A reader writes:
I graduated in May and started my irsirst professional, full-time job in September. I’m a receptionist at a pet resort and, after working in retail (which I’d worked for over three years), I was really happy to work in a job that just seemed so much better.
I love the clients, I love my coworkers and, even with all of the strangeness that comes with the resort, I love my job. An employee who has been there for five years told me that, while most assume it would take me a month to learn the job, it took her six months to really get comfortable with it – and I’ve been trying to take in all that I can.
However, this past week, it feels like it’s all for naught. I’m trying as hard as I can, but everyday, it feels like I’ve screwed something up, or made someone’s life harder, or just made a general mess. My coworkers and my supervisors have been amazing, but I just feel like I’m dragging everyone down and being more of a burden than a help. Today, I called to verify a credit card I had taken earlier (I hadn’t been able to finish the invoice after I hung up with the client, as it immediately became busy) and accidentally spoiled the client’s surprise vacation for her husband and burst into tears before my supervisor. I’ve cried about a job before, but at my home or in my car – NEVER in front of my boss. I’m so humiliated and embarrassed and, while I’d talked to said supervisor earlier in the day about how I’d been feeling, this has just cemented that maybe I’m just not capable for this job.
I guess my question is, how would you approach this situation? Do you have any advice for someone who is new to the workforce and feels as if they aren’t cut out to continue? Anything you could tell me would be of huge help, I just don’t want to feel like a failure anymore.
Thanks – reading your posts was my stress relief and my go-to after a bad day at my last job.
Well, first, mistakes are normal in a new job. And they’re really normal in your first professional job after college, where not only are you learning the mechanics of the job itself, but also the sort of general “how to operate in a professional environment” stuff that will be second nature to you in a few years but right now isn’t intuitive at all.
If your manager and coworkers have worked with people just starting in the work world before, they know this. Hell, if they’ve been people just starting in the work world before (and obviously they have), they know this. It’s normal.
Now, I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that there’s no possible way that you could be making more mistakes that what’s normal in this context. Maybe you are! But it’s also quite possible that you’re not, and that you’re just totally freaked out by what’s happening because your first professional job is a massive learning curve, and one that sensible people are often freaked out by. That’s especially true if you’re used to feeling competent — if you’ve always done well in school and are used to walking around feeling like a generally competent person, it’s rattling as hell to be in a situation where suddenly you feel inept. It doesn’t necessarily mean that you are inept though; it might just mean that you were able to cruise through school pretty easily but now need to put in more effort to succeed in this different environment.
Can I quote myself? I’m going to be lazy and quote what I wrote in this U.S. News & World Report column about mistakes smart people make:
If you’re going to advance in your career, you’re going to have to take on new challenges, and some of them will be tough. But if you’re used to being “the smart one” and things have always come easily to you, you might not have built up the skills you need for when things are hard, like persevering in the face of obstacles and working hard to master something. You might take failure at a new type of project or responsibility as a sign that you’re not cut out to do it, instead of putting the energy and time in working to get better at it. Someone who has always had to work hard at doing well and who therefore has developed more “perseverance muscle” than you will often be inclined to simply practice and practice until they eventually master the new skill.
Is that you? I don’t know, but it might be.
Anyway, to get a better handle on what’s going on, why not ask your manager how she thinks you’re doing? You might hear that she thinks you’re doing really well and isn’t at all concerned by the mistakes that are looming so large to you — that those are a normal part of the learning curve. Or, yes, you might hear that she does have concerns — but if that’s the case, it’s so much better to get that out in the open so that you can talk about how you might approach the work differently, rather than to have to wonder and worry about what she’s thinking.
It’s totally fine (and in fact, smart and good) to ask to meet with your manager to get some feedback on how things are going. Just say this: “Could we talk about how things are going overall? I’d like to get your feedback on how I’m doing.” Make sure that you come away from this conversation with an understanding not just of how your manager thinks you’re doing on specific tasks, but on how she thinks you’re doing overall — this is going to be key for you, because that’s the part where your self-assessment might be out of whack with hers. So if you’re getting task-specific feedback but not big-picture feedback, say this: “This is really helpful, thank you. Can you give me a big-picture sense of how I’m doing overall, maybe compared to where you’d expect someone to be at this stage of learning the job?”
I can’t predict what she’s going to tell you, but I do think you’ll come out of that conversation with a lot more data about how you’re doing, and that you can use that to inform your thinking … as opposed to right now, where I think you’re in a (perfectly natural but not very useful) panic free-fall. There is rarely any need for the panic free-fall, and there probably isn’t here!