In middle school, we had a special day where there were no classes. Instead, the entire school was split into two teams and we competed in a series of odd challenges for yearlong bragging rights. In one of the challenges – the Slow Bike Race – five students from each team faced off to see who could ride a bike the slowest. The only rules were that you couldn’t put your feet down and you couldn’t turn around and go backwards. You wanted to move as little as possible, meaning the competitor who won would be the he or she with best balance. For this reason, it stirred considerable controversy when one student showed up on a bike equipped with training wheels.
Training isn’t real the real thing. It’s preparation for the real thing, but it can’t prepare you for everything. That’s true for bikes and it’s true for jobs too.
School gave me the skills I needed for my first job, but it didn’t give me a complete picture of how it feels to go into the same office every day, or what it feels to work with a manager, or how much ironing is involved when transitioning away from the typical college dress code of wearing something towards a more formal one. I learned stuff in school that I applied at my first job, but all the ins-and-outs of the specific position and workplace only presented themselves over time.
And one of the most surprising feelings I experienced was how much I felt just like you always have.
A new job is a new chapter in life, a definitive change that seems to demand a definitive change of mindset, but I didn’t feel like a brand new person when I got a job, at least not right away. I still processed situations and made decisions with the same brain I always had. I struggled with the kinds of tasks I always struggled with and excelled at what I always excelled at.
This was strange to me. I felt like a faker or an impostor. After four years studying concepts and ideas, the state of being out in the real world with a real job started to seem almost mystical, as if people in the working world communicated on totally different frequency. I thought that you became a teacher or a graphic designer or a nurse or a librarian and you just started thinking like a teacher or graphic designer or nurse or librarian, like certain things should be intuitive to you as a newly minted member of your chosen field. The fact that those things don’t come to me automatically made you feel like I was bluffing every minute I was at work.
But I wasn’t. Or well, I was, but that’s exactly what I should have been doing. What I perceived as a “finely-tuned employee brain” in some coworkers was really just “years of experience in an office environment.” This is how it is in almost all professions. Sure, different people’s strengths and weaknesses will lend themselves to different careers, but the fact that you don’t feel like your job title on your first day doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it. In fact, it makes perfect sense. You need to be open to learn and patient. Acknowledging that you don’t know everything is the most important part of entering a new experience.
So, give yourself some time to learn, and give that stuff you learn some time to settle in. Only then can you really start to mold your “professional self.”