What I Wish I Had Known About Professional Life Before Graduating College: The Myth of Being Yourself

Growing up, I was always a real “student”. I loved to learn and go into class, consistently diving into the coursework and really soaking in what was being taught. I was active in clubs, got along with all of my teachers, and absolutely crushed it at parent-teacher conferences. But I always had an end goal in mind each year: to prepare myself for the next year and set myself up for life.

It went like this:

1. Work hard in elementary school so junior high was easier.
2. Excel in junior high so that I could get into rigorous high school classes.
3. Test well in high school so that I could get into a better college.
4. Succeeding in a top college will improve my chances of having a better a career and life.

And as those school years went by, my classmates and I mostly stuck with the same network of people. This is common practice. Your high school friends are likely to characterize you from your time in junior high, your junior high friends remember you from elementary school, etc. Students and teachers alike come to know you as the class clown (guilty), maybe the nerdy overachiever (also guilty), perhaps a “jock” (not quite me), or even an easy target for bullying (on occasion, I’m guilty here as well).

It’s almost as if your complete persona is immutable over the first 18 years of your life. After all, isn’t it extremely rare to go from nerd to homecoming king? In a world of with over 7 billion people where you cannot exist without interacting with others, it is an objective fact that there is no true “you”. We are only a culmination of our peers’ perceptions. More on that later.

Upon mid-way through high school, you begin to dream of a mystical place called “college”. A fresh slate with expectations that you set on your own. Leave your friends and teachers behind, or stay with them. Join a Greek organization, become an RA, or start your own club. It doesn’t matter — you can create a brand new identity for yourself and pay $20,000 a year to do so. There is only one rule in college: Be Yourself. With 2.1 million new college graduates in America each year, there’s excellent odds that there’s someone at your university college that will love you for you, and you’ll coast through and graduate. Usually with a “Congratulations” at the end.

The “free to be you and me” environment that college affords is, in many ways, pure ecstasy. If you want to be a screw-up and half-ass the experience, you can be, because it really only affects you. It’s YOUR experience. But like ecstasy, there comes a fall from the high. You can’t stay in college forever (like Van Wilder). You do eventually have to contribute to society and the working world. And in this post-college world, your experience is no longer so insular, and your day-to-day actions increasingly affect other people (coworkers, friends, loved ones). And with that, *everything* you do elicits judgement. And rightfully so. It’s no longer all about you.

Ironically, that’s what school doesn’t teach you. And that’s what I didn’t know. I could school you on the Federalist Papers, Post-modern media representations in Eastern Europe, and the Pythagorean Theorem, but I didn’t know that “Be Yourself” could be some of the most mythologized, mis-understood bullshit ever.

If you show up late for class, you miss the start of the lesson and your notes suck. Show up late for work? Your coworkers are behind. If you wear pajamas to class, you’re comfortable. Dress like a hobo for the office? You’re impacting the company’s image (especially if a client walks in)! If you put off your homework, you get a bad grade. Put off that work project? The company could be losing money, maybe even thousands or millions of dollars. Be the laid-back person and your peers will view you as the laid-back person. No one depends on the laid-back person.

The difference is that money and others’ livelihoods are at stake. If I don’t do my job, it’s that much more difficult for my coworkers to do their jobs. The company suffers. And so, people are going to be pissed when you don’t deliver. When management is evaluating future leaders for the organization, are they considering the person whom they can depend on or the person whom is trapped in the reveries of their college glory days?

I used to think that recounting tales from my school years made me funny and interesting at work. I was just “being myself”, after all. Why sugarcoat or hide my past? Even if those tales didn’t always paint me in the best light, my professional peers would just assume that I was a different person, right? I thought it would make them like me more. After all, it made me well-liked in college and high school, why not in the workplace?

And maybe I was right in that regard. Maybe my teammates at work would love to hang out with me because I was hilarious and had all of these goofy stories when I was growing up. But it didn’t make them respect me more. In the working world, you don’t get bonuses, raises, and promotions for being the most liked or “being yourself”. You need to be respected and depended on to move forward and have success. You don’t “graduate” in life. It never stops.

The truth is that bullies, the “cool” crowd, and clowns exist in the professional world, just like they do in school. That won’t ever change. But when your actions affect others, you’re always under the microscope and your “identity” as a professional is determined far sooner than it does when it doesn’t impact anyone else.. And unlike college, you won’t get pushed through work for just being yourself. You need to be the person that others depend on and can look to as a resource for your organization.

The sequence of events doesn’t stop at “better career and better life”. You have a good career so that you have more financial freedom and a better standard of living. You can have the family you want, the house you want, and have a better chances at achieving the dreams you have. The “career” section of life is 40–55 years, far longer than the 16–20 possible years of schooling. Build your identity as the “go-getter” during your time as a professional. And if that’s not you and never has been you, then you need to learn to go and get, because others depend on it.

Otherwise, you will be judged for it.