You worked incredibly hard for four years – course after course, semester after semester – and the payoff was praise, a party and a piece of important paper. You were officially a college graduate. The people who loved you, who taught you, and even those who were complete strangers spent the summer showering you with wisdom about how to succeed in the “real world.”
Well, “the real world” arrived, and you’ve worked incredibly hard for another four years. Or five. Or six or seven. Day after day, project after project. And it might be getting harder to find that confidence you had a few summers ago regarding your path. And you wonder, “What next?”
If this sounds familiar, you are not alone.
Research I led for the PR Council and its PRC Next board (“To Lead or Leave”) recently discovered a subset of younger professionals who had less-confident and less-positive attitudes about their work than the professionals just slightly younger or older. These “mid-millennials” – ages 26-30, who are traditionally four to seven years into their careers and on the path to transition from doer to leader in their organizations – had the least confidence of all age groups about their readiness to play a leadership role in the evolution of the industry. Even the recent graduates, just starting out, felt more prepared to lead. I have a hunch this mid-millennial slump rings true in other fields, as well.
The transition from recent graduate to not-so-recent graduate sneaks up on you. The years roll one into the next. The summers start without the fanfare or guidance that accompanied the end of those college years. But I firmly believe you are making progress, dear graduate of fiveish years ago. I’ve seen it among my mentees, my company and my industry, and I have a few ideas to keep you moving forward until your steps seem more confident and sure once again.
Update your transcript.
Take stock of the skills and experiences you’ve had since graduation. Gone are the days that completed courses appear on your academic record, but that learning and growing is still happening – and likely at a much faster pace than it was in school – and you have to track it yourself. Think in terms of core subjects and electives, things you learned both on and off the job. A running list will be helpful when you’re plotting out your own professional development, preparing for your next review, or updating your resume, bio or LinkedIn profile. You’ll probably be surprised by how many new “minors” or “specializations” you’ve picked up in these years that are worth capturing.
Load up on electives.
Once you’ve updated your transcript, take note of the balance of “core subjects” and “electives.” And if your electives column is light, it’s time to focus on building it up. In our research, we found that this mid-millennial group was the most likely of all age groups to report that they have interests outside of work that are more important to them than their job. That’s a strength. In any industry where you’re asked to be creative, your work is only as good as the life you bring to it. Check in with yourself about what you are hungry for and find small ways to incorporate those things into your life. Culture, concerts, art, athletics, travel and anything else that enriches your life outside the office makes you happier when you’re not working and makes you better at your job when you are.
Throw out the syllabus.
Your academic years were heavily time-bound. Lectures and labs were formulaic. Courses of study were defined. You’ve seen by now that life and careers are not as predictable. There are unpredictable (and perhaps unpreferred) twists and turns, and yet traveling those paths will have given you experiences and learnings that you wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Some of the most miserable people I have met in my career are those tethered to a time-based idea of what they should have accomplished “by now.” And some of the most fulfilled people I’ve met are working in roles or organizations they never would have envisioned for themselves. Throw out the timeline – your own, and the one you use to compare yourself with others.
Find a new advisor.
Your academic advisors have given way to career mentors, and I’m an advocate of having many mentors in your life. One in particular that you really need right now, is a next-level mentor. You need to find someone who has recently made the turn that is just ahead of you, whatever that might be. Are you looking to make it through that next level of responsibility at work? Are you thinking about buying a house? Or starting a family and wondering how to make that work with work? You need to find a person just on the other side of that turn, who has survived and thrived, and learn about how he or she did it. For example, our research points to the possibility that the anticipation of child-related work-life conflict of those planning to be parents the first time creates more angst for professionals than actually having kids. It’s the not knowing that is scary. Find someone who knows – who has made the turn – and seek the advice you need.
Act like a senior.
While you’re looking to add to your team of mentors, it’s also time to realize that you’ve got enough life behind you now that YOU are a mentor for others. I run a formal mentoring program for women at my company, and one of my favorite things before starting each session is helping my colleagues just a few years out of college to realize that they have what it takes to start mentoring others – and then seeing how much it boosts their confidence when they see the impact they have in the lives of younger women coming up behind them. Their hesitancy at first is usually linked to their job title, and to not being “senior enough.” But leadership doesn’t come from a title or reaching a certain level of seniority. It comes from wherever you are, right now, taking actions and adopting behaviors that others want to follow or emulate. Offer guidance and support to those younger than you in your field. You’ll find you have a lot to offer, and you’ll start building the network of supporters you’ll need to propel you along in your career.
So, graduates of fiveish years ago, it’s high time that you fling your mortarboard into the air once again.
Celebrate what you have achieved since graduation. Create your own pomp and circumstance – in happy hours and friends trips or however that might look for you – to take those moments to reflect on your accomplishments both small and large. Everything you’ve learned and done since graduation has taught you lessons you’ll be able to bring with you into every new job or project or life experience still ahead of you. Even the bad or frustrating or off-the-wall — none of those times have been wasted. Over the long arc of your career, they’ll become relevant or instructive in ways you can’t yet imagine. Even fiveish years from now, you won’t believe how far you’ve come.