The Free Agency of Young Professionalism
I remember a very specific moment when the panic set in. It was Sunday afternoon of my Senior year at Kenyon College and I had already, like far too many weekends before, spent the majority of my day attempting to remedy a hangover through a combination of coffee and mass-produced scrambled eggs. I am not sure why the idea of employment suddenly popped into my head, but I abruptly realized that my senior year was already well under way — hurtling me towards an inevitable graduation that would dump me unceremoniously on the wrong side of my idealistic lifestyle.
It was a jarring experience. Ultimately, it ended up pushing me towards an earnest job search that resulted in my first job — a paralegal at a large D.C. law firm — but along the way, I also learned a lot about young professionalism and what works, what doesn’t, and the reality of throwing yourself into a brand new world that doesn’t care about you or your problems.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a whole lot of easily digestible advice for those making the transition from college to young professionalism and the stuff that does exist is written by tenured professionals who have long forgotten $15 handles and the occasional fraternity party.
So here it is, five takeaways for college seniors and young professionals looking to make the most of their first foray out into the real world.
Take Away 1: College eventually comes to a close. Move on and value yourself as a professional or nobody ever will. If you still need that college atmosphere, get a job as a bartender or DJ.
Beyond anything else, college is fun. You get to live in close proximity to all your friends, make some questionable decisions, and push personal boundaries in both academic and social arenas. Lots of people look back on these experiences as the ‘peak’ or ‘best times of their lives’, but it also crucial to recognize college’s role as an important developmental stage which allows us to bridge childhood and young adulthood.
Lots of today’s established professionals will tell you that this bridge has degraded over the last 15 years, resulting in less prepared young professionals who expect the world to be handed to them. This preconception of millennials, although not entirely wrong, is also one of the most significant barriers between you and successful young professionalism. So take yourself seriously. I am not recommending that you abandon youthful optimism in favor of the corporate humdrum, but rather that you set a high bar for yourself — even when other people don’t.
Take Away 2: Never stop wanting more. Even though you are young and there is an order to the business world, always look to the future and expect more of yourself than everyone around you. It is surprisingly easy to impress your coworkers with a little forethought and a few steps beyond the bare minimum.
Expectations for entry level workers are unbelievably low. Generally speaking, employers are looking for employees that can quickly grasp basic tasks and build upon their knowledge base to gradually contribute increasing returns to the company. This is a good thing for everyone that takes the opportunity to go the extra mile (it’s more like the extra foot to be honest), but the large majority of people will aim to meet expectations as they are given.
Take this opportunity and set yourself above your peers. Try to think 2–3 steps ahead of the current task, always understand your value-add, and don’t be afraid to set yourself apart from your coworkers. If you are doing all of these things, people will start to notice very quickly and you will find your professional career moving forward faster than you had previously anticipated.
Additionally, keep track of all the things that you do well. When it comes time for promotions and raises, you should be able to argue your case with a specific list of key accomplishments and a rational argument.
Note: If you don’t know what a value-add is, please look it up. Urban Dictionary does a nice job of keeping it succinct and entertaining.
Take Away 3: Ask questions, but ask smart ones. There is no shame in asking questions, the people around you are successful for a reason — just make sure that you couldn’t have answered your question with a quick Google search first.
This one is very simple, but also important. As a young professional, you are there to learn. Try to soak up as much information as you can and don’t be afraid to clarify instructions rather than turning over something that is wrong. Your superiors will not get angry with questions and, in many cases, it will set you apart from your peers who attempt to blindly complete tasks.
Take Away 4: Understand the difference between a job and career. As a young professional, you owe it to yourself to try a variety of things — nobody will hold it against you and your first job will never be your last. Keep in mind that our parents grew up in a different generation, where it was not uncommon to spend one’s entire career at one business or firm. That economy is, for the most part, gone. We are all free agents now and you are your own business. Find your strengths and passions, and try to tie them into a job that you are excited about when you wake up in the morning.
When I first left college, I worked as a paralegal for a large DC law firm. My father is a lawyer, I figured that maybe I would end up going to law school someday, and so I gave it a chance. It only took three months before the day-to-day drudgery drove me crazy and I ended up hating getting out of bed in the morning. Fast forward 2 years and I have spent the last 11 months working for a company that gives me exciting work, lots of responsibility, and getting out of the law firm has been my best professional decision to date. I went from making binders to ironing out million-dollar deals in a little over six months, just because I took the right calculated risks and tried new things.
It was a scary decision to leave a well paying job in favor of a poorly financed internship in a field that I had never explored before, I had no way of knowing how things were going to work out, but taking that chance has made every bit of difference for my life and career. Take chances when you are young, because after you have spent 10 years trudging down a career path, it is often very difficult to make a change.
“We are all free agents now and you are your own business.”
Additionally, always keep trying to find work that you have fun doing. My father gave me this advice as I was making my way out into the world and it is, without a doubt, the most important piece of advice I have ever been given. Life is far too short to dedicate a majority of your life to a job that you are not excited about when you get up in the morning.
It may take some time, some mistakes, and a variety of different jobs to understand or find your passions, but that is young professionalism. Your employers will understand if you choose to go another direction, just make sure that you are open, honest, and always respect the chances that you have been given and the people that gave them to you.
Take Away 5: Never forget the people that help you along the way. This should be self-explanatory, but the world is built on relationships and maintaining yours can mean the difference between failure and success. A simple thank you note goes a long way.
Building a career is like building a house — you can’t just start with the roof. You start from the ground up and pull together the pieces as you go along. Just remember to always express your gratitude for the opportunities that you are provided, the people that help you along the way, and the support of friends/family as you begin to put the pieces of your professional career together — you will reap the dividends later in your career.
That is it for the time being — five key takeaways and way more personal information than you were looking for. If you are interested in getting in touch, or have any questions, feel free to follow/friend me on LinkedIn or Facebook.