Nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely. – Auguste Rodin
I’m rarely ever truly bored in a training because even in the presentation of basic material, I often find new ways of thinking about topics I may already be familiar with. In presenting the fundamentals, we’re often able to better understand the meaning and significance to the topic in light of our lived experience. If I were to go back to my undergraduate sociology classes, I’d have a much different experience going over the fundamentals of social constructions of identity, the prevailing social order, and the nature of human interactions based on my experiences living in the world. Even the Databases 101 class I took two years ago now would be very different now that I have more experience working with data in relational schemas. It may not seem as interesting, but I’m likely to gain more from the higher-level discussions than I did when I had no practical experience in the topic.
Today I taught the third iteration of my Data Analysis for Managers course for New York City employees. The goal of the course is to get managers in various city agencies to think more about the data they use and how to maybe use it better, particularly in making decisions about city services, operations, and resources. I’ve never thought the material I’m presenting is completely new to my students. Most of the students in my class have worked for the city for a long time, working with data in various ways. But this third time around, I came to fully realize what I was going for with the class I’d helped conceive and design over the past 6 months.
It came down to this simple insight: no matter where we work, we often find ourselves in situations where we have a task to accomplish without clear guidance on how to do it. Some people are great at defining the “how” for themselves (following in the tradition of Lt. Rowan), others need more assistance forming the “how”, but ultimately we all have to develop a process to accomplish the tasks we’re given without explicit instruction in the larger context that surround what we’re doing and how it could best be done.
That’s the gap I’ve tried to fill with the class, namely taking the everyday tasks city managers, analysts, and various other city employees perform on a daily basis, and help them understand the larger context in which they’re working. They step out of completing the end-of-quarter report or the ad-hoc presentation for the deputy commissioner, and think more broadly about the utility of metrics, the best use of color in charts, how to communicate an analysis, and maybe even challenge them to think of new ways to do their job. They’re removed from the specific to think of what they do more abstractly.
So why do we train? It’s not just about learning new skills, but also about shoring up old skills that we’ve gained over time, putting them into a larger context and understanding better why we execute tasks in the way we do, how we might do it better, and the significance of the choices we make. It’s a valuable exercise to question the fundamentals even if the topic seems well-known. We’re able to put our experience in context, making the time we’ve spent doing the job count for something meaningful. We better understand our role in the work we do and while that ideally makes us better at our jobs, I also like to think it helps us also more satisfied in the work we do.