After graduating university, many people have big plans, but no viable way to turn them into a reality. When I got my English degree in 2003, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Problem was I didn't have the skills, experience or connections to make a living doing it. So I did what most of my friends were doing: I got an office job.
This post originally appeared on Primer.
I wasn't crazy about the work, but it paid well. After a few years of writing in my free time, I was able to scrape together enough income to quit the office job. But looking back on it, I'm glad I had the experience of working in an office. I learned a lot of fundamental skills I might not have figured out on my own.
If you're an entrepreneurial kind of person and you find yourself in a similar situation, you might want to get a few years of office work under your belt, too. It pays the bills while you prepare to do what you would rather be doing, and it gives you insight into the business world that will help you regardless of the line of work you want to break into.
University Doesn't Prepare You for Everything
University is kind of like Diet Real Life. How well you do in class matters, obviously, but in a lot of ways being a student buffers you from Actual Real Life (or "Real Life Classic" to keep the cola metaphor going). Actual Real Life has higher stakes than university. In real life, you don't have student loans to help pay your bills; instead, those loans become debt that you have to pay back — and that's in addition to the cost of food and shelter and all the other boring things that are necessary to stay alive.
And while university is great at teaching you about your area of study, it is not so good at teaching you how to dress, how to communicate effectively, or how to act in a professional manner. With no serious work experience, it's hard to navigate the business world on your own. And whatever your choice of career, learning those basic business skills will help every aspiring entrepreneur.
Learning How to Be a Professional
Business culture differs from employer to employer, but most people in office environments act in a professional manner. This is such an important aspect of business that companies have human resources departments to make sure everyone feels comfortable.
If your university experience was anything like mine, it didn't provide a professional atmosphere. In university, you can go to class in your pajamas, skip entire days without notice, or do extra credit to make up for a bad grade. Try doing any of those things in an office, and you won't last long.
Take email, for instance. In university, if you used email at all, you probably did it in a casual manner with friends and professors, treating it like texting or any other form of mobile messaging. In the business world, email is the fuel that keeps the whole thing running. Business emails are closer to formal letters than they are to texting. Everything needs to be spelled, capitalised, and punctuated correctly, or else you'll come off as stupid — which means you won't be taken seriously by colleagues and customers.
The same goes for dressing well, staying on task, being punctual, and exhibiting tact in all of your interpersonal encounters. Work with professionals in an office environment, and these things will become second nature to you.
Seeing How Businesses Work from the Inside
Businesses are complex machines: they're full of moving parts, with each one requiring unique resources to keep going. If one division doesn't carry its weight, all the others suffer. Work an office job for a while, and you'll start to get a feel for how the company works in a broad sense — which can be extremely helpful if you want to work on your own.
At my office job, I loved seeing how all of the departments interacted. Production made the products, while marketing helped get the word out. Sales went hands-on with customers to show them why they should buy our goods. Accounting handled taxes and payroll, while legal drew up contracts and offered advice to anyone who needed it. If we had lost any of those divisions, the gears of the company would have stopped turning.
The same goes for freelancing, or for any business you want to start. The difference is, when you're on your own, you're in charge of maintaining the harmony required to keep the machine running. Learning how a company operates from the inside can help you lead your own business more smoothly.
Understanding Managerial Skills
Being a good manager does not come naturally to a lot of people. It takes a certain mindset and big picture outlook to lead a team and accomplish a set of goals. In an office job, even an entry-level one, you'll get to see firsthand how managers work, and watch how their decisions affect their employees and the company at large.
For example, meetings are a major part of the business world. Whether you're updating coworkers on the progress of your projects, or going out to lunch with a client, managers set the tone. Some meetings are quick and efficient, while others drag on for hours. When you run your own business, meetings are likely to be a major part of your life as well. Seeing how to conduct yourself in a meeting, and understanding how to head off any potential problems — like long-winded partners or wary customers — is a major benefit.
The same goes with negotiations. Business is all about negotiation: Convincing customers to do business with your company, agreeing on pricing, setting salaries for your employees, and assigning job titles, etc. If you can sit in with your manager during these kinds of negotiations, you can learn a lot about how it's done.
Granted, not all managers are great at their jobs. But even if you aren't surrounded by Steve Jobs-level visionaries, you can still figure out which parts of your manager's style are worth emulating. Then you can apply those lessons to your own business when you get it off the ground.
We've all heard the phrase a hundred times: "It's not what you know, it's who you know." In many circumstances it's true. Whatever you're trying to do in your professional life — whether you're looking for customers or trying to solve a problem — knowing the right people can make your task a whole lot easier.
There's no better place to get to know a lot of competent professionals than in an office environment. If your office is big, you can become friendly with people from different departments, either by working with them on projects, or by chatting them up in the break room. I can't stress this enough: no matter what you want to do with your life, the wider your network, the better.
I've done tons of freelance work for people I met at my office job. Whatever business you want to go into, chances are your contacts will come in handy sooner or later.
Every Job is a Learning Opportunity
Lots of people end up in a job they're not crazy about right out of university. Smart people find the good in their situation, learn all they can, and move on to what they really want to do when they're able.
If you want to be an entrepreneur, think of the business you want to start like buying a car. If you work to earn the money for your car, you'll appreciate it much more than if someone had bought it for you. Running a business is the same way. You might not have loved your office job, but you learned a lot from it, and you'll appreciate being self-sufficient even more.
Chris Reed is a freelance writer who enjoys music, reading and watching way too much TV. You can see what he's up to on chrislreed.com and follow him on Twitter @_chrislreed.