My initial take on this so-called “think piece” about my first months in a first job went something like this: punchy intro, short yet concise tips, passionately optimistic conclusion, and a stellar SEO to make this article somewhat relatable. I realise that this article might come as a very insensitive rumination on my employment in the face of a global pandemic which has caused millions to lose said employment. And for that, I apologise. But if there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five months, it’s that you should find some shadow of positive resolve in a whirlwind of WTF-moments (if you know me, then you know this Kumbaya attitude is very out of sorts so bear with me).
The road to publishing this piece seemed short and clear, yet it has taken me a month to come this far. I guess the mandatory 21-day-turned-possible-6-month lockdown period is as good as any to reflect. 2020 has been a trying time to say the least – I speak for the entire globe when I say that this leap year has kicked our butts four-fold. There’s a beautiful metaphor to be found in the first months of a new job and the first weeks of lockdown as the parallels between the two periods include uncertainty, anxiety, but most predominantly, an occasion filled with lessons. And so here you go, a diary entry that no one asked for but which I’m writing it anyway.
Comfort zones and growing stages.
Recently, my favourite writer and online presence, Haley Naham, quit her job at Man Repeller. To say that her farewell was an emotional one is an understatement (ask Marie, she heard all about it). I’ve read through her farewell piece plenty of times, but each time this line stands out to me the most:
Safety and certainty aren’t so comforting when their maintenance requires the quieting of a deeper calling. They’d never stay constant, anyway. I’ll probably keep forgetting and remembering that forever.
When I first started working, I felt myself to be in a state of semi-permanence. Studying English literary criticism you’re frequently told that you really only have two career options: academia or something completely unrelated to formulating thesis statements on Pip as an unreliable narrator in Great Expectations. Being very stubborn, for a long time I held out that the first option would be the one I opted for. So when I started working at my first and current job, very much the second option, I was stuck in a state of limbo where it didn’t exactly feel like the end destination. I kept thinking, “After my probation period, I’ll probably not be asked to stay and then enroll in a Masters course.” After my probation period I thought, “Maybe sometime in June they’ll realise I’m not entirely cut out for this industry and kindly ask me to climb back in my hole with my esoteric books on Oceanic studies.” But the longer I stayed, the more comfortable I felt. And the more comfortable I felt, the more motivated I became to learn more, speak the lingo, and perhaps… Do the job well?
Haley’s comment rings true. Safety and security, according to my interpretation, was just disguised as my own comfort zone. And a comfort zone is comfortable because it never challenges you to reach beyond what you know and practise daily, to find a deeper calling and tango with it until you either walk away from the dance floor slightly defeated yet proud that at least you tried, or master it and upgrade to the Paso Doble (take a shot every time I use a metaphor to explain what my slender grasp on words seemingly can’t).
As any other online source will tell you, a first job is tough. You walk out of university thinking you know a decent amount but walk into a job where that knowledge base is merely an obscure frame of reference on how to research, how to commit, how to put in the hours and be told that those hours weren’t enough. Yes, it will be awful at first. Yes, you will feel like you want to quit and go back to the safety of constant praise by lecturers and friends who are more or less experiencing the same levels of stress as you. My biggest hardship those first few weeks at Lumico was feeling insecure about what I know, which in my mind meant nothing, but the impostor syndrome is very, very real and it loves to tap into those insecurities and magnify your delusional inadequacies.
In a first job, proving your worth is important but not in the way your insecurities are forcing you to believe. Impressing co-workers and your boss takes hard work and determination, but proving your worth to yourself should be first and foremost.
The message I take with me everywhere and which Haley phrased so beautifully is that you need to vote for yourself despite the parts of you that believe you aren’t worth the gamble.
So how exactly does the coronavirus fit in here?
While it should be a crime to compare the above mentioned comfort zone as a reality pre-lockdown, the growing stages are still applicable. My first week working from home reminded me of my first week at Lumico which saw me very frustrated, crying at the mere mention of work and standing on the ledge, ready to quit. I didn’t understand the sudden turn of emotions. My sense of regressing and moving back to those initial feelings of discomfort heightened my sense of despair and subsequent unproductivity even further.
A state of semi-permanence was again nestled in my mind – but where it should have signaled a reassurance that the virus won’t last forever, it translated as I won’t last forever.
When Elené shared an article by the Harvard Business Review titled That Discomfort You’re Feeling is Grief it all clicked into place. David Kessler, an expert on grief, identified the collective grief that the world was feeling as anticipatory grief:
“Anticipatory grief is that feeling we get about what the future holds when we’re uncertain.Our primitive mind knows something bad is happening, but you can’t see it. This breaks our sense of safety. We’re feeling that loss of safety.”
My anticipatory grief stemmed from a place of unknowability – not knowing where the future would take me, but realising that the confidence I built up over the previous four months will again be tested and possibly eradicated as I lose my common ground. Adapting to a new way of working called back the initial anxieties of working in an unfamiliar space. A loss of safety was again a cause for great emotional turmoil and my flight instincts kicked in almost immediately. A state of semi-permanence was again nestled in my mind – but where it should have signaled a reassurance that the virus won’t last forever, it translated as I won’t last forever in this job.
I assume you’ve gathered by now that these fears disappeared once my “deeper calling” reminded me that it was merely my comfort zone tricking me into believing that new is scary and therefore bad. The biggest fault of this way of thinking was that I assumed no one else experienced these same turmoil – that no one else felt immensely inadequate in this new way of working, that no one else was experiencing anxiety, that no one else was grieving for the loss of friends, beautiful memories and lost opportunities, that no one else was completely and utterly shell-shocked.
Kessler’s advice in managing anticipatory grief is: acceptance. “Acceptance, as you might imagine, is where the power lies. We find control in acceptance.”
It’s a precarious walk that will eventually allow you to run.
I found some semblance of peace when I realised that this new normal would have its challenges but it wouldn’t last forever. And that growing from this intense discomfort will result in the ability to once more adapt to a situation where all the variables aren’t controllable. It has also taught me that while the internet is constantly showing you the number of people who have lost their employment, this does not have to translate into an overbearing fear of your own worth and abilities. Yes, you will need to work harder to adjust and adapt and overcome the foreignness of the situation, but expecting a doubled productivity will cause an inevitable amount of anxiety. Trying to read three books in one weekend to emphasise the productive use of your free time will put another, at first, invisible pressure on you that is unnecessary. This will only become clear once you’re crying on a Monday morning because you didn’t live up to your own expectations and instead scrolled through TikTok for 12 hours.
In conclusion, what I’ve learned from these two situations is to take the time, do the work, but be selfish with yourself when it is needed. Believe in your own abilities, but don’t enforce a rule that is impossible to live by. It’s a precarious walk that will eventually allow you to run.
Outgrowing the growing pains is possible and necessary because, as Haley said, “they’d never stay constant anyway”.