction, and being good at those things will go a long way toward giving you a happy experience.
Knowing what to say after you say, “Hi, can I help you?” was important in retailing.
Not so much anymore, though. A nation that gets its stuff from Amazon doesn’t even need primitive sales skills. There’s no human connection, so training for that has lost its value.
But knowing about history is still very valuable, as is basic math skill, a little language, maybe even a foreign language. How to write a sentence! There’s an idea that will never go out of style. That doesn’t mean you have to be able to write a novel. If that is your calling, you won’t need much education to pursue it. But you will need a lot of learning. And not being an asshole, that will help, too. So get to know what that is, and don’t be it.
Where do you get it?
As with everything, from life. If you are just getting out of high school or college, it’s not yet time to write a memoir, you know? What could you possibly say that would be of value? Nothing. You need to spend some time watching, listening, acting, connecting, processing.
Those things are available to everyone.
I think the workplace lost lots of its appeal when employers stopped giving people jobs for life. That might have been something to trade for some formal education. But now you’re just getting all dressed up for a dance that could well end just after you get there.
Personal skills and flexibility and an open mind.
Always worked. Always will.