Gen Y Speaks: I didn’t do well in my first job. This is how I learnt not to beat myself up over it
I thought I was a hotshot. Yet I was rudely brought back down to Earth when in March 2021, my employer issued me with a performance improvement plan for various aspects of my work that the company was not satisfied with.
I thought I was a hotshot.
After all, in September 2019, I had graduated from university with a first-class honours degree, gotten awards, and even spoken at conferences.
Yet I was rudely brought back down to Earth when in March 2021, my employer issued me with a performance improvement plan for various aspects of my work that the company was not satisfied with.
The list of issues include double-booking myself for meetings, arguing with a superior, and submitting substandard work.
The stakes were made clear. If I didn’t meet the standards laid out for me, the company would review whether I was still a good fit.
For the next six months, I followed what was required of me according to the plan.
But I found myself losing the confidence I needed to work well. When I met with clients, I found myself mired in self-doubt. I would question whether I was doing or saying the right thing.
I remember the many times when I would have a missed call from my supervisor, and immediately think if this was it.
I counted down the days till my formal review in August 2021, when it was time to determine whether I had “passed” the performance improvement plan.
Over Zoom, I met with my supervisors, the HR manager, and the director.
But the mood was not celebratory. Instead, it was sombre, and sad.
That was when I realised I had lost the zest and the zip to work. There was no longer any enthusiasm to share ideas, or to execute them.
Please don’t get me wrong, I am not placing blame on such processes.
Being placed on a performance improvement plan was a necessary part of my growth as a professional, with the clear statements of what I could, and could not do, guiding my actions.
But it also meant that I spent more time worrying about whether I would be sacked, than on trying to go above and beyond what was required.
I remember the times when I would introduce myself to new people I met. When they asked what I did, I would muffle a reply, quickly turning the attention back on them to ask them what they did.
In the office, there were days when I would mutter less than 20 words. Whilst everyone would head for lunch, I would quietly slip away.
A few weeks later, I was asked about whether I wanted to renew the two-year contract with them. I felt it was time to move on.
Two years at this company had taught me that my academic performance was a poor predictor of work performance, and I felt I needed a new environment to start afresh.
FINDING A NEW PATH
Truth be told, I had been searching for a job since March 2021, when I was first put on notice.
But despite more than 43 job applications, and 12 interviews, no organisation was willing to offer me a job.
So, on Oct 5, 2021, I bit the bullet and left without a job.
Somewhat foolishly, I thought it might be a good idea to write a book on adulting. It was a selfish endeavour.
I wanted answers to the question: “Why do some people transition well into their careers after their schooling years, while others fail?”
After all, if academic performance was not a good predictor, what was?
One of those I interviewed was Ariel (not her real name). She won an overseas scholarship to a British university. Yet in Ariel’s first full-time job, her boss thought her performance was so poor that her boss regularly shouted at her in the office.
But today, two years on, Ariel is now managing a team, and has even taken ownership of starting a new department.
She bounced back by learning to accept that she cannot strive for perfection the way she could do in school.
“I’m a perfectionist. When I started to work, I thought, ‘I need to be the best, I need to give it my all.’ It was very difficult to accept that I’m not good,” she told me.
For me, coming out of university having achieved a degree of excellence, I could relate to that pressure of carrying those same expectations of how I had done at university to my work.
What frustrated me was how it felt like I was a 25-year-old baby, having to learn how to walk again. I had zero years of experience. Everything was new.
But as Ariel helped me see, everyone starts out this way. Maybe it was a good thing that I’m not good at the job, she added.
“Now you know that, and you can focus on something else that you might be good at,” she said.
For her, she put in her 100 per cent during working hours. Once she is off the clock, she spends her personal time on enjoying herself with good meals, exercise, and having outings for fun.
Strangely, this ability to detach herself from work and after work helped her to be more relaxed on the job.
MY OWN IMPROVEMENT PLAN
It’s been 18 months since my performance improvement plan ended in August 2021.
Armed with my newfound motivation, I came up with my own “personal improvement plan”, based on three practical actions that brought me through that dark period of my life.
Firstly, getting monthly sessions with a therapist helped me to process the grief of losing my identity as a “high-achiever” at work, and coming to grips with reality.
Secondly, writing a daily letter of love to myself, in which I reminded myself of the qualities I had, helped me see the good in myself.
Lastly, rebuilding a life outside of work through hobbies such as running, and learning new skills such as video-making, helped me to see that even in a dying career, there could be new shoots sprouting elsewhere.
As someone once told me: “You grow through what you go through.”
I don’t know if it was the intended aim of the performance improvement plan, but what it ultimately taught me wasn’t the fact that I would be judged by results. Instead, I came out of the experience learning that not being good at work was “okay”.
I now accept that I didn’t have to be great at work to have worth as a human being.
I still remember my last day at work where I had to say goodbye to my colleagues. I may not have liked all of them, but I wanted closure.
I prepared something small for each of them. Chocolates, little trinkets I found around my house, forgotten Christmas presents (that were still reusable).
I left a chocolate on the desk of one colleague I had many disagreements with.
I thought it might be too awkward to say goodbye properly. I quickly slipped out.
But as I walked away, I heard a voice calling behind me.
It was my colleague. In Mandarin, she smiled and joked: “Next time when we see each other, remember to call me!”
Her words of reconciliation were a beautiful olive branch. And it was a reminder that sometimes, maybe sometimes, in the cut and thrust of work, we may hurt each other, we may hurt ourselves with how hard we work; but at the end of the day, it’s work.
It’s just work.
We can learn from it, but we don’t have to beat ourselves up for it.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
John Lim speaks on creating happier workplaces for millennials and is the author of the book Vault: Every Gen Z’s Guide to Getting Through the Swap of Adulting. He blogs at www.liveyoungandwell.com/blog.
Related topicsworkplace adulting
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