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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Break Room

8 Stories You Thought Were Silly as a Kid That Actually Apply to Your Career

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Looking back, it seems like every story you were told growing up had a bigger lesson. For example, Green Eggs and Ham taught us to not be afraid to try new things, Charlotte’s Web taught us the importance of loyalty and friendship, and If You Give a Mouse a Cookie taught us that you should never offer anything to anyone, ever.

On second thought, maybe not all children’s stories have a deeper meaning, but my original point remains—we learned a lot about decency as kids.

The thing is, as we grew up, some of us (not naming names) have forgotten a few of the basics. I’ve recently re-read some of Aesop’s Fables (think “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” and “The Tortoise and the Hare”) for fun, and it’s hard to not realize how many of the lessons still apply. And how many people seem to have forgotten along the way.

Not sure what I mean? Here are eight lessons to consider:

1. The Young Crab and His Mother: Lead by Example

Cliff Notes: A mother crab tells her son he should walk forward instead of sideways, but fails when she tries it herself. Classic mother crab.

Good leaders always practice what they preach. There’s probably nothing more frustrating than hearing someone say one thing, but do the opposite. By asking a colleague to do something that you aren’t willing to do yourself (like work all day on Saturday), you’ll hurt your chances of coming off as a true and reliable leader.

How to Put it Into Practice

Owning up to your mistakes, being receptive to feedback, and maintaining a positive attitude are all surefire ways to gain your colleagues’ respect and trust. And, if you want your team to stop showing up late or taking personal phone calls at work, you’ve got to follow those rules, too.

2. The Old Lion and the Fox: Learn From Others’ Mistakes

Cliff Notes: A lion tries to lure a fox into its cave, but before he can, the fox notices that there are only footprints leading into the cave—and (dun, dun, dun) none leading out.

We all know by now that mistakes ultimately help us grow, but wouldn’t it be better to be like the fox and not have to learn certain lessons the hard way? (Like, say, getting eaten by a lion)

How to Put it Into Practice

The easiest way to learn from others’ mistakes is simply by talking to them. Speaking directly with a friend or colleague about things he would’ve done differently, or important lessons he learned throughout his career, is invaluable if you want to avoid making the same mistakes.

3. The Ants and the Grasshopper: Balance Work and Play

Cliff Notes: The ants spend their summer collecting food for winter while the grasshopper plays music (we’ll assume top 40), so when winter comes, the grasshopper finds himself completely unprepared.

We’ve all worked with a grasshopper before—the person who seemingly never does any work 90% of the time, and then annoyingly panics when they have something due (cue eye roll). No one wants to be the wet blanket of the office, but it’s impossible to have fun all the time if you also plan on getting your work done.

How to Put it Into Practice

If you need some motivation to focus, create a work and reward system, like grabbing your favorite snack with a friend while you complete a difficult task. Similarly, productivity hacks such as the Pomodoro Technique can help you stay on track while also giving yourself time for fun breaks.

4. The Bat and the Weasels: Adapt to Your Surroundings

Cliff Notes: A bat pretends that it’s either a mouse or a bird when it suits him.

As a former RA in college, I had to wear many, many different hats on the job—when rules were broken, I was the disciplinarian, when students were upset (in the middle of the night, no less) I was a friend, and when they were struggling with schoolwork, I was a tutor. What made me successful, and what separated the good RAs from the bad ones, was the ability to be like the bat and adapt to the issue at hand.

How to Put it Into Practice

Although being an RA is probably a lot different from your current job, the same rule applies—flexibility’s an important skill that will serve you in any career. So, be willing to take on new tasks outside of your job description, always prepare a Plan B, remain calm when things don’t go as planned, and be open to new ideas.

5. The Milkmaid and Her Pail: Don’t Make Assumptions

Cliff Notes: A milkmaid’s carrying a bucket of—you guessed it, milk—and becomes so distracted by what she’s going to do with it that she spills it all.

While it’s great to have dreams and set goals, things rarely turn out the way you originally planned. The milkmaid’s daydreaming shows how easy it is to get carried away with ideas, and how they can quickly spiral out of control. Minimize your assumptions, and you’ll save yourself a lot of letdown.

How to Put it Into Practice

Say you’ve just verbally closed a major deal for your company—while it’s understandable to want to celebrate, if something goes wrong, you want to be prepared (mentally and physically) for the worst. Hold off on the celebrations and focus on the task at hand until everything’s signed, and then you can pop the champagne.

6. The Lion and the Ass: Don’t Listen to Others’ Negativity

Cliff Notes: A lion ignores a donkey’s mean comments and walks on proudly. As one does.

Working alongside a negative person is just plain awful—who wants to be around someone who complains about everything, from her coffee not being the right temperature to her huge workload?

How to Put it Into Practice

It sounds like something you’d find on a bumper sticker, but it’s true—positivity is power. Although spite can be a powerful motivator, remember that at the end of the day, the only person’s opinion that truly matters is your own. So, ignore the haters and surround yourself with people that will lift you up to be better every day.

7. The Ass Carrying the Image: Give Credit Where It’s Due

Cliff Notes: While carrying a sacred image, a donkey notices people admiring it and thinks they’re admiring him.

In most jobs, you work as part of a bigger team. And most of us have probably been in situations where someone has taken credit for something we’ve done–and if you have, you know how annoying it can be.

How to Put it Into Practice

If you think someone did a great job on something, recognize it by sending a quick “Congrats!” email or giving him or her a shout-out to the team. Even something small goes a long way—and acknowledging someone else makes you look good, too.

8. The Cat and the Fox: A Simple Answer Is Often the Best

Cliff Notes: A cat and fox are being chased in the woods—the cat climbs up a tree, but the fox, overwhelmed with a number of possible tricks to escape, hesitates and is captured.

At work, it’s easy to overthink things. You might want to continually impress your boss and colleagues with over-the-top work, but as we learn from the cat in this fable, keeping things simple is sometimes the best way to go.

How to Put it Into Practice

Make it a habit to follow the short and sweet mantra when possible. If you’re sending an email or writing a cover letter, try to get right to the point—no one wants to have to sift through buzzword-filled paragraphs to understand something that can be conveyed in a few sentences—and chances are someone will actually read it when it’s shorter.

Even though these fables were written so long ago, if you read between the lines, you’ll see that Aesop was pretty spot-on with his advice. No matter your profession, keeping these lessons in mind will help you become a better worker, not to mention someone your inner child would be proud of.