Monday’s post looked at the Life 101 issue of looking for and getting your first career job out of college. If you missed it, you can see it here.
Today’s post takes a look at things that go beyond the job hunt that recent grads told me they wished someone had told them before they graduated.
WELCOME TO WHEREVER YOU ARE:
I got a note from a former student who asked me about how to deal with “bad things.” She had recently graduated and was about nine months into her first career job. She was living in another state, in a small town in which she had never heard of prior to taking a job she loved.
After a few false starts of me guessing at what she meant, I picked up on a thread in her responses and asked, “Wait a minute. Are you feeling lonely?”
She had been actively involved in clubs, sports and other stuff while building an immaculate GPA at UWO. She was always on the go and always known wherever she went. Now, she was in a completely new place where she knew no one and she didn’t know how she was supposed to feel.
I had fewer friends, fewer interests and fewer people who knew/liked me when I made my first big move, but I felt similar pangs of anxiety. After my dad helped me move in, he spent the night before saying goodbye and leaving the next morning.
After he left, it dawned on me: Nobody here knows me at all.
(Side note thought: I could die in this apartment and nobody would notice until eventually I missed a rent payment or someone caught a whiff of decomp.)
I went from running constantly from 8 a.m. to 3 a.m. every day to working a nine-hour-a-day job and going home to… what? I took a lot of walks, bought groceries at normal times of day and generally looked for a place to fit in. It wasn’t easy, and apparently that was something others faced as well, given some responses I got from my former students:
It takes AWHILE to transition from being a college student to a working adult. Give yourself time and grace when going through this transition and don’t doubt your worth. You’ve got this.
Envision your life outside of work when considering a job – If you’re outdoorsy, does it have great trails? If you dig X, does it have X? The city has to pass the vibe check, or you’ll depend too much on work to bring you all your happiness.
Others noted that life got a little weird for them, living somewhere new, knowing nobody around them and generally losing that entire support structure of friends and family they’d taken for granted.
Friends and family are still there for you, just in a different way. It’s also an opportunity to spread your wings. Think about when you landed on campus four (or five or six) years earlier and how you didn’t know a damned thing about anything. It’s like that again, which sucks. That said, you survived and thrived in that once before, so the precedent is there for you to succeed.
WELCOME TO ROOKIE BALL
One of the hardest transitions people often make is from being the big cheese to the lowest of Limburger. It hit me hard when I took my first pro gig.
At the student newspaper, I didn’t get much editing. People generally said, “You’re great!” or at the very least, they had bigger problems to fix, so I kind of skated by with the assumption that whatever I was doing was fine.
When I got to the Major Leagues, I got a rude awakening. A lot of my copy was getting hacked and slashed. My source material was being questioned. My use of quotes was second-guessed. My overall ability to do a good job was under constant scrutiny.
At the time, I needed help, guidance and support, but I had a boss who had either no interest or no capability to provide those things:
(This editor can’t be bargained with. She can’t be reasoned with… And she won’t stop until you realize you suck!)
I eventually gained my sea legs, but I never forgot what it felt like to get my ears boxed in on a daily basis. Apparently, neither did some of the folks who responded to my post:
Imposter syndrome is real and it is awful.
Nobody knows what they’re doing… They’ve just been working through it longer than you have. Hang in there.
Being the newest person means everyone else has a leg up in some way… Be ready to work weekends and holidays.
You have to know what the rules are first before you break them.
It’s tempting when you’re new to think folks with more experience have everything figured out. The truth is everyone is making it up as they go along on most things.
In kind of pairing these previous two thoughts, something else a student mentioned resonated with me when it came to being the new kid: You’re often the youngest kid by a stretch.
The student who got me thinking about this issue told me she had this weird age gap thing. She was too old to connect with the people she covered (high school athletes) and yet too young to really connect with the people she spent time with (colleagues and the athletes’ parents). It felt like there was nobody her age to connect with.
For the majority of my career life, I was always the youngest person in the room. I was 21 when I got my first gig in a pro newsroom, 22 when I got my first teaching gig, 24 when I got my first professor/editor gig, 28 when I got my first tenure-track gig and so on…
Those early years were awkward, in that I often had nothing in common with my coworkers. The people at newsroom parties were talking about kids and soccer games and 401K accounts. Conversely, I was like, “Hey, uh… is that beer over there free for, like, anyone to take?” I was told rather bluntly that if I was caught “associating” with students, my boss would hide strap my ass to a pine rail and ship me out of town.
It wasn’t the easiest of situations in those early years, but it was even harder because I had nobody to talk to who was going through the same thing. Maybe that’s why still tell my students my door is always open, even after they graduate.
I know it sucks to be the rookie.
KEEPING UP WITH THE JONESES
Of all the advice the hivemind chipped in with, this insight needs to be screamed from the top of every mountain:
Try not to compare yourself to your friends who have seemingly better jobs. Instead of resenting the job you have, see what you can do to make it better – to make yourself better at it so you can easily move onto the next position.
During my doctoral program, I researched in the area of Social Comparison Theory, which examines the way in which people try to figure out how they stack up in a particular area of life by looking at other similar people in their area. I also watched it play out on a daily basis there as I taught kids at the journalism school.
It was a constant game of keeping up with the Joneses. If Bobby got a front-page article, Suzie needed to get the top article on the front page. If Jane wrote 40 stories in a semester, Carl needed to write 45.
It got even worse when they went after internship and employment opportunities. If Marco got an internship at a 75,000 circulation daily, Maria had to get an internship at a 100,000 circulation paper. If Nellie got a gig at a top 50 market TV station, Willie had to get one in a top 20 market.
I watched this transpire long after I left, with former students chasing each other up the golden ladder for no real reason other than to prove some level of superiority. I saw students leave perfectly good jobs to take on jobs that didn’t fit them because one of their peers had moved up a rank or got a gig at a larger publication.
In one case, a great student left a job where he was perfectly suited and wonderfully gifted as an editor in a smaller publication to chase other jobs that made no sense. He eventually ended up doing night cops at a paper in Kentucky, working for a mentally unbalanced night editor and feeling miserable. When I asked why he took the job, he cited two reasons:
- The paper’s circulation was huge, comparatively speaking to his previous job.
- One of his former cohorts had gotten a gig at some place “better” than where he was.
This made no sense unless you understand the competitive nature of the school, the kids and the field. I eventually got him to see that “better” is in the eye of the beholder.
I have friends that make more money than I do, but I wouldn’t trade positions with them under threat of death. I have friends with classier titles and bigger offices, but they also have more problems, or at least the types of problems I hate dealing with. I have friends who do a lot of things that, on paper, sound like they’re living a much “better” life than I am. However, I get a lot of stuff that can’t be measured on a spreadsheet and I’m relatively happy with a great portion of my life.
Every day is not an Academy-Award-winning performance, but it’s what I found works for me. I figured out that chasing someone else’s dream or trying to prove superiority by making myself miserable in my career made no sense.
A few other folks who chimed in on this topic made similar statements, saying they wished someone had told them to just worry about themselves and not chase the dreams of others. They finally figured out that comparing themselves to their former classmates made no sense and it made them miserable.
Once they settled in and just enjoyed being themselves, they found happiness.
THE FINAL ADVICE LIGHTNING ROUND:
Some of the best bits of advice didn’t really fall into a perfect category but it was so worth keeping, I figured this would be a good way to do it. So here comes the lightning round of advice:
Ask questions, ask for feedback, ask for what you need to succeed in a position and know that they hired you for a reason. And if that still isn’t working out, find something else that you love to do.
Know your worth and celebrate your accomplishments, achievements, and recognize the significance of your contributions. Don’t downplay them.
It’s very rare that in reality something is as high stakes as it can feel in the moment. After a fuck-up that felt career-ending for me but in retrospect did not matter in the slightest in the big picture, my boss told me “we’re not curing cancer.” And that’s stayed with me – very little is life or death, at the end of the day.
Your career is not your identity. It’s a reflection of you but it does not define you.
Well, that might not be everything, but I hope it’s a start.
If you have any other questions, comments or concerns, feel free to hit me up on the contact page.
Otherwise, have a great summer and best of luck in all you do.
(a.k.a. The Doctor of Paper)