Is This Your Time to Transition into the Adult Workplace?©
Everyone has had the social studies class where they show right-of-passage rituals in primitive cultures where young people are inducted into the adult world. Branding, beating, lion hunting, piercing, wilderness survival… its all there. Lots of fear and pain, but worth it because of the feeling of accomplishment and respect that comes from being welcomed into the adult world.
In our society the main right of passage between adolescence and adulthood is getting a job outside the home. No branding or piercing involved, but it can still feel like a trip into the wilderness. You are on your own for the first time in a setting where you have responsibilities, but mom can’t swoop in and call your teacher or coach or friend’s mom to make everything right. It can feel scary at first, but just like the lion hunters, when you succeed, it comes with an incredible feeling of freedom, accomplishment, and self-confidence.
To successfully transition into the adult world, it is helpful to first think for a moment about some of the things that distinguish kids from adults. Kids can be messy and dirty. They don’t take good care of things especially if the things aren’t theirs. They don’t listen or remember what they’re told. They tell a lot of fibs and will say just about anything to get out of being in trouble. And frequently, they do the very first thing that pops into their heads without considering consequences or alternatives. There’s a reason kids need babysitters, and a reason drivers stop for balls rolling across the road, they know a kid will probably be right behind it without thinking first to stop and look.
So the first step in a successful transition into the adult work world, is simply recognizing that there are kid things that we have all done and that have been perfectly normal and even expected of us as kids, but they are off limits in the adult workplace. In the adult workplace it is expected and assumed that everyone there has the maturity and self-control to behave fairly and to think before they act.
Transitioning from Adolescence to the Adult World of Work: Attitude, Demeanor, Workplace Culture
A. How to look things (Attitude):
People can look at the same thing in dramatically different ways. Let’s say you’re in a street protest, and people are yelling and screaming and grabbing and pushing each other, and you yourself might very well think this is the most fun and excitement you’ve ever had in your life. Someone else, however, might be absolutely terrified and see this as the most scary and upsetting experience they have ever had. Same exact place, same exact situation, but two completely different ways of looking at it.
Ever seen a Tough Mudder competition, where people crawl through the mud and slither through pipes and run carrying heavy awkward loads? That’s worse treatment than in the worst prison camps in third world countries. But in Mudder races people do it for fun and for the challenge of it.
So one essential thing you learn as an adult, is that how you look at things has more to do with liking or hating something than what is actually going on in the experience itself. This life changing concept that you are in control of how you look at things is called “Attitude” and it is why adults harp on it, and it is why kids and teens with fewer life experiences generally have no idea what they are talking about.
When it comes to Attitude there are some built-in obstacles that young people need to overcome in order to graduate out of a kid’s way of looking at things.
1) Rebellion. Kids spend their entire lives being told what to do. They live in a prison of rules. And when your life is spent walled in by rules, it feels like victory to escape. It feels empowering, and fun and exciting, and other kids may even look up to you for your courage in getting away with something outside the rules.
There’s just one problem with this normal kid feeling of wanting freedom from rules, it is not compatible with personal safety or with job or career success in the adult world. A large and essential part of becoming an Adult is being able to channel this natural desire for freedom from rules and free expression into the areas of work and personal life that allow and encourage it.
2) Criticism. Another thing that most kids have in common is they are surrounded by people telling them things that might not necessarily be true in order to avoid hurting their feelings. You’re so smart, or pretty, or strong, or good at this or that, are things kids hear all the time. But let’s face it, as a kid you could have a foot growing out of your head and play video games for 10 hours a day, but moms or grandparents are still going to say you’re the cutest thing ever and should have a great job for being such a hard worker. That’s mom’s right? And its friends, and a lot of times it’s teachers and coaches too - in the kid world.
In the adult workplace, it’s not the same. When you start your first job as a teenager, quite possibly for the first time in your life, you have people in charge of you who don’t know you personally or necessarily care about your personal feelings. Its not that workplace managers are mean people, its just that they’ve got enough of their own responsibilities to deal with without having to worry about the feelings of the newest worker who might not even be here a week or a month from now.
So for the first time in your life, on your first day at work, someone in authority might come right out and tell you exactly what they really think about you and your performance. Maybe its that you’re great, but maybe its that you totally suck at something. Or you might have bosses or co-workers who are unsympathetic or dismissive about your feelings or your aches and pains or how tired you are. This kind or reception can be jarring for young people entering the workforce, and the natural kid response is to feel depressed and be mad about it and want to rally others to your side and pay them back in some way.
But being able to accept the fact that bosses or people you work with don’t necessarily care about the new person as a person, is one of the major transitions between adolescence and adulthood. And if you look at it the right way you will find it liberating. Do you remember the Truman Show movie with Jim Carry growing up in the made for TV town? Every single person in the fake town wanted to make him happy and take care of him, and he could never get an honest answer or opinion out of anyone. Everyone was just patronizing him and the fakeness of it all was driving him crazy. His greatest victory at the end of the show was when he finally escaped out into the real world.
Just like the Truman show, going to work for the first time can be like going from a protective blanket to freedom. People might tell you what they really think, but if you look at it the right way it feels like victory, like you’ve escaped from a smothering protective blanket.
3) Pecking Order/Career ladder. Another hard thing for young people to get used to in the adult workplace is the basic concept that the newest and usually youngest workers not only do the worst jobs, but they get paid the least for doing them.
It is no wonder that this basic concept can seem like an outrage to kids, because it is the exact opposite from everything they have grown up with. In the kid world, mom and dad do the all the hard stuff, and kids get everything they need for doing the least.
Accepting that in the adult world the newest people do the worst jobs at the least pay, is an essential part of growing up and getting along and ahead in the world. If you join a Greek letter house in college, you’ll start out as a pledge, and you’ll do all the housework. But next year you’ll have new pledges under you to do that work. When you go for your first career job, you’ll start out as an intern, and if you’re lucky you’ll be hired on to the lowest position at the least pay. But next year you’ll move up the ladder and a group of new hires will start out where you were. This basic system is as true for new doctors doing scut work and new lawyers in doc review as it is for any other job or career path.
The reason this system is so universal is basic math. There are always more people wanting good jobs than there are good jobs to go around (which is why there is such a thing as the unemployment rate). So there are always going to be new people coming up, willing to do more work for less pay at the start, knowing that the situation will be reversed once they’ve moved up the ladder and new young people come in behind them.
This may all seem obvious to you, but it is not the least bit obvious to many young people, and we probably haven’t had a single summer in 20 years of Beach Camp without hearing from a few CITs or even CIT moms about how unfair they think it is having new CITs cleaning up or schlepping around paddleboards while JCs or full counselors are working on their tans.
4) The Workplace is Real Life, it is More Serious than School or Team Sports. The last basic concept that young people need to embrace if they want to move successfully into the adult workplace, is that even though it may be just a short term summer job or volunteer spot for you, for others you will be working with it may be much much more. It may be something a summer camp kid has been looking forward to for the entire year. It may be a stepping stone for college students needing a good employment reference to land a job in their field. Or it may be a career or even a life’s work for supervisors and owners. And you will be in a position to help, or harm, the customers, the organization, and co-workers who may depend on it for their livelihoods.
Young people take school assignments and tests seriously because they have worked for years keeping up a good GPA. But just imagine if a new teacher came along who didn’t care much about grading. And what if their carelessness ruined your GPA and your chance to get into the college of your dreams? What if you worked for years in your sport to go to the State track meet but a careless volunteer there gave you the wrong time for your event? What if you left your kitten to be looked after by a pet sitter when you went on vacation but they carelessly forgot about it?
Entering the adult workplace means understanding that how well you do your job can have life changing impacts on others who trust and depend on you. It is a big responsibility, and it is reserved for young people who are ready to take their responsibilities and promises to others seriously.
B. How to Be (Demeanor/Personality):
Following Attitude, the next essential element for transitioning into the work adult workplace is developing a workplace Personality. This doesn't mean being grave or dour. In fact it is just the opposite, but it does involve an element of mindfulness that takes some effort and practice by most young people if they are to move beyond the habits of adolescent world.
1) Impulsiveness. Kids need babysitters because kids are impulsive. They only think first some of the of the time. Adults on the other hand are trusted to look after children because they can be relied on to think before acting, all of the time. For adults, thinking first every single time is not just an option, it’s a legal requirement of adulthood. If they don’t, and someone gets hurt, they can be sued or even go to jail, and it is no defense that they usually think first most other times.
2) Daydreaming. When giving instructions to kids, you’re lucky if they’ll follow half of what you say half of the time. Why? It’s not because kids have bad memories, and it’s usually not because they're being defiant. Most of the time it’s because they never heard the instructions in the first place because they were daydreaming when you were explaining it. Paying attention in meetings and when receiving instructions is an essential part of a workplace personality, and is something assumed and expected in the adult workplace.
3) Truthfulness. When you ask a kid what happened, you can almost see the wheels spinning in their heads trying to come up with an answer that is not going to get them or their friends in trouble. This urge for self-preservation over accuracy and truthfulness is not confined to kids, but having the self discipline to override the kid urge to confabulate is another important personality trait that is assumed and expected in the adult workplace.
4) Clever Funny vs Goofy Funny. Truth be told, the deciding factor for choosing between qualified job candidates at the best organizations, is how fun they think the new person will be to have around. Reason being, is that the best organizations are made up of accomplished people who can work anywhere they want, and if people can work anywhere, they’re always going to choose an atmosphere that feels like fun not work. With kids, anything that gets a laugh is fair game for fun. Silly, gross or dumb all gets a laugh. In the workplace, however, where people of all ages are together all day, gross or dumb practical joke type humor quickly wears out its welcome. In the adult workplace, being fun to be around, and making work fun, is all about friendliness and cheerfulness and funny comments and observations. This is another of the assumed and expected transitions, going from kid type “straws in the nostrils” humor, to adult jokey friendly clever fun humor.
C. What to do, the unwritten rules of Workplace Culture:
One aspect of the workplace that comes as a surprise to young people, is that the better the job, the harder it is for people to tell how well you are doing at it. If your job is screwing caps on toothpaste tubes, there’s no question how good of a job you are doing. But what if you are a lawyer, or manager, or scientist, or professor, or summer camp counselor? It is a lot harder to say for sure what your good or bad results are attributed to, or even to measure what your results actually are?
But no matter how hard it is to objectively measure your job performance, there will always be lots of subjective and unwritten standards of conduct in the workplace that people can and will measure and judged you on. These largely unwritten rules are called workplace culture or sometimes business etiquette. If you violate these rules, people are not only going to know it immediately, they might even think you are some shade of crazy, or at the least, willfully rude and thoughtless.
This idea that there are unwritten workplace rules that are as important or even more so than the written ones might be hard to accept at first. So let’s think for a moment about unwritten rules in the world of young people. Let’s say for example you are walking down a crowded school hallway and someone 20 people over who you barely know yells out your name and says “hey what’s up?” What are people going to think about that? Its not a crime, its not harmful, its not against any written rule. Its just a breach of etiquette, and lets face it, you and everyone else around are going to think that person has some kind of problem, and you’d probably be right.
It’s the same thing in the workplace. There are unwritten rules that everyone assumes everyone knows, and if you break them, people will assume you are willfully rude or possibly even not all there mentally.
So lets walk though a few of the essentials starting on your first day in adult work world. Not all of these apply to the summer camp environment, but they will apply to your next job. So if you are doing something at Beach Camp that doesn’t work in the real world, you definitely want to know about it so as to not make it a habit.
1. Don’t park in front, don’t park in someone else’s spot. If there are empty parking spots near the building entrance, there is a reason for it, and that reason is never going to be that they are saving those most convenient parking spots for the organization’s new employees. In the world of work, people and organizations are oddly territorial about parking spots. And believe it or not, even though most of the parking lot spots will be completely unmarked, people still have their own individual parking spots that they park in every single day. If you take someone’s spot, you will have committed a fairly serious breach of workplace etiquette and people will be mad about it. In addition to people's personal parking spots, prime parking spots may be left mysteriously vacant either for visitors or big bosses who only come around once in a while. So when you are new, park in the back of the parking lot until you have a chance to ask someone how the parking situation works. You’ll likely receive a 5 minute dissertation on all the unwritten rules of parking lot etiquette there.
2. Be a little early. In most workplaces there is something sacrosanct about being there a little early and being settled in and ready to go by the starting time. Sometimes there is a reason for it, like when the workday starts with a group meeting about things everyone needs to know. Or if it’s a team effort where everyone needs to be there before anyone can start. But more frequently, the preoccupation with having people show up a little early will have no logical reason. But just because it makes no actual difference whether people show up early, late, or right on time, it creates the same emotional upset for bosses and co-workers when someone (particularly a new person) shows up late or at the last minute. Sometimes this piece of workplace culture was left over from days when there was a reason for it, and sometimes there’s just no explaining it. But in any event, being there early enough to be completely settled in and ready to go by the starting time is a fundamental part of workplace etiquette.
3. Placid facial expression. One thing that separates kids from adults is that kids are always making strange and bizarre facial expressions. Mouths hanging open agape, death stares, scrunched noses, raised eyebrows, curled lips, looks of abject horror, distain, or boredom abound. When you are talking to kids you see it all. When you are talking with adults, however, you see little of it. And when you are talking to adults in the workplace meetings or discussions with bosses, you see none of it. So ask your friends or family if you are known for kid type facial expressions or throwing off dirty looks or looks of terror or boredom when listening to adults. If so, you might even need to practice in the mirror, but one way or another, being able to carrying a friendly or at least placid facial expression when listening to or encountering others is an assumed and expected part transitioning into the adult workplace.
If you are short on time you can stop right here because if you do just these 3 things; Show up on time, Don’t take someone’s parking spot, and don’t make mean or strange facial expressions, you’ll make it through your first day in any new job. People might suspect you’re new by what you’re wearing or other minor breaches of workplace protocol, but no one is going to think you’re crazy, and someone will likely take you under their wing after that and tell you everything more you need to know. But there is more. So if you are interested in the second day at work and beyond, read on…
4. Walk alongside, not behind people. This might be something that should go in the first day list, but since enough young people aren’t aware of it, no one is going to think you’re crazy for trailing along behind someone like a puppy dog on your first day at work. After that, however, you’ll want to get with the program and make sure (when space allows) that you are walking beside not behind your boss or others who are trying show you things or talk to you. Kids of course are used to trailing along in a line behind teachers and parents. Adults, however, walk side by side so they can talk to each other, and it is annoying for someone who's doing you a favor showing you around to have to turn around and find you and see if you are within ear shot or paying attention. Bosses frequently like to walk around when they are talking to people, so when your boss starts walking while they are still talking to you, you are expected to jet off alongside of them. It’s one of the funny things that happens in the workplace when a boss is walking off talking to someone who didn’t get the cue and 10 steps later the boss realizes no one is there. People will laugh if you do that once. Next time however, they might assume you’re crazy or in the process of being fired.
5. Be nice to your boss. In most workplaces your immediate supervisor will be someone barely older than you, making barely more than you, but with a lot more headaches, stress and responsibility. The main and sometimes only perk that comes with these low level management positions is the unwritten workplace etiquette rule that people have to be nice to them. You may be the alpha male or the hot girl at school, but in the adult workplace it is assumed and expected that you will be nice and respectful to your supervisors whether or not they’re your same age, and whether or not you’d be giving them the brushoff or an atomic weggie if you had them in gym class.
6. Saying Hi. How much and how many people you greet during the day will of course depend on your own personality. No one expects a new person to be the life of the party and work the crowed as they stroll through the office. However, no matter what your personality type, when passing people in the hallways within your field of vision, it is expected of you to say hi or good morning to those in your workgroup or department when you see them for the first time each day. If the person is your supervisor, it is definitely expected for you to say hi first. If you don’t, and your boss doesn’t rescue you by saying hi to you, then the awkward silence is going to feel like an embarrassment which could have lingering effects on your prospects there. If you go out of your way to say hi or good morning to people outside your group, that’s wonderful and great if that’s your personality. But its good to remember that if you start out going out of your way to say hi to someone, you pretty much have to keep it up, otherwise they’re going to feel like you are mad at them.
7. Fess up if you break something. When you are new, you are more likely to break or mess something up that other people use, like a computer file directory or spreadsheet, or a copy machine, or printer, or a piece of lab equipment, or maybe even something in the gym or lunchroom. If you do, you are absolutely expected to tell someone. If you don’t, and are found out later, its going to be a problem, and people will assume rightly or wrongly that you are someone who cannot be trusted.
8. With professionals and skilled technicians don’t ask if they “need help”. This well meaning phrase is of course used everyday with friends and family and in non-technical workplaces. But in professional workplaces it can be a grave insult to doctors, lawyers, software engineers, etc. and maybe even plumbers, to be asked if they “need help with that” from a brand new person who doesn’t yet have a clue what they are even doing. If you are unlucky enough to catch the professional with a comment like this in a stressful situation, the response could be something like “…yes, please go down to HR and tell them you don’t work here anymore…” The reason the “need help with that” quip in the technical workplace can be seen as an insult is because the comment includes the implicit assumption that the newbie must think either the professional is pretty incompetent or the job is pretty easy in order for “help” to be provided by someone who doesn’t even know where the bathroom is yet. This of course is not what you meant, you were just making conversation, but it’s what you said. And the comment is offensive as well by getting the basic relationships backwards in the technical workplace. In the the technical workplace, you are being helped immensely by the professionals just allowing you to be there and learn something that could open doors for you or turn into a rewarding or lucrative career.
So if you are lucky enough as a young person to be in the position of working around skilled professionals, lean in, keep your phone off, mouth shut, eyes and ears open, and your observation and attention level on ultra high alert. If the professionals want your help they will ask you for it, and if they don’t, they will be impressed by your level of attentiveness, and over time will start thinking you are someone worth teaching something to.
9. Know what the organization does. If you work for an electric car dealer, then your job in some way shape or form is to support the adoption of electric vehicles. So regardless of what job you have there, people will think it weird and maybe unforgivable for you to say or do something against the primary mission of promoting electric cars. Same if you work for a vegetarian market and bring in Dicks’ Burgers. Or if you work for Planned Parenthood and start talking up right to life. Or if you work at a wilderness camp and wear coder camp t-shirts. You get the idea. People forgive a lot when it comes to workplace mistakes, but there is a line that can be crossed if you do things that appear to undermine the essential purpose of the organization and people’s reason for being there.
10. Don’t do anything that no one else is doing. This catchall rule of workplace culture and etiquette captures just about everything else you’ll need to know, and in a sense, sums up all you need to know in the first place. When you are an adult in a new environment, people expect and assume that you do not need to be told every little thing and that you will be observant in paying attention to what others are doing, and that you will conform your conduct to the cultural norms you observe. Loud talking, messy desk, headphones, yoga pants, baseball hats, long hair, purple hair, napping, personal calls, hugging, chewing gum, eating at your desk, showing up late, leaving early… All great, all fine PROVIDED it is normal for others in your same position to be doing it. Otherwise, such things in the workplace might be considered weird, crazy or worse. And of course there can be a big difference between how bosses and other important people are allowed to behave compared to everyone else (remember pecking order). So when it comes to rule #10, make sure you are comparing apples to apples when dealing with the unwritten rules of workplace culture.
D. Why Should any of this Matter (To You):
Because it boils down to having a happy and fulfilling life. Like everyone, the main career advice you probably have been getting in some form or another is “find something you love…”
The problem with this well meaning advice is that when you are young and haven’t had enough experiences to know what your choices are, its pretty hard to know what you love when you see it. Another even bigger problem with this well meaning advice is that (hard truth be told), when it comes to careers, what people “love” is all pretty much the same thing; prestige, authority over others, money, mission that matters to the world, and being able to employ creativity and self-expression.
So the real challenge in life is not so much “finding something you love”. It is getting yourself exposed to enough things to develop a feel for what opportunities are out there, and then getting yourself in a position that when you do find something that interests you, someone will actually let you do it as opposed to the thousand other people who want to do it. Helping with this challenge is the reason for this write-up, giving you a leg up in the world of work, so you can not only find something you love, but have a reasonable chance that someone will think enough of you to give you the opportunity to do it.
E. Parting Advice:
The best advice anyone can give a young person is to be careful about advice. This writer for one, cannot recall a single piece of education, career, or financial advice received as a young person that turned out to be true in the long run. And in fact, most of what seemed like good advice at the time from expert people in a position to know turned out to be so wrong as to be comical. For example:
-There’s little chance of widespread adoption of personal computers, its just too expensive to make the needed memory chips…
(My first Computer Science Professor).
-You can never get ahead with dot com stocks, stick with the industrials with proven earnings and dividends.
(My first Stock Broker)
-There will never be much development in Bellevue, its too hard to get across the lake from Seattle.
(My first Real Estate Agent).
-Going to law school doesn’t make sense anymore, there’s already more lawyers than will ever be needed.
(The first Lawyer I knew)
It is not that givers of bad advice are bad people, they are just well meaning people who are still fighting the last war. What they learned from the past controls how they think about the future. But the problem is, the future is always different from the past.
So with this warning about advice, I’m going to give you some non-advice advice that may or may not be useful. But at least you know it is coming from someone who has received enough bad advice to possibly know it when he sees it.
-Get good at something competitive, anything, it doesn’t matter what it is. The process of getting near the top of your peer group in any challenging endeavor will give you the fortitude and confidence to get to the top in something bigger and more important when you find it.
-It might take luck to have success in life, but luckily it doesn’t take your own luck, it only takes the luck of someone you have known. So if you start young doing a great job at things people trust you to do, when one of those many many people you have impressed over the years falls into the next big startup or opportunity that takes off like a rocket, they will be scouring their memory banks for outstanding people they have known that they can trust to rise to the challenge, and they will need you, and they will look you up.
So the sooner you start impressing people the better. With school and summer jobs and internships, you cross paths with a lot more people when you are young than after college, and the competition now is a lot less because most young people haven’t yet figured out what you are learning here right now. So the sooner you start impressing people, with the large number of people you will work with along the way, your opportunities for success and happiness and having a career you love, will no longer depend on luck, it becomes a statistical certainty.
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Oh, and I almost forgot something. One very last thing. If anyone gives you and office, turn the light on. Sitting in dark office = kid thing, not adult…