Writing your story: Life as a new grad entering the world of work

I recall vividly how I ended my post last year. I was celebrating the end of exams, saying it’s now time to prepare for the next stage of my life. I said that I did not have a clue how to navigate it, but that I’ll figure it out. I said I was terrified, but that I couldn’t wait. I said I was not ready, but that’s exactly why I was ready. I said everyone’s path is different, and that I had to write my own.

That was the prediction.

The reality is this: This year you will be somewhere between who you were and who you are going to become.

“Who you were” is easy to work out. Last post, a 21-year-old, on holiday in Canada, proudly toasting the end of university.

“Who you are” is still straight-forward. I wake up now a 22-year-old, recently returned from a holiday in Australia, and about to come up to the one-year work anniversary.

“Who you are going to be become” is still to be decided. By every day, by every action, by every life decision. By writing my story. Here’s the story of the last year, as I make 365 more imprints in my book:

You will start with immense energy. Energy which will allow you to have minimal sleep, work productively, and have maximal social plans or activities, every evening, every weekend, for a good 6 months. This will without doubt be the most fun 6 months, where you’re in a new city, your friends move down too, there are a plethora of house-warming parties (not forgetting the 5am McDonalds trips…) and just things to do, places to visit, in the bright lights of London. You’ll continue your weekly football refereeing, and even manage to take up ice-skating… you name it, there was it, and I wanted it all.

It seems energy dies very quickly!

The last few months will see a much slower pace. Maybe you’re getting old (oh no…), but you can’t hack it as much anymore. You will become choosier with what you do. One of the things you wanted to do when moving down to London was witness as much football as you could, in as many different stadiums as possible, but splashing out £40 a go, potentially getting to sleep at 1am on a work night, no longer seems such a smart idea.

Instead you will invest time in other more worthwhile thing… e.g. a gym membership! Last year, you wouldn’t have been able to run 5 minutes without giving up. Slowly and steadily, that became 10 minutes, then 15, then 20, then 30, then 45, then 60. Tiring after a run to the shop became running 5k’s every day. In July, I have two 10k races. In September, a 10-miler, and in November a half-marathon. I am nowhere near where I want to be, but I am much better than I was one year ago. And because of that, more energetic.

The message is two-fold:

Celebrate the small wins. 5k might not seem like a big distance when talking to seasoned runners, but you’re lapping everyone sitting on their couch still. Analogously, it’s often easy to lose sight of your career when you know you’ll be at work for the best part of 50 years, but celebrate the small wins, the little thank you’s, day-by-day.

And secondly, manage your energy, not your time. People are too regimented with time: 9-5 is work, 5-9 is play. You’ll know people who do this and are more tired than you, even though you work longer hours. People who will do their absolute utmost to squeeze in all their work before 5, because 5:01pm is play. They’re so exhausted from cramming, and what’s more, probably spend the whole evening stressing over sub-optimal and rushed work. Instead, focus on energy. If 2pm is a go-slow hour (post-lunch slump…), hit the gym. There is no point plodding along on low energy. If 8-9pm is productive, then make it up then. If you’ve got something to do, take the extra few moments on it. Sod time. Manage energy. You know your body and mind and what works best for you in terms of energy and work-life balance.

One of the toughest challenges over the past year is you will invariably have many moments of feeling quite lost, where you are not sure what you are doing and, worse still, you do not know how to know what to do.

This will be because the first 21 years of life had roughly been the same: education. Every year was the same cycle of school and end-of-year exams. Every year you knew what you needed to do, and as each year’s exams got harder and carried more importance, you knew that you just had to do what you did last year, and do it better. For 21 years, you just refined your technique each year — if you didn’t understand it from the classes, you could read a textbook; if the textbooks were still no good, you could Google. Even if it wasn’t pleasant, you knew what you needed to do.

Except this is totally different. It’s not a new chapter in your life, it’s a whole new book. I don’t have a clue how to adult, how to have a job, how to function in a big city. I dig deep into all the tried-and-trusted tips I have accumulated over my life so far but none seem applicable. Reading more textbooks is not working, Googling more is not working.

There are 2 solutions, and I try both:

Solution 1: trust others.

You’ve always been someone who does what you want to do. It’s not that you can’t take advice — you love hearing other people’s advice — but you’ve always made sure the ultimate judgement comes from yourself and you are not swayed by others or peer pressure. This will come from past life experiences and people thinking they know what’s best for me, getting it wrong, and me ultimately suffering the consequences. If I get it wrong for me, it hurts less, I’ll know it’s my own fault and try again next time.

The problem here is I don’t know where to begin. I need other people. This is huge trust. People will get it wrong, but I will get it more wrong. I usually know best for myself, but I don’t know it here.

Solution 2: wing it, and learn from your new mistakes.

Even the best of advice provided to you can be out-of-date. Only you can see your life, your interactions, your mood, you in your present moment, living in the world as it currently is. Family and friends may have the best of intentions, but sometimes you just need to find your own way, and with that comes decisions. Wrong decisions.

And don’t hate yourself for winging it and making wrong decisions. Yes, it will feel far too passive, and yes, you run the risk of life taking control. This will happen too. But take back control. Be in charge of every single day and know what you need to achieve. Don’t float. Know what you want and align all your actions towards it. That way you’ll be making progress in the direction you want to go in, learning more and growing more.

And just because you don’t know how to do something yet, remember it is in no way an indication of how smart/stupid you are, it is purely that you have not been exposed to it yet. You’re not old, you’ve never been an adult, so how could you know how to do adult things? You’ve never worked a full-time job, so how could you know how to navigate it? Never be too hard on yourself.

But as you pick up methods on how to live your (new) life, don’t forget to always be shamelessly you. Everyone goes through a time trying to fit in but realises it’s better to stand out. The current world forces people to succumb and be the same. The financial industry arguably has a reputation to take the life and soul out of people. Stand firm. Don’t ever not be you. Be honest, be vulnerable with others. The more you build a wall, the more you have to pretend to be someone you’re not. Be compassionate, be respectful. Be proudly yourself. You’ll lead a happier life.

They say as you grow older, you will become more cynical, and whilst you will certainly see more things you do not like the look of, remember you have the power to do something about it:

“Be the change you want to see in this world.”

If there is something you don’t like in the world, you can’t keep moaning and not do anything about it. You don’t like how messy your room is, then clean it. You don’t like your career, then change it. You don’t like how there’s not enough good people in the world, then become a good person. You can always do something. Champion change, even if it comes at huge personal cost to you, if you know it is the right thing to do. Don’t sit back and let it happen. You will be rewarded with peace in knowing you did the right thing.

Realise this also: you are never as good as you think, and others are never as bad as you think. Human nature, naturally with every success, makes you feel good. Realise that you are never as good as you think, and are just one reality check away from a real humbling. Sometimes you just need a massive catastrophe — you deserve it, you got arrogant, you need to get off your high horse and grind again. Similarly, that average Joe you never trust with something because they’re always incompetent? Realise that Joe can really surprise you. Never get complacent, and never under- or over-estimate people.

Every life article you read will tell you to work hard, and whilst this is so important, remember to also not sweat it too much. You will recall a fantastic article by a now-successful CEO, who said back when she was starting her career, she made plans with one of her closest friends one weekend, but at the last minute her firm asked her to work that weekend. Knowing she could not juggle both, she said no to work:

“Work will not remember that I did not work that weekend. My friend always would have.”

And as life gets busier, never lose sight of people. There will always be excuses: work, tiredness, more work, more tiredness. But realise people are, beyond all else, the most important aspect of this world. Connect with friends, ones which you may not have seen as frequently since leaving education. They’re the ones who will be there for you when the going gets tough. Connect deeply with strangers too. Call me weird, but there’s something magical about a spontaneous 2-minute conversation with the binman, or the security guard, or the cashier, or the person you always see on your commute. (OK, I’m weird.)

And help as many people as you can. As I recall saying in my previous post, “If you’re lucky enough to do well in life, make sure you send the elevator back down.” You’re in a very fortunate position to hold a fantastic job, and it wouldn’t have been possible without the help of your seniors at university. Now you’re that senior, return the favour. Your LinkedIn mailbox may flood with messages from students looking for career advice, but make unlimited time and unlimited coffees for them. Everything else can wait. Karma is real, and as you treat people right, they treat you right. (My heartfelt thanks to the people who have lended their ears and offered boundless time to me, know that every second is appreciated and the virtuous circle is being continued.)

You will begin to see that everything in life can be spun 2 ways, and it will severely frustrate you. A boss who gives feedback to their employee that they need to be more vocal in meetings may, as luck would have it, have been away in the meetings where that employee raised significant points. Someone who has a meeting everyday from 9-10am, and heads to that meeting room straight away on arrival instead of dropping things by the desk, may appear to only get into work at 10 when they finally get back to the desk. Hard-working can be spun as time-inefficient. Using initiative to solve your own problems can be spun as not collaborative. Quiet can be spun as not having any ideas, loud can be spun as being too aggressive. This is all so frustrating and, implicitly, is promoting a mentality of ‘show’ more than ‘do’, and this will grate.

And because of some frustrations, it might lead you to lose your standards. A friend always being slow to pay you back when you lend them £10 may, subconsciously, make you spite them and pay them back late the next time you borrow something from them. Don’t. It’s a futile game and a lose-lose situation. Keep the standards, be the better person and keep the head held high. Do always the right thing, don’t sink to their game, and don’t let yourself down. If you criticise them for late payment, don’t give them a reason to criticise you back.

But for all the frustrations, treat everything as a learning opportunity. If something frustrated you about that last meeting, use it as a chance for you to step up and explore better ways of doing it. Similarly on the positive side, overhearing a fantastic conversation on the elevator is a chance for you to perfect your ‘elevator pitch’. Absorb every little detail, because they all teach you something.

And ultimately, laugh as much as you can. Some days the laugh will go, and each day will become a bit more pained, but be as carefree as possible. Work will always be there, young or old, but one thing you probably can’t do as much when you get older is to be carefree. So, in your youth, do it freely, not caring about other’s opinions, not caring so much about consequences, and be free. When you get older, you’ll still do a lot of the trying, but with more at stake and more consequences and more eyes looking at you, you often have to be ‘safer’ and less bold. Laugh as much as you can, try as hard as you can.

“You will never get there as things will always get in your way. You have to be mentally OK with a 70-90% day, because that is better than the alternative. The important point is to never give up as your 70% day next year will be better than your 70% today. Essentially, your 70% day next year will be your 100% day this year.” ~ Dr. Jamie Schwandt

Only now am I appreciating the sheer magnitude of the year I have just had. A lot went right, but not everything, and that completely sucks. But that should prepare me very well for future, arguably more important, years ahead.

Because this year was somewhere between who I was, and who I am going to become.

***

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