Wouldn’t it be cool if we could just click our heels three times and be where we wanted to be in our careers? We could then sidestep the unpaid internships; bypass the entry-level job; get a master’s degree without having to master anything; skip the climb up the corporate ladder; and find ourselves suddenly in a position that would have taken us years to secure by any other means than pure magic. All that matters is that we got to where we wanted to be anyway, right? Well, not quite.
The thought of success, fame, and fortune makes many people’s hearts beat faster, but the hard work, patience, and discipline it takes to acquire what we want often slows it down. During college, many of us said we were going to be lawyers, doctors, famous writers and such, and halfway expected for those titles to just be bestowed upon us after graduation. It’s no wonder that we’re taken aback when the full realization comes that it will be six years before we’re a lawyer, eight years before we’re a doctor, and perhaps actually dead before we are regarded as a prolific writer. All that in-between time is looked upon as a nuisance.
Sometimes we even treat the in-between time as a nuisance, and that’s not good because we could be bothered for years. Turning our nose up at internships, assistant positions, and more school, we act as if these are things we must endure. We might even feel that the work is beneath us. Take notes? Answer the phone? File that? Assist you? I didn’t take out $40,000 in loans for this, we scream.
I was indignant when the director of my master’s program in publishing suggested that I get an internship when I couldn’t find a job I wanted. I was the managing editor of a newspaper and he wants me to get an internship? I fumed. But that was the problem. I had experience in newspaper publishing—and not that much, if we’re being honest—and virtually none worth bragging about in books. I soon told my ego to be quiet and started applying for internships, ultimately landing an unpaid one through networking. It was at a small literary agency and I loved it. No, I didn’t have my own office, much less my own cubicle. And yes, I had to do administrative-type work that I loathed by nature. However, I was schooled on another aspect of the publishing business, treated with respect and like an actual associate at the agency, and was mentored by the owners. Had I decided I was too good to have to “pay my dues,” I would have been hurt by more than just my ego.
Even since then, like countless other mid-career and senior-level professionals, I have often found myself having to backtrack to get to where I want. When I stopped teaching college and decided I wanted to pursue book publishing again, I had to take a position much lower on the publishing totem pole than I expected from having been out of the game for so long.
Because of the recent high rates of unemployment and increased number of layoffs, even those who were at the top of their game have found themselves having to accept positions that are really for less experienced professionals. And, when people decide to change careers, it’s almost expected that they will be starting from near scratch, despite the wealth of experience they’ve accumulated in another industry.
As a recent grad, you are the least immune to having to pay your dues. The reality of the situation is that graduating from college, even with a master’s or doctorate degree, usually marks the beginning of our careers. This often means proving ourselves over and over again and working for not-so-great pay. Regardless of what degree you’ve earned, what school you graduated from, or your title, you’ll likely be looked upon as a rookie.
It’s just like being a freshman in college again. You had to take all those boring prerequisites before you could get into your major. You had to be a contributing member of an organization before you could run for president. And you definitely had to be inducted into a sorority before you could call yourself a soror. Likewise, you won’t be able to stride into a new company, name your price, ask where your office is, start working on major-league deals, and put up a “Head Careeranista in Charge” sign. “What are her credentials?” “What has she accomplished?” “How many years has she been in the business?” your unimpressed co-workers will ask. They will expect to be shown more than a degree.
If you find that you have lots of dues to pay then just roll up your sleeves and put on a smile. Having a good attitude about the hard work ahead will make the months go by faster. Humbly accept what is required to progress in your career, realizing that your work is not in vain. You can learn career-enhancing knowledge on any job if you go in with the right mindset. And while you’re at it, you can learn more about this crazy adventure called life.
I once called to check up on a friend who I knew was struggling somewhat in his career as a poet/business owner. Always the optimist, when I asked what he was up to, he replied, “Oh. Just working on my story.” “Your story?” I asked, confused. “Yeah, all the stuff I’m going through now will make good story material for when I’m rich and famous and am being interviewed by reporters!” he said.
Like him, you’re working on your story. No one will want to hear about how you graduated from college and were handed all that you wished for. However, your future mentees won’t mind listening about how you patiently busted tables and babysat while holding down a full-time job to pay for graduate school. Your children will want to hear about the faith you had in yourself that helped you work your way up in a Fortune 500 company. Colleagues will want to learn how you went from delivering coffee to delivering paychecks you signed. Ironically, after recounting your adventures you can smile and say, “You know . . . success is a journey, not a destination. It’s all about paying your dues.”
What If the Dues Are Too High?
Paying your dues does not mean putting up with nonsense. You might be young and you might be a rookie, but you are still a professional. Older co-workers and managers should treat you as such. Here are signs you aren’t getting the respect you deserve.
- Constantly make references to your age.
- Call you “baby,” “honey,” “sweetie” and other endearing but unprofessional terms of endearment.
- Have you run errands or perform work that someone less experienced would normally be responsible for.
- Keep saying that you need more experience to perform certain job functions, but won’t teach you how.
- Micromanage you while never giving you the opportunity to prove you can handle things on your own.
- Expect you to work longer hours than older or married workers, insinuating that you have more time on your hands because you are young or single.
If it’s clear you’re being taken advantage of or treated differently, you should politely tell the offending parties that while they may mean well, they are making you feel like an outsider. Let them know that age differences and lack of experience aside, you would like to be treated like the professional you are.