The most valuable work experience I ever had was when I installed telephone and computer cables and got businesses set up with (new at the time) high speed internet.
I was only in my late teens, but the owner gave me a lot of responsibility. I would pack up the company truck, sometimes with another employee or two (often friends of mine I’d convinced) and head out to some car dealership in some part of Michigan. I knew how to run and terminate cables, but little about computer systems and networks in general. Working in the computer room often required or accidentally resulted in network outages and other technical problems that I didn’t much understand.
I would get on the phone (or rather, my Nextel “push to talk” two-way pager that was a must have at the time) with my boss, or someone else more knowledgeable and try to figure out and fix the problem. Sometimes I’d have to just try stuff myself. It was terrifying. I usually somehow got things running again before leaving.
But that wasn’t the end of the anxiety. My phone was with me all the time. More than I care to remember, I’d feel it vibrate when I was an hour or two off the job and engaging in whatever evening activities I had. That vibration struck fear in me because I knew that I didn’t exactly know what I was doing at work earlier that day, and it was possible my boss or the owner of some car dealership was calling to tell me I had taken his entire system of sales computers down. The fear wasn’t because I didn’t want to have to cancel my plans and make a late-night drive several hours to fix the problem. It was because I had no idea what the problem might be or what to do about it. The relatively simple unknown problem is far more mentally taxing than the really hard known problem.
Despite occasionally getting such phone calls, and occasionally really ticking off some customers, I got by somehow. I didn’t just survive, I learned an invaluable lifelong skill. It’s not that I learned how to handle network or phone system problems. I did some, but I don’t really remember any of that.
What I learned was not how to solve problems, but how to live with unsolved problems without cracking under the pressure. I learned how to carry on with the knowledge that unforeseen really bad things might happen or be happening at any time, possibly my fault, and possibly beyond my ability to fix. That was a massive psychic burden to deal with at first.
I started to get the hang of it when I would do jobs alongside my boss. I’d see him happily chatting it up with customers and assuring them he could take care of everything. At first I thought it was because he was so much more expert than I. He was, but he, too, often found himself in over his head. He had a way of not letting it bother him and actually maintaining a playful, confident outlook. He wasn’t lying to customers. He knew that somehow, some way he’d make everything right. He just didn’t seem to worry that the solution was still totally unknown.
In other words, I didn’t get better at dealing with unsolved problems because I started to know what I was doing more; I did because I began to learn that no one else really does either. The salesmen at the dealerships didn’t know how to sell cars to every difficult customer. The mechanics didn’t know how to fix every leaky transmission. The controller didn’t know how to implement the computer changes he’d hired us for. More often than not, everyone was dealing with unsolved problems with no instruction manual.
Obviously for long term success in any job you need to learn how to solve problems. But I think that gets too much focus. A more valuable skill – and one that is a precondition to being able to learn solutions – is the ability to live with unsolved problems and unknown fixes.
The day that my phone buzzed at 10 PM after a really important job and it didn’t freak me out was a big day. I had learned some perspective. I had gained confidence not based on knowledge of a specific solution, but in my ability to pull things together over the longer term. I had come to grips with the worst possible outcomes and realized I could survive them.
Everybody has that email with a horrifying typo, or that bank deposit that they didn’t handle on time, or the sale they lost. The real question is not whether you can learn to eliminate all such mistakes, but whether you can learn to carry on and not let them defeat you. Lying awake at night doesn’t solve the problem, so you might as well learn to sleep in spite of it.