Remember when you were in your freshman year in high school? The world was your oyster. Everything was in front of you, and everything was within reach. You were told that anything was possible if you worked hard and believed in yourself. You were wide-eyed and idealistic. You had a constant safety net beneath you that encouraged you to try new things and saved you when you failed.
The professional world is not like that.
In the professional world, every ounce of optimism and idealism in your soul is constantly under fire. It’s interpreted as weakness, lack of experience, lack of knowledge, or sheer stupidity. Never in my life have I been so afraid to “show my true colors” as I have in the professional world.
This is my personal story of how I found the balance between optimistic, idealistic, high school Cassidy who believed anything was possible, and business woman Cassidy who wants to be taken seriously.
I should note, that I’m lucky enough to work for one of those companies where everyone’s opinions and feedback are valued. My company is very transparent about all aspects of our business (especially internally). One of our core values is to “seek first to understand, and then to be understood”. Because of this, I probably have it a lot easier than 99% of people in the professional world, but I didn’t always have it this good.
I’m currently working my second office job. My first one was in a call center, where we did outbound sales. We sold trial newspaper subscriptions for local newspapers all over the US. In 2011. As you can imagine, business wasn’t exactly booming. The people we called were usually upset, rude, and otherwise unpleasant. My coworkers were apathetic at best, and my boss was a special brand of human scum. It wasn’t the best job, to say the least, but it paid well, so I put up with it.
Things started to get worse and worse. My boss would single me out in front of everyone, and instead of giving me constructive criticism that could have helped me, he attacked my very personality and made me believe I would never be good at that job. The day I finally quit, he was yelling at me so close to my face that little particles of spit were hitting my cheek. I left that day without a word and never came back.
Where was that starry-eyed girl who thought she was going to change the world? I couldn’t even control my own attitude, let alone affect change in the world. I was surrounded by people who thought that because of my tattoos, or my nose ring, or my lack of a degree I would never be anything more than a slave to the minimum wage. It really narrowed my perception of what my options were.
Finding my job at ChicoBag really changed my life. It was the first time that I had the opportunity work for a company with a mission I believed in, be heard, provide help that was valuable and appreciated, and make money doing it. I seemed to fit in well from day one, and my managers seemed happy with my performance. Never has a group of people fostered so much creativity, productivity, and positivity within me as my coworkers have. Never have I felt as supported professionally as I do here.
Do not let the rest of this story tarnish what I just said.
I knew that this job was my big chance. That no matter what, this place and these people were going to open doors for me for the rest of my life. Being a person with a shaved side of their head, plenty of tattoos, and a pierced nose with no degree sounds like a recipe for a jobless future, I know. I want to serve as an example of what an intelligent person can do no matter what their exterior looks like. That is a LOT of pressure.
Because I am different, I had this nagging sense that I didn’t really deserve this job. Some of my coworkers shared the sentiment. Some made it clear that they didn’t think I’d ever be qualified to do this job. Some made me feel like I didn’t belong here after all. It was eating me away inside.
When I’d tell people about it, they’d say I was putting too much stock in what everyone thinks, and that too much of me was dependent on my professional life. “Leave work at work, and home at home. Keep your head down and just do your job.” I knew that this was a viable option. I knew that most people take this approach. Most peoples’ lives are neatly compartmentalized into different sections, and they do not live and breathe and die on others’ opinions of their professional work.
I had never done anything like that before, so I tried it! When I went to work, I shut down my personal life and focused. I worked with intense efficiency and less personality involved, and I tried not to put myself into my work like I was before. I tried not to care as much, and to do what was required and nothing more to avoid conflict.
The result was my work really suffered. Our customers weren’t as engaged as they were before, and my coworkers noticed I wasn’t as bright and sparkly as I used to be. I didn’t feel personally satisfied by work anymore, I just felt so-so.
It seemed like either way I was going to suffer somehow. Either I put too much of myself into my professional life and get emotionally burned sometimes, or I keep my personality out of my work and feel nothing. I feel this is a predicament that a lot of people, especially young people, have been in.
What changed my outlook was the realization that a lot of that pressure and expectation was self-induced. Yes, I do put a lot of myself into what I do. Yes, I deviate somewhat from “the norm” in terms of appearance. Yes, I have very big ideals and a positive world view, and I am one of those people for whom everything is personal and I always will be. What I needed to do, was to find a way to make those things my strengths rather than my weaknesses.
It came through a series of ideas that make me who I am professionally. I’d like to share those things with all of you:
- You owe it to yourself to be yourself. Nothing more.
- Everyone is fighting a battle that you know nothing about. Don’t assume you know anything, and be kind to everyone no matter what.
- Never lose the belief that anything is possible.
- Listen twice as much as you talk. You have great ideas, and they should be heard, but you also have a lot to learn.
- Your attitude is a choice, and you make it every day. Choose carefully!
- Don’t let the world of computers and cubicles get you down. Creativity exists here, you just have to look for it.
- Never believe that the best of what you can do is behind you. Always look forward.
- If you’re not happy where you are, go someplace else! Every instance of rejection or failure will bring you to something better in the end.
- If you believe you are the right person for the job, everyone else will too. You will get exactly what you expect, not what you hope or wish for, so expect what you need to feel valued and important.
If you’re struggling with feeling out of place, or beaten down by the professional world, STOP, and write down this list in your own handwriting. Put in on your bathroom mirror (or wherever you’ll see it every day) and read it out loud every morning. Don’t analyze it, just read it. Eventually, your outlook and situation will change for the better, I can promise you that.
In short, you shouldn’t give up on that freshman in high school you once were. Even though sometimes it can really sting, it’s worth it to put yourself out there. You get to feel something, and that’s incredibly valuable.