After four years of sleepless nights, test anxiety, mental breakdowns in the library, and a brain fresh full of knowledge, most of us want to get a “big girl” or “big boy” job. Unfortunately, that’s rarely an easy process. And as I find myself in the undesirable position of a December graduate, I’ve been reflecting on my personal struggle with underemployment. Here’s what I’ve learned about having aspirations bigger than your current employment status:
1. Networking is awkward.
It’s hard to put yourself out there – especially at career fairs, where you’re just supposed to wander around, walk up to random people, introduce yourself, and then shamelessly grab a free pen. Even for a people person like myself, it’s intimidating to speak to a professional you want to impress. At a career fair on campus last year, I was looking around at a booth, and the company representative reached out his hand to introduce himself to me. I looked up and impulsively said, “Hey, you’re getting married to a girl I went to high school with!” Oh, no you didn’t. Oh yes, unfortunately, I did. This poor guy I’d never seen or met in my life and recognized only from Facebook photos stared at me, laughed, and played it off like it wasn’t medium-level stalkerish. (PS – it was my friend Ashley’s now-husband. Check out her blog while you cringe at my awkward life) Not my shining moment, but you get my point. Networking can be uncomfortable and intimidating, but don’t let that keep you from taking advantage of the opportunity to interact with potential employers and references.
2. You might be overqualified, but that doesn’t mean the work is beneath you.
Once upon a time, I worked at McDonald’s. I didn’t have a car, so I walked a mile to work in my non-slip shoes, visor in hand, and dignity in the toilet. This once upon a time was my sophomore year of college. I was hard up for money and had been applying for jobs for months, but without transportation, I wasn’t able to pursue any of the opportunities I came across. I go to school in a small college town, and 99.999% of jobs are either waitressing or fast food service. I’m an intelligent person with ideas, ambition, and education…skills surely beyond that of wiping ketchup out of a Playland slide and saying, “Please pull up to the second window.” I was embarrassed. I saw people I knew all the time – friends, classmates, even professors. People called me incompetent, made demeaning jokes, and generally eye-judged me to the point where I once cried in the bathroom on my break. It’s tough to feel small and stuck at a job when you know you have the potential to do more, but that humbling experience has made me realize that I’m not “above” any kind of work. I learned valuable lessons from the people I worked with, and gained a better understanding of the people in America who are struggling to make ends meet – whether they’re the ones flipping burgers on the grill or scrambling to buy a $5 dinner for their family.
3. Keep an open mind.
As stated above, I was able to learn something from my coworkers at McDonald’s. Would you have expected that? I learned about work ethic – some of the ladies I worked with busted their butts full time on 3rd shift in addition to their daytime jobs just to help give their kids an opportunity to go to college. I worked at a grocery store for several years as a cashier and bagger. Patience is a virtue I was not born with, but also a required skill for working in customer service. 5 years of ringing up groceries and explaining coupon policies has increased my degree of patience for life. I live my life with the mindset that I can learn at least one thing from every person I encounter. That open mindedness has allowed me to develop not only professionally, but personally as well.
4. A positive attitude makes crappy work less crappy.
I think everyone has struggled with their attitude towards work, for the simple fact that it’s work. Most of us would always rather be doing something else – spending time with family, exploring new hobbies, eating, sleeping, sometimes even just sitting in a chair staring at a blank wall seems more interesting than the work we need to get done. I think a positive attitude is of utmost importance among the involuntarily underemployed, because if you’re underemployed, it means that you’re qualified to do something “better” than what you’re doing. And what’s so positive about doing crappy work, when Joe Schmoe who tried to copy answers off your test in macroeconomics two years ago is living the high life at a fancy corporate internship? Well, for starters, at least you’re not unemployed. The rest is mind control: for the most part, our attitudes are based on choice, and therefore we can choose each day to be positive despite the glaring negatives we may be facing. And besides, as a customer, do you react better to a friendly, upbeat employee, or someone like Bon Qui Qui? (If you say Bon Qui Qui you’re lying) Everyone knows that happy customers make work easier.
5. Benchmark your success, but don’t get caught up in how you compare to others.
Unless Joe Schmoe from macroeconomics is paying your bills, his fancy corporate internship has no effect on your life. Comparing ourselves to others does help us set goals, but remember that if you compete with yourself, you can’t lose. Set SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-sensitive) goals based on your current or past accomplishments. The saying, “don’t compare your bloopers to someone else’s highlight reel,” while cheesy, is true. Someone I worked with and shadowed at my last internship told me that one day he’d be working for me. Knowing that someone was able to recognize that kind of potential in me as an intern has been a huge motivation for me. Is my goal in life to become his boss? No! But I’ve started to compare where I’m at now to where I was at then and make positive strides towards at least becoming someone’s boss someday. Try to keep things in perspective and remember that success is relative – you don’t have to define your own success by the perceived success of your peers.
6. Don’t give up on your dreams because they seem unattainable.
I’m sure all CEOs found it hard to imagine their current careers while they were serving up french fries at McDonald’s, but they didn’t give up. (Not everyone’s goal is to be a CEO, but you get my point.) It can be difficult to see the big picture when the small picture you’re looking at isn’t what you want to see. Keep in mind that opportunities often come out of unexpected places. I’ve had people slide me a business card while I scanned their groceries because I was able to make a professional impression despite the fact that their soon-to-be dinner was leaking chicken juice onto my shoe. Everybody starts somewhere.
What have you learned on your journey to satisfying employment?