From Playground to Boardroom: The Kindergarten Guide to Career Success

Almost 30 years ago, Robert Fulghum wrote a book called All I Really Need to Know I learned in Kindergarten: Uncommon Thoughts on Common Things. This lovely little book put forth the idea that most of our training for a good life comes very early in our experiences

Now that I have a first grader of my very own, I wonder how much of that idea is true. Certainly, there seem to be some skills my 6-year-old will still need to master. Keyboarding, basic computer programming and tying her own shoes come to mind.

Still, she’s got 11 years left before college, and then probably at least 4 more before she heads off into adulthood and a career.

The vast majority of jobs today, though, require more social skills than they do computer programming (or even shoe tying.)  To be successful, she’ll need to put those kindergarten skills to work juist as much as she’ll need to apply all the more career-specific skills she acquires along the way.

And probably way more than she’ll have to apply shoe-tying.

She’s not the only one. Most career success comes far more from how we’ve learned to act more than what we knowWhile it’s important to keep learning and keep growing, it’s vital to hang on to those early lessons and remember those earliest lessons.

Without much ado, here’s our Kindergarten Guide to Career Success.

Follow Instructions

One of the first skills you learn is to do what your teacher tells you. Read and follow the instructions. Listen.

Pop culture loves people who make up their own rules as they go along. Most bosses, not so much. Sure, we reward innovation…sometimes. But more often, bosses and customers have performance expectations that you need to meet. Exceed those expectations and your boss or clients will love you, but at minimum do what you’re supposed to do.

Otherwise, your boss or clients will find someone else to meet those expectations.

Which leads us to…

Ask Questions (or for Help)

Anyone who spends any time around kids answers lots and lots of questions. Where’s my coat? Why did you do that? Do I have to take a bath tonight? What’s for dinner?

Lots of us stop asking nearly so many questions. We decide we can figure things out on our own, or we assume we know the answer. Maybe we don’t want to look silly by admitting we need clarification or asking for guidance.

As Socrates reminds us “The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.” Making assumptions or going on incomplete data leads us to numerous bad decisions. We need to take the time to ask questions and understand, whether it’s a new task, a new procedure, or a new goal. Some of us let ourselves get over our head and forget to ask for help when we need it, even when asking for help would lead to more success.

Ask. Clarify. Make sure you understand what you’re supposed to do so you can do it.

Show and Tell

You remember Show and Tell? You’d bring one of your favorite toys to school, get up in front of the class and proudly tell your classmates how great it was.

Congratulations, kid, you’ve given your first presentation.

Isn’t it weird that we stress public speaking in early childhood and then forget about it for years? But when you get into your career, you have to be able to pitch or defend your ideas in meetings, make sales to clients, and explain things. You need to be comfortable speaking up, answering questions, and communicating your passions. 

So remember those early presentations. You probably weren’t nervous, just excited to get your turn. You just spoke. Try to get back to that mindset, because most of us can’t avoid public communication.

Dust Yourself Off and Try Again.

Everyone fails sometimes. Fact of life, sometimes we fall down.

Little kids are way better at getting back up after they fall than most adults. Skinned knee? Wash it off and keep playing. Can’t do something? They’ll keep trying far longer than an adult, and apply way more creativity to figuring out how to get it done.

Adults can take longer to recover from setbacks. And we’re way more likely to give up unless the stakes seem high enough.

It’s okay to give up sometimes, but sometimes you need to reach back to that childlike confidence that even if you can’t do something yet, you’ll be able to do it eventually. Just keep trying.

Play Well with Others

Few of us work in a vacuum. We have customers, bosses, and/or coworkers, and we need to be able to get along with all of them (at least most of the time).

So use the lessons you learn early about the proper way to treat people. To quote Fulghum

Share everything.

Play fair.

Don’t hit people.

Put things back where you found them.

Clean up your own mess.

Don’t take things that aren’t yours.

Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody. 

The book includes a lot of other great things, but we’ll stick with these for now. And I’ll add a few more items:  Say please and thank you. Do your part. Clap and cheer when someone else does a good thing.

It all boils down to one truth: Be a person you want to work with, and other people will want to work with you. Be a person you wouldn’t want to work with, and no one else will want to work with you either.


The Kindergarten Guide to Career Success

From Playground to Boardroom

It can be easy to rely on our knowledge and skills to bring us career success. After all, we spend a lot of time developing them, and they’re important. You need to be able to do the things our job requires, and you should keep developing your career-specific skillset.

Long-term career success, though, requires a lot of people skills. No matter how much you know, someone else probably knows it too. The person who gets ahead is the person who can balance the two.

Fortunately, most of us have been working on people skills our whole lives. Just don’t forget to employ them.

Follow instructions, Ask Questions. Show and Tell. Dust yourself off when you fall. And, most of all, play well with others.


What people skills do you think people need most to succeed in their careers? 

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16 thoughts on “From Playground to Boardroom: The Kindergarten Guide to Career Success

  1. Great article, Emily. Baby Boomers have a lot to be thankful for. Our parents actually followed most of your suggestions. I was a simpler time with less stress, less electronics, and more personal contact. Children today face a lot more than we did back then. Their parents do too. Savings for a college education begin at birth. It now costs almost a quarter of a million dollars to attend Duke University for four years. My parents were not wealthy, but could pay my tuition (and my siblings) out of their bank account or savings. A college degree almost insured a good job with enough money to live a middle class life on only one salary! The job market for college grads now continues to shrink, along with the salaries. When I was a little girl, my future was rosy. It is a shame it is not as rosy for Little Bit.

  2. It’s funny but I just saw a piece on our local news about why people fail to get jobs – the lack of following directions (especially the directions on the applications!) I see that in my work too. I interview people and check their applications. It’s amazing how many people don’t complete the application (especially written responses that require more than a few sentences). And as far as “dust yourself off” – that is SO important. We all need to learn something – so if you make a mistake or things don’t go as planned, reflect and do it better next time! No one is perfect – but trying to improve is key!
    Vicki@MakeSmarterDecisions recently posted…Would You Work an Extra 200 Days for $200,000?My Profile

    • Yeah, I remember reading something similar. I know that when I used to do interviews, I was always surprised by the folks who didn’t fill out the application right, didn’t show up on time for the interview, or dressed poorly. I think there are a bunch of skills younger folks need to learn, and job hunting often gets skipped.

  3. That’s the one thing that school can teach well – following directions! I went to decent schools and was a compliant kid generally so when I filled out my first formal job application at age 17, it was easy and they were impressed. It’s just filling out forms completely, which is something you learn with standardized tests!

    But school didn’t prepare me for understanding the politics of the workplace and personalities. It took me a long time to understand that not everyone will behave professionally and if your manager tends to pick favorites, and very obviously so, nothing a kid does or says will convince them to behave differently. I’m not sure how to pass that knowledge down to JuggerBaby, and I wonder if it’s simply something that ze will have to learn by seeing like I did.
    Revanche @ A Gai Shan Life recently posted…Just a little (link) love: Lion Dance Lunar New Year editionMy Profile

    • It’s a tough lesson to understand that work is not always a meritocracy, any more than school is. A boss with favorites (and least favorites) can be just as bad as Harry Potter’s potions classes with Snape and Malfoy. It’s basically middle/high school without the acne.

      I do think it’s a good thing to bring up with kids…the definitions of success and popularity change a bit, but the interpersonal dynamics, not so much. There are cool kids with a lot of advantages and not cool kids who struggle for no apparent reason other than they aren’t cool. Smart can matter, but charm, looks, and connections matter just as much if not more. Addressing it is depressing, but ignoring it can be worse.

      The good news is that cool changes (geek chic!) and you don’t have to be Draco to be successful. Harry, Ron and Hermione weren’t really the cool kids, especially the first couple of years. They formed their bonds with a good group of friends and became successful in areas where family wealth and pure blood status didn’t matter.

      You may just have to wait to see what kind of kid ze turns out to be, and go from there, but encourage JB to form connections with peers, develop a network, and find zir place for success.

  4. As I’ve moved up in my career I’ve found it doesn’t matter how brilliant you are if you can’t convince people to go along with your ideas. There is someone that I work with that is despised and people refuse to go along with what she says. It’s unfortunate that she has developed that reputation but you gotta be able to play fairly in the sandbox 🙂
    Mustard Seed Money recently posted…Guest Post: Does Debt Really Have To Be a Fact of Life?My Profile

    • Yeah, you have to make connections somewhere at work, and playing fair is a big part of that. I’m never one to be one of the naturally cool kids, but playing fairly, giving credit to others, remembering to say thanks, and being honest generally will keep your work relationships solid.

    • It does take a village of strong parental figures and mentors to help bring folks along. I worry about the current (fragmentation? dispersion?) of community in America.

      When I was a kid, all of the adults in the neighborhood knew me and would say stuff to my mom if I misbehaved. So she let us wander freely through the neighborhood with a pack of kids. Now, I don’t know most of my neighbors. No one would dare tell my kid to do something or not do something (not because I care, but because society has decided only the always-present caregiver can/should say something to control a kid.) There’s very much the idea that only parents should get the say on discipline, vaccinations, child rearing, education choices, etc. But that “only the parent” idea means our child-raising villages are awfully small.

      I do think that being kind and good gets you further than being mean and petty. Karma’s a bitch, unfortunately it’s often invisible, too.

  5. Following instructions is a crucial one. There is a balance to strike though, because sometimes instructions should be challenged (tactfully!) so that the outcome is better.

    I recently spent some time volunteering for a local charity by writing applications for funding to private foundations. The amount of websites that said how many applications they received for ineligible causes or not properly answering questions staggered me. It is a competitive area and charities (esp when paying staff!) can’t afford to waste time on guaranteed failures.

    Although others’ failures can sometimes be to your benefit!
    Sarah recently posted…100 happy days challenge- have you tried it?My Profile

    • Yes, sometimes instructions aren’t very good, and you can improve on the result if you ask questions or offer suggestions of better. It’s a risk (sometimes there are good reasons for not doing something in a way that seems obvious to you that you don’t know about) but as with most risks there can be a bigger reward for success than if you just do the expected.

      The issue I think goes back to understanding the expectations and at least doing the minimum to meet them, if not exceeding them. I think a lot of times people don’t follow instructions because they a) don’t take the time to read them or b) don’t understand the purpose. In a relationship or job you already have, this can be where you need to ask questions so you understand better.

      For instance, I had an employee once who was so proud of his idea to put in more shelving…exactly where we didn’t want people to stop and look at stuff. We needed more shelving but didn’t need a traffic bottleneck in a place that would have kept traffic from moving into the majority of the store. He assumed we hadn’t thought of his idea, rather than we had thought of it and dismissed it at the time we set up the store as causing more headaches than it solved.

      In a relationship or job (or grant) you’re trying to get, though, it’s best to just follow the instructions. As you’ve pointed out, the instructions effectively narrowed down the pool of candidates.

  6. I remember doing hiring at one of my jobs and even something as simple as please put “XXXX” in the subject line of your email was rarely followed. If I had a large turnout for the job posting, I would just delete those emails without even reading them. It was such a simple direction they were ignoring.
    Mel @ brokeGIRLrich recently posted…Rev Up Your Side IncomeMy Profile

    • Yep, I think that goes to Sarah’s and Vicki’s issue as well. There are times you can ignore or improve or question instructions…when you’re applying for a job (or grant) shouldn’t be one of them, because it’s too easy for someone to use the application instructions as a tool to weed out applicants.

  7. I love this kind of advice. And while I know people criticize it as parochial, I completely agree with you that soft people skills are what matter most over the long term. Further, it’s great to see how your personal experiences are reinforcing this conventional wisdom!
    Jay recently posted…Trend Following Trading Ideas for February 2017 Part 1My Profile

    • I’ve definitely learned by making mistakes. There are plenty of times I should have taken these lessons more seriously than I probably did at the time.

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