Make Your First Year Your Best Year
You’re about to start your first professional position with a recognized firm or a reputable organization. Already you’ve moved to a new town and furnished your first adult apartment. You are genuinely excited about your upcoming start day. You’ve even begun to mentally prepare yourself for workdays that will call upon you to review and reprioritize assignments on an hour-by-hour basis.
Unfortunately, no one has told you to prepare for the likelihood that within six months to a year you will suddenly wake up one morning and despair, “OMG, is this what the next 40 years of my life will look like?!?!?” Or as one junior professional told me, “When I was a summer associate, the firm made it all seem so fun. No one ever told me that it would be such a long, hard slog day in and day out.”
According to psychologists, many new professionals experience a quarter-life crisis in their late twenties to early thirties. The phenomenon is frequently brought on by the sharp increases in stress levels experienced when grads transition from school to work. Combine nonstop stress with a few negative thoughts (I’ve received zero feedback on the assignments that I’ve completed; no one values my opinion), it’s hardly surprising that many twentysomethings wonder whether they’ve made a terrible mistake in their choice of career, personal relationships, or both.
You may be able to prevent a quarter-life crisis by proactively establishing habits that diminish stress.
If you’re not hitting the gym first thing in the morning, now’s a good time to get in the habit of pushing your heart daily. Research indicates that aerobic exercise reduces stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates the production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that act like a natural painkiller while also elevating your mood. Most of the professionals with whom I work report that they find it easiest to maintain a workout routine when they exercise early or at least before the day’s events give them an excuse to skip the gym.
Other research indicates that incorporating mindfulness techniques throughout your upcoming workdays will further help you reduce stress. Regular practitioners tell me that mind management skills help them understand their thought patterns and develop conscious responses. Rather than reacting emotionally to every stimulus (emails, phone calls, drop-in meetings) that bombards them throughout their workdays, they set aside nanoseconds to breathe and make thoughtful decisions about how to respond best.
The following additional three strategies may further help you circumnavigate a quarter-life crisis:
1. Develop your personal brand
Whether you know it or not, you already have a personal brand. It’s comprised of the one or two thoughts that immediately come to others’ minds whenever they think of you, including your scholastic achievements, memories of your summer work performance, and whatever you said about yourself during the interview process. Two years from now, these factors will be forgotten. Instead, everyone will have developed a series of impressions about you and your work habits. As you prepare to start work, make it a priority to take control of the impressions you make.
Define yourself. Keeping in mind the natural talents that you bring to the workplace, consciously think about how you can make a mark with your employer and seek out opportunities that allow you to use those talents. For example, if achieving nearly impossible goals drives you to perform best, starting on your first day of work, understand your supervisor’s goals and let those drive your behaviors. You will soon be branded as the new hire who brings intensity and stamina to projects.
People who establish a strong personal brand—who know who they are and the direction in which they wish to travel—feel anchored. They are less likely to be blown off course by everyday stress.
2. Build ties with people who are not like you
We are social animals who develop ties to others throughout our lives. Most twentysomethings remain strongly connected to family, a handful of close friends, and maybe a personal partner. They possess weaker ties to former classmates and previous summer employers.
To combat a potential quarter-life crisis, keep this critical concept in mind: Strong ties will help you survive the transition into the workplace. To thrive as a professional, however, you must develop a plethora of weak ties.
Want proof? While you still have a free hour, watch two episodes of the TV sit-com Friends. Notice the limits of strong ties. Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Rachel, and Ross celebrated each other successes and commiserated through life’s challenges. But in a 10-season run, no key character ever helped a BFF land their next great job or advance in his or her career.
Start to consciously build weak ties at work. Whenever you feel wobbly about your career choice, check in with your weak connections and clarify whether you’re on the right track at work. You will likely find that at one point your weak ties felt wobbly, too, but they persevered and have benefitted as a result.
3. Build resilience
In the late 1960s and early 70s, researchers at Stanford University conducted the now famous marshmallow experiments. Their study confirmed that children who delay gratification experience a variety of “better life outcomes,” as measured by SAT scores, educational attainment, body mass index (BMI), etc. More recently, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Tammy Duckworth has found “grit” to be an amazingly accurate predictor of who will succeed in endeavors as diverse as graduating from West Point and winning the National Spelling Bee.
While putting off pleasure and building resilience pays off, many new professionals struggle with this—even those who survived punishing graduate programs. Why? You can thank biology. For most twentysomethings, while the pleasure-seeking portion of your brain has been firing nonstop for years, the portion of your brain that is involved in executive and forward thinking remains in a developmental stage.
You can help build resilience by engaging in these activities:
You will become what you see, hear and do every day. Make a commitment to hang around (develop a weak tie with) coworkers who demonstrate resilience. Look for people who are particularly adept at managing change.
Learn how to calm yourself. As one psychologist notes, “If you don’t feel anxious and incompetent periodically, you’re overconfident and underemployed.” Learn to take your anxiety, place it on a pedestal in your mind, and observe it. Recognize that you can decide how you will respond to anxious feelings.
Develop confidence that problems can be solved. Even as I type this I’m reminded of a very young Tom Hanks in the movie Philadelphia (1993). When confronted with a crisis at work, the law firm associate who he portrays quietly repeats to himself, “Every problem has a solution. Every problem has a solution.”
When you have a bad day—and you will have them—don’t assume that you need to change jobs to feel better. Focus instead on the long-term benefits to be accrued from your employer and from your work experience.
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