Courtney, this one’s for you.
I am still very much a baby. At the tender age of 24 (and a HALF!!), I am painfully aware of how little life I have experienced, particularly in comparison to many of my older friends and coworkers. I am often the youngest person in the room during meetings and networking events, which is partly a product of my inability to allow myself the grace of youth and partly a consequence of my awkwardness around young, hot people. I am by no means an expert in the ways of living.
I am, however, fortunate enough to have endured a few really shitty years following my college graduation. Although my plight pales in comparison to millions, if not billions, of others’ in my generation (Zillennials, if you will), I think it’s fair to say that I’ve undergone some pretty significant experiences that are rare for others in my demographic (read: upper-middle-class, white/Jewish, cis, straight-passing, Midwestern women in their early 20s). For example, I’ve been extremely lucky to have worked for an unusually wide range of companies under an unusually awful caliber of management. I’ve entered and exited unusually toxic friendships, made several major life decisions that are usually reserved for those twice my age, and been far more involved in the Cook County court system than I would have liked. In my completely biased opinion, having been thrust into inappropriately adult situations during inappropriately adolescent eras in my life has rendered me useless when it comes to emotional compartmentalization, but disproportionately wise when it comes to navigating the “real world”.
My younger cousin/honorary sister Courtney is currently going through the lawless hellscape of college, and although she is truly one of the most academically intelligent people I have ever met, I’ve noticed and worried that she’s being fed apathetic platitudes from the adults in her life — namely her professors. I remember the exact lessons she’s currently learning and remembered looking forward to adulthood so fondly, thinking that if I just worked hard enough, smiled wide enough, and thought positively enough, that the universe would be my oyster.
Good one, Universe.
Instead, in the interest of sparing her the emotional whiplash I suffered at the hands of cold, loathsome reality, I’ve compiled some hard truths that I know her wise, seasoned mentors will — intentionally or not — withhold from her in the confines of the classroom.
Girl, here’s the tea:
- Failing is necessary, and often more beneficial than consistent success. As a communications major, you should be familiar with the advertising genius of Wieden and Kennedy. (Think Nike, McDonald’s, Old Spice, pretty much every household name ever.) The founders are most famous for their iconic mantra, now hung boldly on the walls of their New York office: Fail Harder. Truer words have never been spoken, especially when it comes to creative. You’re going to write some bad shit. You’re going to create bad art. You’re going to set the kitchen on fire, and you’re going to fuck up at work and get in trouble for it. When you’re done crying in the nursing room (not a judgment, this was a normal Tuesday afternoon for me at my agency job), square your shoulders and re-approach your work with more confidence and poise knowing you’ve successfully learned something valuable. Even if that lesson is just how to hide your mistakes better (consider blaming them on “the software”).
- Know your worth, then add tax. You will tempted, and even encouraged, to put in extra hours and free labor when you’re first starting out in the workforce. Your bosses or coworkers may try to convince you that you’re lucky to even have this job, or that you just have to “pay your dues” till you have more experience. This is a ploy that feeds off your imposter syndrome and low self-esteem in order to entice you into accepting unfair treatment so they can skate by. Call it hazing or just plain manipulation, the bottom line is that it’s not okay. You worked hard for your education and your job placement. You’re well-educated, informed, and bring to the table an entirely new set of skills — skills that make you valuable and indispensable. Don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise. Set your boundaries early and ask for the industry-standard salary. You are entitled to your lunch break. You are entitled to fair treatment. You are entitled to being treated like a human fucking being. That rule does not rest on the axis of your job experience. Side note: don’t download Slack on your phone. I still get heart palpitations when I hear that godforsaken bubble tone.
- Sometimes people suck. Sometimes the people meant to lead you, motivate you, and mentor you will fail to do any of those things. In fact, sometimes their behavior will actively mislead you, dishearten you, and confuse you. You may be under the impression that this is just par for the course, and in some ways it is, but never forget that you are entitled to a workplace that makes you feel valued and safe. You are the only one who can choose whether mediocre — or even abusive — leaders are worth putting up with in exchange for your salary. They may not be, and that’s okay. It doesn’t mean you’re not “ready for the real world” or “too sensitive” to work in a certain field. It means you value your own mental health and career enough not to settle for something that chips away at those things. In that same vein, be prepared to lead as much as you’re prepared to follow.
- Real-world tests are all open-book. Be resourceful, but ask questions. You can’t do everything yourself. You can teach yourself almost anything in the world, but some things require additional expertise or clarification. You’ll be tempted to multitask and take on more work than you’re able to handle — don’t. You simply cannot do everything yourself, no matter what your job description states, so don’t risk your sanity in pursuit of trying. Delegation is your friend; if that fails, there’s little that working people won’t do in exchange for a $5 or $10 Starbucks gift card. Asking questions and frantically Googling things doesn’t make you stupid. Be your own educational advocate. The internet is your oyster.
- Nothing fucking matters. There is not a single job in the world that won’t be working to replace you ten minutes after you hand in your notice. The people who seem to effortlessly glide through life with perfect grades, busy social lives, and lucrative jobs are the same people who come home after a long day and wish they could be ten times more successful than they are. No one is “winning” at life and everyone is faking it. Even if that weren’t true, we’re living through a global crisis on multiple fronts: climate change, a deadly pandemic, economic and judicial corruption, and I’m pretty sure no one ever addressed the whole murder hornets thing. My former supervisor, who ended up being a total dick but was at least honest to a fault, always reminded me at the end of the day that we were just selling a luxury product. No one would die if one of our Facebook ads performed 12% worse than the week before. No one’s life would be ruined if our digital affiliates misspelled one of our discount codes. His company is now on the brink of bankruptcy and guess what? None of them are homeless, diseased, or responsible for a national race war. A little perspective goes a long way. Stay informed about the state of the world and feel better knowing the world will end regardless of whether you meet all your deadlines.
- Dream bigger than what people tell you. You are not confined to a certain life because of what the norm dictates. You can change your mind, your career, your appearance, your entire identity if that’s what makes you happy, and no one can tell you otherwise. That’s the great part about being an adult, besides being able to buy Cosmic Brownies and a bottle of prosecco for dinner. Just because someone says something’s impossible or impractical doesn’t mean it’s not worth trying. Make your money so you can follow your dreams. Die trying. (Just like, not for a while if you can help it.)
- I love you. I believe in you. The big, beautiful world is meant for you, and it’s better off because you’re in it. Stay focused. You’re almost there.