Congratulations! You’re out in the real world, living on your own, holding down your own job, building your career one day at a time. You made it through high school, through college, through the job hunt, and now you’re here: at work!
But you’re not entirely comfortable, are you? Something is slightly wrong with the world, but you can’t put your finger on it. You like your job, more or less. You like your company and coworkers, more or less. Your career seems to be on track. And yet you feel anxious, out of place, rudderless.
I think I know what’s bothering you.
The first twenty years of your life have almost no similarity to the rest of your life, and the rest of your life can be a very long time. The crucial difference is that for the first twenty years of your life, your existence is highly structured, more than you ever realized.
Every year, you move up a grade in school. Every year, you get a “promotion” complete with a new job title: Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Senior. You get a new set of classes with new teachers, with new classmates. You get to choose some or all of your classes, every semester. You receive individual grades for each class, for each paper and test!
Middle school, high school, college, grad school. You know the whole process from an early age, and there’s little question about your future. You can look ahead five, ten, fifteen years and know exactly where you’ll be. And there is a profound security in that kind of knowledge.
You’re at work. You were hired for a particular job for a particular boss at a particular company…and nothing’s changing.
You have the same job title, year after year. If you are just starting out as a Junior Researcher or Assistant Developer, then maybe after one or two years you’ll get to be a regular Researcher or Developer. But then what? You may go five or ten years before you get another change in job title: Senior Researcher, Special Developer, etc.
In school, your “title” changed every year, and that change carried with it a sense of progress, a sense of change and growth and importance. Now, you have no idea when you might be promoted, and it depends on the economy, on your coworkers, on your boss or clients or a hundred other things you can’t control. This can be frustrating.
In school, you got grades on everything. Gold stars, check marks, letter grades, numerical grades, report cards, SAT scores. Constant, measurable feedback on how well you were doing on every little thing. You can develop a very clear picture of yourself with that much feedback. Good or bad, the knowledge is reassuring.
But now, there are no grades. You submit reports and hear nothing back. You write drafts and get minor editorial notes. You develop software applications and just get tasks crossed off your To-Do list. At most, your boss says, “Good work” in passing.
An entire year passes in this manner, during which time you feel adrift, nervous, uncertain. Hoping that you’re doing well, hoping your contributions are being noticed and will be rewarded. Finally, you have a performance review, an awkward and semi-formal meeting in which your one little mistake is blown out of proportion and you’re too nervous to remember all of your accomplishments.
Your life in school prepared you in just the wrong way for your life at work. In early school, your classes are chosen for you, the class material is outlined by the government (of all things). In later schools, you have some say in which classes you take, and what sports or arts you’re involved in.
Then in college, a world a freedom! Of choice! You can pick all of your classes, pick your major, even invent a major! Study abroad, switch from economics to veterinary science just by filling out a form, play sports, start clubs, join a fraternity, take summer and winter classes. You’re in charge of everything!
Then you get a job, and suddenly, all of that freedom is gone. At work, you do what you are told to do, on someone else’s schedule, to someone else’s standards, regardless of whether you think it’s the right thing in the right way. You have just fallen from the pinnacle of being in control to the depths of being controlled.
As I said, back in school you knew the shape of your future: where you would be, and when. But now, who knows?
You can hope for a cost-of-living raise, you can hope for a performance bonus, you can hope for a promotion, but the bottom line is that you don’t know if they will ever happen, not for certain.
Sometimes at interviews, you’re asked, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” This is one of the most ridiculous questions imaginable in our day and age. When you consider the unpredictable nature of our global economy, and the radical impacts of new technologies, it becomes more and more impossible to predict the future. Whole industries are springing into existence every day, and whole industries are becoming obsolete, albeit a bit more slowly.
Unless you work in the military or the government, there is a high likelihood that you will work for many different companies in many different roles, reinventing your career and your goals as often as every five years. Some people find that fact unsettling, even frightening. Others find it exciting.
The bottom line is that you start working as early as 20 and could still be working at 70, or later. That’s 50 years of totally unstructured career time. 50! Take a moment to consider how much time that really is, how much time you will spend muddling along and figuring things out for yourself.
How to Cope
- Be patient. The first thing you need to do is accept the fact that working life plays out much more slowly than school life. There are fewer changes, and they can be quite far apart. This is normal.
- Be yourself. Stop comparing your career path to those of your friends, your peers, and especially your parents. You are none of those people; you are you. It doesn’t matter if you’re in the exact same job as someone else. Your life, your work, your career is a completely unique thing of your own creation. It will play out at its own rate, in its own way. Focus on yourself, and let others take care of themselves.
- Be flexible. There is no way to predict what sorts of challenges or opportunities will arise for you, personally. Just being in the right room at the right moment could mean the difference between getting an exciting new assignment, or suddenly (and unpleasantly) realizing that you want to find a new job, or a new career path. Pay attention to the big picture, and remain open to the possibilities that present themselves.
Want something more concrete? Here are two examples from my own life:
- I went to college to become an aerospace engineer, and left with a BA in English Literature. I have no idea whether one is any better than the other. I only know that I graduated with the skills and knowledge to support myself and my family in a career I enjoy, which is really all that matters.
- I took a job as an executive assistant. It was just supposed to be a way to pay the bills until I found a “really good” job, but I discovered a way to turn it into a “really good” job and spent the next six years publishing books and journals as an editor and artist for that same company.
Take the time to reassess what you are doing and your reasons for doing it. Where do you think your career is going, and why? Are you happy with where you are and your apparent progress along your career path?
School taught you to follow a plan. But in life, and at work, no plan survives first contact with reality. The ability to adapt (and a sense of humor) will take you farther than any plan.
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