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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

8 Career Lessons I Learned From My Two-Year-Old Roommate

Ilya and Dan at the piano
Dan Ratner

To start, I’m not a parent. I opted in to a commune-style Brooklyn home I found on Craigslist, and I live with a young couple and their two-year-old, Ilya.

I’ve now been living there for one year and I can confidently say it’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Because in my time living with a kid, I’ve come to a few realizations about my own life and career.

1. Don’t Hold a Grudge

One time, a happy Ilya purposely walked into my room, stepped into my shoes, and began to cutely plod around the apartment. Since these were my nice shoes, I grabbed them back and tossed them into my room for safety.

His immediate response—as expected—was a roaring scream that echoed through the house as I left for work. However, I returned a few hours later to find a surprisingly calmer Ilya and received a loving greeting of, “Dannnn.” I’d expected some form of a cold shoulder, yet not even a hint of it lingered—he was as happy to see me as ever.

Why let a past grievance stick with you? It may feel good in the short time to nurse some hurt, but in the long run, it’s an energy suck.

2. Ask for What You Want

It may feel weird to put yourself first—it does for me.

This isn’t the case for Ilya. If he wants my carrots and hummus, he’ll let me know. If he wants me or my adult roommates to read him a book, he’ll tell us. He wants us to dance around to The Beach Boys? Done.

Even though my wants may be a tad more complex than Ilya’s, it’s imperative I ask for them boldly. Without asking, it’s simply silly to expect them to happen on their own. After all, The Giving Tree isn’t going to read itself.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Negotiate

Toddlers like to be thrown in the air. I’ll do it for Ilya for a bit, and then get tired and stop—but he’ll immediately want more.

The conversation usually looks something like this:

Him: “More.”

Me: “No, I’m tired.”

Him: “More.”

Me: “Okay, one more.”

Him: “Five more.”

Me: “No, just one more.”

Him: “Five more.”

Me: “Okay, just five.”

Stick to your guns. If you’ll only settle for five of something, ask for that—and walk away if it’s not going to happen. I plan to immediately apply this to my sales conversations (but I’ll hold off on the tantrum if it doesn’t work out).

4. Be Adaptable

Commune life is not for the faint-hearted. With people coming and going, the doors are always open (or unlocked), and all are welcome.

But Ilya adjusted to this lifestyle seamlessly. New people in the apartment aren’t shocking to him, but instead possibly offer some new form of entertainment.

At work, you’re not just constantly dealing with new people, but also new problems, scenarios, and questions that pop up. Learning to be more flexible has kept me lighter on my feet and more capable to pivot from one problem to the next. I’ve become more receptive to change, which is essential when ambiguity is the one constant at the kind of startup company I work at.

5. Be Kind to Yourself

What I soon learned after spending time with Ilya is that babies don’t need a reason to cry—they just do.

Feeling lousy is okay. Positive self-talk is all well and good, until it leads to a feeling of inadequacy when you feel down. This then leads to internal judgements—and now you’ve just become upset over being upset!

I’ve become better at accepting my feelings without judging them. I embrace my crappy days along with my good days, and that’s fine by me.

6. Appreciate Your Family

I’m blessed to have both of my parents still alive and healthy. As a toddler, I’m sure Ilya doesn’t think about that. What he does think about is, Where’s Mom? every time she walks away or closes a door.

I no longer behave in the same way, but I do recognize that the time we have with the ones we love is limited, so the moments we do spend with family should be cherished. Not quite a career tip, but essential for long-term happiness—inside and outside of work.

7. Say No

If you’re offered something that doesn’t benefit you, be direct and say no. After all, time and energy are fleeting.

Ilya says no like a pro. Want to put on this jacket? No. Want to go to sleep? No. Say goodbye! No. He likes to remain in control. I’ve used this to minimize the chance that someone’s requests will control my day. Instead, I own it.

8. Fall Down

To reuse a well-worn metaphor, when a child is learning to walk and falls 50 times, they never think to themselves, “Maybe this isn’t for me.”

Living with a baby reminds me that screwing up is not just essential for growth, it can also be fun. As I close in on my third decade of life, being a complete novice at something is stimulating.

If it’s been too long since I’ve made a mistake, I begin to worry my growth has stagnated. Taking an attitude like Ilya’s to the workplace means when a poor call or embarrassing mistake is made (which it will be), the best way to respond is to recognize it and try, try again.

We’re surrounded by opportunities to observe, learn, and grow day in and day out—whether it’s from our roommate, the cheery cashier at the supermarket, or even the screaming baby on the overcrowded train. All you have to do is open your eyes to them.

(But, if it’s the screaming baby you’ve chosen to learn from, I can tell you from experience it may be best to do your studying from the opposite side of the train car.)