Being a twenty-something in corporate America has never felt less glamorous. Snapchat selfies taken under fluorescent lighting, curated workspace pictures set against the backdrop of a chartreuse-colored cubicle wall, sad desk lunches consisting of instant oatmeal and fruit snacks: these are all unavoidable elements of my day-to-day life. And these are all things that can make me feel painfully “less-than” as a millennial living in a social media-dominated culture.
While it seems like everyone in my news feed is traipsing around Iceland, curating immaculate Instagram accounts, or drinking craft brews to pass the time, I’m busy meal planning so I can start eating aforementioned #saddesklunch less often… say, once a month instead of once a week.
But, truthfully, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I’m still in the infancy of my professional life, but brief reflection on the past few years illuminates many areas where I have stretched and grown in ways I would never have otherwise. While choosing the traditional 9-to-5 may not be for everyone, it seems to me that a few essential themes remain true for twenty-something professionals, regardless of their industry, trade, or pay grade.
Make initiative a habit. Feel yourself getting comfortable? Set practical goals to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Whether it’s tackling the monstrous mailing that everyone else is avoiding or spending hours developing an elaborate spreadsheet that will probably get thrown out after a couple of months anyway, sign yourself up. Remember, taking initiative doesn’t usually look—or feel—glamorous. But people notice your efforts. Willingness and a positive attitude can take you a long way.
Embrace decision-making. Life gets more complex and challenging as you get older. You’re faced with endless decisions in your early adulthood, and, while the easy road is often more attractive (and somehow, for me, always lined with doughnuts and bourbon), taking ownership of your career and your life is worth the risk. In Meg Jay’s book The Defining Decade, she writes, “When we make choices, we open ourselves up to hard work and failure and heartbreak, so sometimes it feels easier not to know, not to choose, and not to do. But it isn’t.” Boom. Mic drop. I’ve recently been reminded that the hard choice is almost always the infinitely better choice—whether it involves career development, education, relationships, parenting, you name it. While it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier to choose the hard things, I am learning to trust that after a couple of months or years, I will see that the payoff is undeniable.
Practice kindness. In Brene Brown’s video Boundaries, Empathy, and Compassion, she says, “My question is B-I-G. What boundaries need to be in place for me to stay in myintegrity and make the most generous assumptions about you?” Compassion and kindness may not often be discussed in professional environments, but they are two critical elements for personal growth as a professional. Brown’s conclusion? “I’m not as sweet as I used to be, but I’m far more loving.” I want this to be my life motto forever.
Keep your reputation in mind. Saying, “hello” in the hallway may seem like an insignificant interaction, but it might turn into a conversation about shared tastes in literature or a mutual love of cats. It’s important to remember how often people move around in companies; changing departments and shifting responsibilities. Next thing you know, the person you’ve connected with simply by being friendly could be your new boss or your partner on an important project. Never underestimate how far little things can take you, and remember, every interaction you have counts for something.
Ask for what you want. And remember that the worst thing that can happen is that someone says “no.” This is one of the most powerful reminders you can give yourself before taking a risk. I’ve had to fight the urge to be a chronic people-pleaser my entire life, so the first time I approached my supervisor about my desire to gain experience in an area of the department different than my own, I was certain I’d be packing my cubicle before the end of the day. You may be shocked to learn I was pleasantly surprised instead. While these meetings may not end in a resounding “yes!” they often end with a compromise or an unexpected opportunity for collaboration and learning. So ask for more responsibility. Ask for that promotion. Ask for a raise. You might be surprised where it will get you, and you will certainly learn something new along the way, regardless.
Never stop learning. Ever. Read books, listen to podcasts, take up a hobby, learn to cook, anything! It’s too easy to slip into comfortable daily routines that leave little room for the unknown. Although many of us have to be fiercely intentional about integrating new experiences into our weekly routines, these moments where we force ourselves outside of our own heads are what keep us inspired and motivated to do our best work the rest of the time.
While career paths come in a variety of shapes and sizes, I imagine many twenty-somethings feel that same lurking sense of uncertainty that I do. You may question if you have made the right decision in choosing your career (maybe we should all be traipsing Iceland for the craft brews and amazing Instagram posts), but stewarding your current responsibilities with integrity and grace will almost certainly lead you to a clearer vision of the bright future ahead
Post written by Ink & Well’s freelance word nerd, Grace Willis. A Nashville native, Grace works in publishing and spends her days communicating about books in every medium imaginable. She works hard to give her cat a better life and to help her husband finish nursing school. Any free time is dedicated to reading, running, and plotting future travel plans.