Things I wish I knew before my first job

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Scott Redmond

This is a somewhat random collection of things that I wish I'd known before I started my first job.

Selecting your career based on your true gifts

I went to school for engineering because I happened to be good at math and science, and I liked working with technology (i.e. playing video games). It wasn't until I was a TA (teaching assistant) during my masters program that I realized my true gift was actually helping people learn.

Many career descriptions sound cool and interesting, but lasting satisfaction comes from exercising your true gift.

"Work is love made visible." Kahlil Gibran

Identifying your true gift seems to be the hardest step for most people. One approach is to think of something you could do for hours without getting bored. Is it something that others may find difficult or frustrating? If so, that's a clue that it's one of your gifts. Another approach, from my favourite productivity podcast (Get-It-Done Guy: How to Find Your Life Purpose), is roughly to do more of what feels like eating oreo ice cream cake and less of what feels like eating worms. It's basically the same approach recommended by other life coaches, but these visuals help you tap into the part of your conscience that knows what you really want but is often very quiet.

If you can't think of what your true gift might be, focus instead on trying things that you're interested in. As you experience a wider variety of what life can offer, you'll get closer and closer to finding out what it is that you love to do. The important thing is to keep moving; getting stuck in a rut is what leads to boredom.

For more tips, see Choosing the Right Career Path.

Get-It-Done Guy

When I first started listening to Stever Robbins, I found his style annoying but the information was great so I kept listening. After a few months, I was hooked. The podcast gives a new tip every week for free and you can search through all of the previous tips.

Here are some of my favourites:

TED Talks

We're very lucky to have access to amazingly successful people right at our fingertips. These videos stand out.

Autofilter in Excel

This one feature makes Excel super helpful for working with large sets of data (e.g. for lab results). I often have tables with 10,000 rows and 100 columns, and the Autofilter makes it easy to look at a single subset at a time. For example, to answer a question like, "What was the biggest force observed on the payload during the last 60 seconds of all simulations where the canadarm was braked?"

The Autofilter feature also makes it easy to use Excel for project checklists. If each row is a task, you can easily filter out all tasks that are already done (which is better than deleting them because you retain the information about complete tasks) or look at specific subsets (e.g. all tasks that are assigned to Bob and due in the next 3 weeks).

There are other more powerful ways to do this (e.g. relational databases) but this is easy to learn and Excel is easy to find. Even if you don't have Excel, the Autofilter feature exists in nearly all spreadsheet programs (e.g. OpenOffice).

Versioned Backups

Like CVS, subversion, DropBox, or Time Machine, etc... The point is to have some tool that keeps track of changes you make over time. Even DropBox can do this so it doesn't have to be complex to set up. Someday you'll accidentally save over a good file or your hard drive will crash and then you'll need the time history of backups that you've set up.

This is most important just before a deadline, when it would really hurt to have to retype what you've already done.

Try to make it automatic so it won't take your energy away from the actual document. DropBox is awesome for this, and it's free.

Wiki as a collaboration tool

Especially personal ones like tiddlywiki for organizing information, and online wikis that allow group collaboration. This is fantastic for group projects, where one of the biggest challenges is how to transfer knowledge from experienced group members to newbies.

One of my favourite parts of university was working on student projects (e.g. solar car, F1 racer, aerial robotics, etc...), and one of our biggest problems was sharing information within a large group. Wikis didn't exist back then, but they would have been great!

Outliner and/or Mind Mapping Software

Outliner and mind mapping software lets you group things and lay out ideas to whatever level of detail you want. Then you can collapse and expand to see the high-level view.

One of the best uses for this is when you have a bunch of information and don't know how to organize it. You can just lay out each idea, fact or quotation as a separate item, and reorganize the whole set into categories however you like.

There are a bunch of free apps for this, for Windows, Mac, iOS, etc... Just google "outliner" or "mind mapping" for more information. These are also easy to with pen and paper!

What I find funniest about this is that, although the outlining and mind mapping tools are so simple, people with decades of experience are often amazed when they see the results and how easy it was to get those results.

Edward Tufte

One day our counterparts at NASA suddenly had simple, effective, graphics for their analysis - Tufte's work was what made them so much better. Tufte's book called The Visual Display of Quantitative Information has been especially helpful. A few simple tips for preparing graphics (like the ratio of data in the graphic to the amount of ink used to print it) have powerful effects in the final product. This sort if thing is very subtle and most engineers don't even think about it so it can give you an edge.