Lessons I've Learned As A Young Professional, Part 1

For my first job, I was a cashier at Goodwill. I worked there full-time during the summer after high school and then continued part-time throughout the school year.

After that, I worked as a cashier at the University Book Store at my school, I tutored student athletes, I became a sales associate Coach, and then worked as a Resident Advisor, Freshman Interest Group leader, in admin, as copywriting intern… The list goes on. At one point, I even sold cupcakes at sports arenas which was both delicious and fun.

Eventually, I graduated. I’ve been in full-time professional roles for the past five years now. Much like many folks, my professional path is a bit untraditional and varied—and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. My five years in the workforce have taught me A LOT about myself, the world, working with others, and working in general.

The lessons I’ve learned are not unique, but there’s power in sharing them, and here’s why: nobody told me any of this. I am the first person in my immediate family to have a “professionalized” role (eg, sat in an office with a “professional” title, answered e-mails, climbed the ladder, fight organizational politics, etc.). For people like me, there’s a lot to learn about the coded language and environment of the professional world so in sharing these lessons with the world, I hope it’ll reach other young professionals who may find a few nuggets of wisdom in this blog post.

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Ask a lot of questions, even the stupid ones.

Here’s a secret: Nobody actually knows what’s going on.

We’re all learning as we go.

There’s a chance that someone out there has the same question as you do and chances are, your question isn’t as stupid as you think it is. We assume many of the people around us have more knowledge than we do when, in reality, they just have a different set of knowledge just as we, as individuals, also have our own unique sets of knowledge. When we don’t speak up and ask our burning questions, information gets siloed in our own heads, we make assumptions, and we breed more misinformation. Will people think less of you for asking a potentially inane question? Probably not. The people who will are probably not people you are going to support your growth as a professional anyways, so you can keep them at arm’s length. Their attitude isn’t your problem. So go out into the world and be curious!

Time is your only resource; manage it well.

Okay, folks, I’m not asking you to be perfect here because we all know I am far from it. I’m just asking you to try really hard. Some people are really, really good at managing their time and there’s SO much we can learn from them—but here are my two cents, coming from someone who has had a lot of practice in trying to stay organize and sane. I’ve had a lot of jobs where I’ve had to juggle multiple competing priorities in fast-paced settings and if I didn’t stay organized, managed my time and deadlines, I’d be sunk.

The secret? First and foremost, know thyself. Let’s be real, I know when and with which tasks I’m going to procrastinate so I build in time in my schedule as a buffer for that. I know how long it is going to take me to write an e-mail, draft a report, take those calls… I set my deadlines knowing all of this because, through many years of schooling and work, I’ve learned to work around all of the mental hurdles my brain throws at me. And I build in time for all of this, including the buffers. The key here is being self-aware enough to your time work for you, and that takes years. There’s no one “right” way, only the ways that work for you!

Communication is a strategy

Here’s what I mean by this: we manage all of our relationships through the way we communicate with other people. We use communication, therefore, as a strategy to manage our relationships. And I don’t mean this in a weird Game-of-Thrones-who-is-going-to-stab-who Machiavellian way. I mean that the words we say to other people matter, and we can use our words for good as much as we can use them to hurt people.

The obvious example here is e-mail. Who else is guilty of the passive aggressive, “Per my last e-mail…” line or the vaguely disappointed “Regards”? Have you been on the receiving end of these messages and felt oddly… attacked?

Words matter. Learn to use your words with purpose so that others can understand your point clearly. Whether you’re writing e-mails or negotiating a point in person, you should know clearly: What kind of relationship do I have with this person, and how can they help me (and vice versa!)? What do I want out of this conversation? What does the other person want out of this conversation? How do we both get what we want, if possible?

And then, keep in the back of your mind: How am I feeling in this situation, and how is that being conveyed in this conversation? Is this what I want to convey through my tone and my words? If not, what do I need to revise? What is the tone I’m going for?

If you’re in a particularly tense mood, I advise stepping away from your e-mail after you’ve written it and rereading it later. My last people of advice here is to not assume anything. Per my first piece of advice, always ask.

Dear POC: there are just some people who will refuse to understand you. And I’m sorry.

This topic itself can be its own blog post, but I needed to acknowledge it because it’s real for many of us. There will be people at your workplace who will simply refuse to understand you and your live experiences. It is not your job to fight them or inform them; you will find out quickly who these people are. I know, for me, that I am always wanting to fight the “good fight,” but I also know that it’s exhausting as hell. That emotional labor is not for me, or for you, to perform. If you are facing a difficult situation at work because your workplace doesn’t understand you, please reach out to someone who will understand, whether that’s me, another colleague, your supervisor, HR, or a family member. You deserve to be seen and respected.

Again, these lessons only capture a little bit of what I’ve learned in my own professional experiences and they may be different than your own, but in sharing them, I hope someone can relate, learn, and carry these nuggets of wisdom into their own lives. These are tough lessons to learn, and they really only come from living through them.

Did any of this resonate with you? What would you add as advice to a young professional? I would love to hear your thoughts!