Nowhere is the difference between expectations and reality more pronounced than at our first jobs. You expect an office, but you get a cubicle. You expect to make a difference in the world, but you end up saddled with tasks that feel repetitive and pointless. You expect a bunch of instant BFFs, but instead you get office politics (and if you’re lucky, a couple of allies).
You’re never really prepared for these aspects of working, even when people warn you about them. It’s not fun waking up every morning realising that this is how you will feel at 7 am, five days a week, for the rest of your life.
But well – if this is really how work is going to be, then you might as well make the most of it. Being happy at work isn’t so much about jumping from job to job until you find the perfect match. It’s about changing your perspectives and priorities in your career. Jobs are like relationships. They start off with a honeymoon period before tapering off into monotony, and unless you change your attitude toward them, you will end up in the same place emotionally every time.
So what if you spend two years buying coffee and filing your boss’s claims? It’s not ideal, but it can still make you a better person -- as well as a better job candidate. Here’s how:
1. Harsh reality: Looks matter
Take everything you learned about how “it’s the inside that counts” and throw it out the window. An American study done in 2004 showed that for every inch of height, a tall person can expect to earn around S$800 per year (imagine what that means for two equally qualified colleagues with half a metre of height difference between them). Other studies have shown that obese people get paid less, that attractive people get paid more, and – conversely – women who are too pretty get shafted.
Chances are, if a job application asks for a picture, the hiring manager will select the more attractive candidate though you and that person have the same credentials.
Look. You can either get indignant and ignore shallowness of society, or you can make people’s obsession with prettiness work for you. It’s stupidly easy to upgrade your appearance. All you need to do is get a haircut, buy some new-clothes, watch a few YouTube makeup tutorials, and cut down on junk food. Give it a few weeks, and people will see you as more capable, more responsible, and more driven. That’s nothing compared to doing everything else you need to succeed, such as learning to network or becoming smarter.
Contrary to what you’re instinctively feeling, tailoring your appearance for success doesn’t make you a more frivolous person. If anything, it makes you less judgmental about people who dress well and look good. They’re not necessarily vain, they’re just doing what they have to. It can even make you more confident. While lots of us average-looking people can get hung up on the unfairness of being born plain versus being born pretty, knowing how to make yourself look good using clothes and makeup will make you realize that hey – maybe those good-looking people you’ve always envied aren’t as out of your league as you thought.
2. Harsh reality: Your mediocre classmates will have better careers than you do
All nerds have this secret fantasy about one day becoming the next Bill Gates and bossing over all the jocks and cool kids, who of course grew up to be janitors and mailroom. But life isn’t that serendipitous. Chances are, your low-scoring or weird classmates will score jobs that are as good, or even better, than yours – the reason being that in the corporate world, your 5.0 GPA means nothing.
Sure, you scored straight A’s throughout school and graduated from the most elite program in the country’s best university. But when you’re being interviewed, the hiring manager cares about only one thing: whether or not you will gel with the team. Part of that is in capability, of course, but the deciding factor always lies in your personality. If the hiring manager had to pick between you and another highly qualified candidate, he’s going to choose the one who clicked the best with the boss and who seems easiest to work with. Your “mediocre” classmates might not have scored so well on their tests, but being able to charm just about anyone can help employers see past that.
There are two main types of “mediocre” classmates who end up with better careers than us. There are the popular kids who can coast on their personalities, and whose awful grades are all but forgotten five years into their illustrious careers. Then there are the “weird” outliers who always ate alone in the canteen and who preferred reading Proust over Sweet Valley High. By refusing to conform with the cool kids, as we all did during school, these guys found a way to stand out, which makes them more memorable in the workplace.
So what does that mean for the rest of us former-elites who are stuck in entry-level jobs? It means that rather than using our glorious past as a crutch for success, we can learn to develop new skills that will help propel us forward. And isn’t that the fun part of working? Making money is great, but being challenged and learning new things is a reward in itself. Don’t let jealousy over your classmates’ success keep you from doing anything but that. Which brings us to our next point…
3. Harsh reality: Results are everything
As Yoda said in Star Wars, “Do. Or do not. There is no try.”
Being smart is enough. Being capable is not enough. Having potential, trying hard, giving it your all – unless you actually achieve something quantifiable, none of this will ever be enough. Having your work judged against numbers can be a little depressing when you work in a creative field, but your boss is a businessperson, not an art teacher. Sooner or later, you’ll start doing things to make money or fulfill your KPI, not because you’re the next Michaelangelo or the voice of your generation.
As we once heard someone says, dreams without goals are just fantasies. Being results-oriented will not only build focus, but it will build discipline and practicality. And inspiration is a fickle thing. By working toward a vision, toward a good year-end review, and yes, toward money, you’ll learn to do good work every day, rain or shine, with room for flights of fancy.
4. Harsh reality: Everyone is replaceable
If the leaders of KPop bands – heck, if Steve Jobs, John Galliano, and the President of the United States – can be replaced, then so can you. Nobody is 100 per cent essential. And there will always be someone who can do your job better than you can. Even after you work in a company for five to 10 years, you will always need them more than they need you.
Millenials grew up hearing the words “you’re special.” You’re one in a million, one in a kind! And yeah, while that is true in a literal/biological sense, in the corporate world, you’re just another person fulfilling a particular needs. It is the company’s needs that are special and unique, not you.
Yeah, that’s pretty harsh. But at least it makes life interesting. Being somewhat replaceable makes you versatile, not useless. Rather than being paralysed by fear or worse, lazy, take the knowledge that everyone is replaceable as an opportunity to grow professionally. If you were 100 percent irreplaceable, you’d never get fired, but then again, you’d never get promoted because your manager would need you to keep doing your job.
5. Harsh reality: You’ll need to fake it until you make it
Once again, you’ll need to take something you grew up learning – “Be yourself!” – and toss it out the window once you get into the corporate world. Are you a super shy introvert? Fake extroversion, go to all the parties, and make a bunch of friends. Are you a night owl? Then load up on the coffee, arrive in the office early, and pretend that you’re a morning person. Is your boss just the worst at meetings? Then nod at everything he says and pretend to be super interested. And as if that weren’t challenging enough, you somehow need to fake everything without coming off as a complete brown-noser. Doesn’t this make you want to heck all and just work at home?
Too many people take “be yourself” as permission to be a jerk. “Faking it” doesn’t mean crafting an entirely false persona – it means being a little more self-conscious of your behaviour and more considerate of the people around you. Think of it this way: if you were heading a 9 am meeting, would you respect the colleague who’s trying to pay attention or the one who’s rolling his eyes and playing on his phone? While the latter might claim that he’s just being authentic, as the boss, you really couldn’t care less. Which brings us to our next point…
6. Harsh reality: Your job essentially boils down to one thing – making your boss’ life easier
Unless you’re the CEO of a company, your job is to make your boss’s life as stress-free as possible. Think about it: your boss hired you because she needs capable people to fulfill particular goals. She needed somebody who would help the people around them, who would speed up the process, and who would spare her the impossible task of doing everything alone. In the meantime, she expects you to help with other day-to-day tasks, such as organising the calendar, scheduling meetings, and making sure everyone is well-fed.
While “helping my boss” doesn’t sound glamorous, it fulfills the number one skill we need to succeed at work: being in tune with other people’s needs. Like we said earlier, doing well at work isn’t just about being smart or completing a task. It’s about developing “soft” skills like discipline, initiative, and clicking with other people. Knowing that you’re there to serve your boss will motivate you to be attuned to her moods, while keeping you humble enough to learn from her expertise. And who knows? Maybe one day, you’ll teach someone else the same thing.