My Top 20 Workplace Lessons

People are living longer than ever before. This means that we will be working for longer that we expect to. Current research reveals that the average expected lifespan of the Millennial Generation is 100 – 110 years ( That’s a few decades past the current average retirement age of 65. So like it or not, work is going to be a necessary aspect of our lives for longer than we may currently envision.

I started working at the age of 18 with much fear and uncertainty. Now I’m 36 and suddenly it’s my crown work anniversary. Things are a little less cloudy now and I’m facing up to my fears. Here’s a few things I’ve picked up over the past 18 years.

1. You have something great to offer. Find out early what that is and hold onto it: I remember what my first boss told me: “I give you things to do – and somehow you get them done.” I should have held onto that a lot more during my working life – the thing that made me tenacious.

Instead I focused on all the ways I wasn’t cutting it, I lamented at the chasm of what I knew was a gap in my personal growth. Over the years, I’ve realised that my inner genius is what makes me a sought after resource in the working world. Maybe it’s because I’m a first born and we’re known to take on the responsibility of the whole world (hey, it’s working for me ok?).

What are you really good at? Seeing possibilities? Creating processes? Building relationships? Identify your work mojo early and become conscious about developing it. It’s like finding an uncut diamond and carefully honing its value.

2. There is no such thing as a dream job: I’ve grown to hate the phrase “If you find work you love, you never have to work another day in your life.” That implies that things are supposed to be easy if you find your purpose. If you find out what feeds your passion, you will have more energy to do the things you enjoy doing but often that also involves doing things you hate (like admin in my case) in order to accomplish something.

So while it’s normal to get excited about a new job, one learns how to temper idealism with some healthy expectations. There will be things that will be different about your new job compared to your former gig but there will also be new things that you will have to grapple with. The objective is growth. You are there to solve problems – not create them (see #4). Get to it.

3. Be patient while gathering up the puzzle pieces: My second job, after a brief stint as a community paper journalist, was a data capturer. I hated it. It made me feel like I was dying inside.

Later on, I realized that every single one of my jobs involved some time of admin. I couldn’t escape it. I could either see it as a necessary evil – and get more proficient at handling administrative tasks – or gorge out my eye sockets every day.

Hindsight has provided clarity on how working at a commercial transport magazine, running a freelance business, working at a blood service organization etc has given me a precious piece of my career puzzle that is continually building the picture of my future.

This new understanding has helped me to treat my current job with respect: I am more open to learning things now that I know that I will need in the future (although I don’t know why yet).

4. Don’t worship your manager: This is HUGE! As a workplace newbie, we expect the folks who’ve been around longer than us to have a handle on this adulting deal. We expect them to be mature, solid, fair, amazing, cool, besties.

Um, no. They’re not all that. They CAN’T be all that – being just human and all.

I’ve seen so many people (and been one of them myself) complain about their managers and use it as an excuse for a weak work ethic. This is what happens what we make our bosses our gods. They will let us down and we will be discouraged because they don’t live up to the picture we have in our heads.

Maybe they have a lot going on (they do), maybe they just haven’t learnt how to be perfect yet (they never will – neither will you). Maybe you just need to make peace with the fact that leadership is a personal responsibility. Learn from the good, the bad and the ugly – and one day when you’re a manager, maybe you won’t suck too 🙂

5. Stop looking for ‘fair’ – focus on being excellent: Sadly, our work reality will pale in comparison to Suits. What you will begin to notice is that some people get away with doing absolutely nothing at all and others work their butts off. It doesn’t seem to make a difference either way what you do.

Except that what you do at work is key to the work you will be doing in the future. If you work on becoming excellent at what you do – it won’t matter if things are fair. If you develop new skills sets and establish a strong work ethic (meaning being productive rather than being a nuisance), you will soon outgrow a place that’s career limiting and you’ll be able to attract new opportunities and move on. The people complaining about fairness without making themselves more valuable in the marketplace will continue to stay stuck.

6. Deal with your issues because they directly affect the way you work: If you are out of control in one area of your life, chances are that you will be out of control in another area. Emotional and psychological stress directly affects your mental health – and consequently your ability to focus at work.

Asking for help is not a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. If there are no free resources you can plug into in your workplace, then reach out to your spiritual and friendship circles. The longer you let things linger, the more entrenched they become.

You owe it to yourself to become the best version of yourself.

7. Snap up any opportunity to learn: Say yes to any learning opportunity that comes your way. You may not always be able to apply the new skills to your current job but somewhere along your journey, it’s going to come in handy.

Also, managers appreciate employees who are willing to learn. It demonstrates humility. You’re saying “I don’t know everything yet and I want to improve myself.”

8. Know yourself better than others do: Maybe it’s just my personality type (INFP on Myers-Briggs Type Indicator:, High S on the DISC profile: and Type 2 Healer on the Enneagram but I think it’s my job to understand myself before I expect others to understand me.

I want people to help me see my blind spots so that I can address them – instead of being the type of person that never acknowledges that there’s anything wrong with them and points the finger at everything and everyone around them.

It’s too easy to blame others because we don’t truly know ourselves.

9. Doing more than you’re being paid for does pay off: I’ve worked with many people who make the excuse to not care about their work because others seem to be succeeding without really caring about theirs (this goes back to #7 about fairness).

I’ve also been tempted to slack off because the environment seems to reward the pretense of productivity. Over time though, I’ve seen how caving into the status quo only hurts me in the end. There were days that I had to close the door on colleagues who spent the whole day chatting and goofing off and focus instead on my work objectives.

Defining my own work ethic meant that I had to consciously rise above the level of mediocrity every day. This has helped me to develop my character and when new opportunities presented itself, I was able to move into new work environments that challenged me to grow further (and the pay improved each time).

10. There are no guarantees: Have you thought about what you’d do if you were suddenly retrenched? It hasn’t happened to me but its happened to a few close friends and it always comes as a shock. It’s easy to build up a false monthly paycheck security. I didn’t want to listen to the advice about saving money into a retirement annuity when I was in my 20s. I did the stupid thing and wasted my money on shopping and got into debt.

Over the past three years, I’ve been working on paying off the mountain of debt I accumulated in my 20s, building emergency funds and creating a positive picture for my financial future. It’s not too late to start – but it’s a lot better if you start early (see #13).

11. You will be a generalist first before you can be a specialist: I felt the pressure to have my life figured out at 20. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do – all that I knew was that I could write. I employed that skill in various places and had job titles assigned to my communications skills set: Communications Officer, Communications Executive, Assistant Editor, Publications Officer. Each environment helped me to hone my writing talents. They helped me discover the things I liked – and the things I hated.

Now I have more clarity on the kind of writing I want to do. I’ve also given myself permission to do it. Whether or not I get paid for it, I know that impact I want my life to have on the world. And that can’t always fit into a job description.

12. Develop an owner mentality: My freelance years helped me to appreciate organisations more than when I was just an employee. We can easily take the monthly pay cheque for granted. But when you’re involved in your own hustle, you realise that it’s not that easy to make sales. The money doesn’t just miraculously appear every month. YOU actually have to produce something of value!

This entrepreneurship mentality has helped me treat any job I have with care. Every week, I think: “If this was MY company, how would I manage my week? If these were MY employees, how would I work with the team? If all my deliverables were tied to whether or not I got paid this month, how would it change the urgency with which I handle my tasks?”

Organisations don’t owe us anything ( Work like you own it.

13. Take proactive steps to master your money: I think that every company should make financial training compulsory. Oh if I could go back and reverse all the STUPID things I did with my money in my 20s! You will regret the things you didn’t do right in your 30s – sure it’s not too late to learn but not saving and investing is harder to catch up to as the years go by. (Remember that we’re going to be living longer that we plan to – so we need to plan to be wiser now).

You can learn how to be a money genius:

Cut up the credit card (I eventually did: You don’t really need it. Think twice about that fashion must-have (you won’t use it for more than a year anyway) and save for the dreams you want to come true one day (30 might seem far away now but it chases you down while you aren’t looking).

14. Learn how to solve problems: There will be obstacles to what you’re assigned to do. And when you first start out, you need to ask a lot of questions to figure out what to do.

If you learn how to ask the right questions – and take responsibility for seeing something to the end – you will become the kind of worker that all employees dream about: a problem solver. There are enough people clogging up the office cubicles that love to create problems – be the one that loves finding a solution.

15. Prepare for career changes, not just job changes: Being a fundraiser in the higher education sector was not on my radar in my 20s. I shifted from working in the fields of Communication and Publishing to Fundraising. How did I know I would have a knack for bringing people together around a social cause?

I guess all those years of writing blood donor profiles, interviewing people and working on publications taught me a thing or two about effective communication. All the community outreach work I did outside of my day job helped to learn how to be a positive influence and facilitate people doing good in the world.

Knowing what makes me tick (refer to #8) helped me to make better choices about the kind of job that I would be able to thrive in over time. I’m still gathering puzzle pieces and am excited to see the bigger picture of my life’s work continually building.

16. Colleagues can turn into friends: The people you encounter in the work place will be all sorts of crazy and wonderful. And some of them might even turn into friends long after your farewell tea. Appreciate them. Love them. Just don’t expect to connect with every colleague you encounter in the same way.

17. Reputation is everything: I’m a firm believer that the work we do becomes a living testament of our lives. While work places might be temporary, reputations are permanent. Your character speaks before your cv ever does.

You are either producing results or pretending to be occupied. Only you know the severity of this truth in your own life – and only you can do something about it. Are people really sad to see you go or relieved that you’re not hanging around poisoning the atmosphere anymore? Slackers are not the ones that get head hunted.

18. Learn the lesson early: Life works in levels and layers ( You either learn the lesson the first time or you are doomed to repeat it at a different level. The wisdom you could have gained from the first opportunity to grow (dealing with conflict in the work place, learning how meet deadlines etc) can either be applied to new situations – or you will feel the pressure of a lack of growth in a particular area if it’s been ignored.

19. Good workers are hard to find:  I used to go to each new job feeling like I ‘owed’ the person who hired me. It took me a long time to realise that while you might start out as a novice, you eventually acquire skills and abilities that are a valuable resource.

Do your best. Show up every day and work like it’s your own company – but don’t make the mistake of feeling indebted to your job. It creates an unhealthy imbalance and it will take it’s toll on you.

20. Don’t let burnout sneak up on you: I did not realise how prone to burnout I’d become until I found myself unable to handle normal life without severe effort (

You will always face a tension between work-that-never-ends and a life that will one day. It is in our daily decisions that our destiny is shaped.

Commit yourself to lifelong learning. This means staying humble, begin hungry to growth and allowing your work to be imbued with meaning and value so that at the end of your work life (whether that’s going to be at 65 or 95) you can look back and say: I did a good job.



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