How I Learned: Working Well Under Pressure

Composition by Mariya Pylayev
"Must work well under pressure" shows up on a lot of job descriptions, but how does one develop the skill to work under pressure? For some it might be playing high school or college sports, others learn it on the job. For me I learned everything I needed to know bussing tables and washing dishes.
In college I worked at the Rotunda Dining Hall or "The Roto" as students derisively called it. It was popular opinion on campus that this dining hall was the worst. Eating there was bad enough, working there even worse. One of the many jobs I performed was dishwasher. The machine itself was a long conveyor belt contraption that one group of students fed while another group emptied.

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My favorite job was working the window where students would dump their trays. It was the toughest job on the line and almost nobody wanted to do it. For three and a half adrenaline-fueled hours I would clean off the trash and uneaten food, rinse the glasses, toss the plates one way and the silverware another. At the busiest time I would have about ten seconds per tray. One slip could result in broken glass, smashed plates or even a nice gash on the hand. A slight delay resulted in angry students piling up their trays or even tossing them angrily through the window.

The funny part was I loved it. It was high-pressure work for just a few bucks an hour, but I craved the challenge. It required focus, energy and grit. There were no breaks, no easy shifts and you couldn't make mistakes. When the shift ended it felt like I had run a marathon, except my hands were shriveled and I smelled like food.

Newsroom pressure-cooker
Years later I worked for a news organization. Every day was all about deadlines and there was always the possibility of a major news event. This would mean throwing out everything we were working on and starting over, requiring the team to work with nothing and produce materials within impossible timeframes. Plus, news doesn't break on a 9-to-5 schedule. It happens in the middle of the night, on weekends and generally at the most inconvenient time possible.

My team worked through major national and world events, including hurricanes, wars, election nights, bombings, plane crashes and more. Everyone had to perform at his or her highest level while under extreme stress. The more we tackled, the more we could handle. What seemed challenging when I first started was a walk in the park after a few years.

One of these jobs was entry-level while the other was a highly skilled endeavor, but both demanded tenacity, drive and toughness. I could never have succeeded at the latter if not for the lessons learned from years working in food service. What I learned from difficult, menial tasks was something that would impact my entire career. It taught me to handle pressure. Work fast and stay focused. Recover immediately from mistakes. Keep going no matter how hard the task. I may not have made much money, but the lessons are still with me today.

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Photo source: Getty Images

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