Three months ago, I started my first 9 to 5 job. I’m working as the business manager for the Queen’s Solar Design Team, which is a self-managed design team operating out of the engineering department. It forms part of a “Summer Work Experience Program” that my university offers, and runs on the research funds of our managing professor, who started the team back in 1988. Each day, I wake up at 7 or so, do a short workout (or just move slowly), and walk the 15 minutes to be at our office at 9:00. Our office is a room with two pairs of side-by-side desks facing opposite walls. About half of the office space not taken up by me and my three engineer coworkers is taken up by piles of old documents from eighties and nineties.
I’m living about 3 hours away from the city I grew up in, and therefore my parents. I’m no longer in residence (living in a dorm room); I’ve rented a house with two of my friends and am staying in it alone for the summer. I only know about 6 other people my age staying in Kingston over the summer, including my boyfriend and three coworkers. I met some local families at our neighborhood street block party last month and in many respects (minus the kids) I now feel like I have more in common with them than most people my age.
It’s been a neat experience. Most of all, it’s been humbling. When I first started my YouTube channel, I was in grade 11 and thought I was busy. If I wasn’t busy enough, I’d find things to be busy about. And sometimes there would be comments on my YouTube channel letting me know of my ignorance; how their life is truly busy, and my journaling and self-manufactured business was an unsustainable pursuit. While I don’t take those kind of comments to heart, I do take inventory of them, and after my experience with a 9 to 5 I’ve started to recognize what they were referring to.
Today I thought I’d debrief on some of my key takeaways. Some of these, I wrote down in the first month of starting work, while others are more recent.
There’s a quaint charm about Kingston, my university city. It’s small, but busy. It’s perfectly situated, but a couple hours’ drive from any big cities. It’s buzzing with many community events, but on the whole pretty quiet. It’s filled with retirees looking to escape from a world they’ve spent their whole lives working in, but teeming with young adults trying to find their place in the world. It’s clean and maintained, but on your average downtown stroll you’re bound to come across at least one homeless person. And the houses near the downtown area look ancient and worn out, but are humble and well-kept in a way that suggests they don’t represent their owners.
My house is a few steps from the lakefront, where 10 minutes walking down a straight pathway called the “Philosopher’s Way” takes you close to the downtown area with shops, restaurants, bars, clubs, and a community square. In the summer, the pier across from my house is packed with dogs and their owners strolling in the sun, girls in bikinis lounging on giant towels, and groups of friends playing cards in the sand. A 10 minute walk in towards campus takes you to a dreamy intersection of pink-flowered trees and limestone buildings.
Sit on a bench in a grass quadrangle and you can almost feel the vibration of academics busy at work in their own quiet, solitary construction sites. Tucked away in the heart of each building are offices and libraries, blackboards and chalk shavings, and long forgotten thesis papers belonging to people who lived long ago in an entirely different world. It’s perfect, really. Dreamy, almost. Buzzing with a quiet, underground allure that speaks to you in loud whispers as you walk by.
I’m glad I chose to stay here over the summer. There’s a pressure to find a job right out of first year, especially in the commerce program. At first I was happy to have found a job doing something I enjoy for reasonable pay. Then I was anxious that it wasn’t an “industry” job. Now I am grateful, mostly because I am proud of what I’ve learned and done. My team is building a fully autonomous, off-grid house on campus for research, education and community events, and I manage everything that’s not technical or engineering-based. I manage marketing, sponsorship, event planning and workshop relationships. Meanwhile, the engineers research and create proposals to integrate new green technologies into the house, which runs its heating, plumbing and energy systems on rainwater and solar energy alone.
I’m mostly surprised at how successful we’ve been, given that we’re an entirely self-managed work team. We pretty much have the freedom to take our operations in any direction we choose, and have access to many resources thanks to being situated right in the heart of innovation and research. I’ve met with several people on campus to discuss sponsorship best practices. We’ve met with a PhD student studying environmental sciences. I’ve been in meetings with many other sustainable-focused university groups. I’ve had my share of dealing with the bureaucracy inefficiencies of the university. We’ve even taken on a brand new project in partnership with an on-campus non-profit.
I’m learning a lot – it’s more or less the reason jobs like these exist on campus – and I’m having so much fun working on it because I get full control.
on talking about things you know nothing about
It’s official. On my LinkedIn profile, under “Causes I Care About”, I put “the environment”. And I didn’t even object when Starbucks stopped giving me plastic straws. Have you seen the photos I’ve posted of nature and flowers on my Instagram page?
Over 80% of Canadians are willing to make lifestyle compromises for the benefit of the environment. And yet, we have the 11th highest ecological footprint in the world. (Source)
It’s trendy to talk about the environment, but we fail to distinguish between appreciating it and actually changing our habits.
I’m a bit of a skeptic, optimist, and adventurer in one. While I admit that changing plastic straws to paper straws and bringing a glass mug to a coffee shop is a Good Thing to do, I don’t buy into what is obviously good marketing. I think we do have a responsibility to be good stewards of the Earth, but I don’t think that means eating dinners in the dark and showering once a month. I also think that there are ways to make more significant changes.
According to Construction Specifications Canada, construction and demolition waste makes up 23 percent of our overall waste stream. (Source) The average Canadian isn’t even involved in dictating how the waste from their construction job is disposed of. We’re worrying about plastic straws and tiny changes when – I think – we should be caring about some bigger issues.
All this to explain what drew me to the position I’m working in at the Queen’s Solar Design Team. I really wanted to apply my “business acumen” in an area that I was totally and utterly clueless, but an area that I knew would be useful to know about. What better learning opportunity than to sit in a room with an electrical, a mechanical and a civil engineer for 8 hours each day and work together on an interdisciplinary project that involves retrofitting an unfinished autonomous home and teaching kids about solar energy?
I accepted the position with little hesitation.
And then comes the catch. I stopped doing science in grade 10. I know close to nothing about solar panels and how they work. Short of being skilled at math, I had no technical skills going into this job besides the assertion that yes, in fact, I am passionate about the environment like everyone else. Maybe even a bit more skeptically – if that’s in any way an added credential.
When I first started, I was anxious about my little knowledge on solar energy, green technologies and sustainability. I was too scared to use words I didn’t know, and spoke with a limited vocabulary. Although I’m very far from knowledgeable, I’ve done little things to improve my ability to communicate about the topic, and it’s been cool to notice the difference. A little bit of reading and collaboration with the engineers I work with has translated to a big improvement in my email-writing, blog-writing, and marketing-content writing on behalf of the Solar Design Team. I think I ought to do this for more similar topics that I think I know about but don’t, really.
on learning in a career
When editing the electrical engineer’s post about solar panels, batteries, and auxiliary solar technologies, I had no choice but to read some articles on the topic. And I couldn’t believe my own reluctance to continue reading even the slightest of challenging articles. If I feel this way about a topic I find interesting and useful, albeit difficult and outside of my expertise, how must other business managers handle even dryer material? I came to the conclusion that most people probably just don’t bother.
I could probably get by without knowing much about the engineering projects happening on the team. With enough manufactured confidence and a library of buzzwords, I could probably give superficial explanations for the systems. Yet, in my eager, doe-eyed imagination, a Good business manager would understand what they were selling inside and out. A Good business manager would sell with a kind of precision that couldn’t be managed without a peek outside of his comfort zone.
We push so hard to finish school so that we can reach our momentous “graduation date” that once we do, we develop such an intense aversion to feeling dumb or engaging in discussions on things we have no idea about. This makes learning anything new immensely difficult. In a way, we burn ourselves out of learning by creating a false invincibility and sense of security surrounding our degree. I hope I can always remember my ignorance, because without it I would inevitably take the undesirable step from curious child to overconfident adult.
on interdisciplinary work
Every decision you make contributes to the lens through which you see the world. My commerce degree, for example, will teach me to consider certain ideas, influences, and historical events when going about my daily life. Stereotypically, I might be more money-focused or big-picture thinking. An engineer, on the other hand, might think very rationally. He might question a lot of things, and focus on each individual part of a big-picture project. On the other hand, an English or literature major might think very artistically, seeking the underlying significance or meaning behind a project. How it might relate to other, similar projects. How people might react to it.
In a similar way, we go about our lives taking up various hobbies. One day you might paint a picture, another you might draw up a budget for your work, and yet another you might build a backyard bench in your garage. Each activity engages a different perspective.
Working on a team with people from very different backgrounds was an eye-opening experience for this reason. I haven’t dappled much in engineering, and while I do have many hobbies, there are many other perspectives worth experiencing. Speaking to people who have completely different experiences, priorities, and skills, taught me a lot about what my perspective might be lacking.
the worth of a commerce degree
Many people who choose to pursue “business” have second thoughts at some point or another. Business is such a broad study, and while very applicable, it claims neither membership of the quantitative nor the qualitative category of disciplines. You don’t come out of it with any specific hard skill (except perhaps how to draw up a budget and financial report). Compare this to the engineers, who are doing something so concrete, so palpable, that you can practically feel it. They know how to build things, calculate things, and Engineer things. What more can you want?
I’ve had this question a lot myself, especially as I’m working with three engineers this summer. But then I remembered my experience with math and English in high school. I attended an International Baccalaureate school (and completed the IB Certificate, not diploma – a personal decision), where for some reason there was a curious split between the students. There are two versions of nearly every course (staff and qualifications allowing) – a “Higher Level” one and a “Standard Level” one. However, should you choose one level for your maths course, you were obligated to choose the other level for your English course. In other words, if you were good at both maths and English, you couldn’t choose to do HL math as well as HL English. You had to pick, which I happened to find incredibly difficult.
Add to this the fact that all the HL maths kids held about them an air of superiority. “If you’re not good at math, then take HL English”, the guidance counsellors drilled into our heads.
In the end, I chose HL English because I came to a different conclusion. For the past 10 years of my life, I’d done an advanced math program, and while it was helpful, I believed that math required only two things: strong foundational skills and time. I promised myself I’d still self-study the HL math material some day. (I didn’t – but I did use my one elective course in first-year university to take calculus.) HL English, on the other hand, was an opportunity to build a skill that not only took time, but was cumulative and collaborative. If I started working on my writing in grade 11, I’d be way ahead of the maths kids by the time we finished high school – and of course I could always learn the math at any point. In other words, English was more urgent.
It paid off. I would largely attribute my successful university scholarship applications to the torture (and immense growth) I endured doing HL English. I’d also attribute it to this blog, and simply the consistency with which I was writing at the time.
And from this reminder, I told myself that what happened then would happen again. My business degree is a process, not an end accumulation of information. The perspectives I will be exposed to, the people, and the skills, is what I’m getting out of it. I only hope I can create as much value as I can from the resources I’m offered.
on asking for things
I strongly dislike asking other people for favors.
Which is unfortunate for two reasons: first, it’s disadvantageous for any kind of entrepreneur or business person, and second, because asking for small favors has been proved to strengthen relationships.
I learned a lot about asking for favors when I traveled to Romania for a month alone last year. I’ve also found it easier to ask for favors on behalf of a Design Team in my position this summer. The biggest learning moment has been my surprise at actually having many of my requests answered, and many of them answered positively as well!
Perhaps it’s the fear of a rejection or the dislike of having to validate myself to someone else that generates such a strong aversion to asking for favors. But either way, I think it’s worth an ask. You really don’t know until you ask, do you?
The 9 to 5 is hard. It’s been especially hard moving out, cooking for myself, and managing a job – all for the first time and at the same time. While there have been difficult periods of time in which I’ve felt that I tripped some way along the road and haven’t stopped stumbling forward, there have been some amazing moments as well.
For one, I’ve learned to unconditionally, wholeheartedly trust myself. No matter how difficult or uncomfortable something seems in the moment, I know – from experience now – that I can come out stronger.
And perhaps most ostensibly, it’s taught me to think less. Now that I am lucky to have 1 hour to myself in the evening for a workout or a writing session, I no longer feel the need to plague my mind with unnecessary anxieties. I didn’t sleep 9 hours last night? Sad, but why spend valuable time letting that eat away at my well-being? Was someone rude on my morning commute to work? Whatever. I’ve learned to move on quickly, because I’ve got better things to do.
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