Gabriela Torres

Letter to my eager 21-year-old, soon-to-be-workaholic old self

This is the letter I wish someone had sent me when I had just graduated from college. Before I started looking for jobs, before I got caught up in the “adulting” of it all. Before I realized that almost ten years had gone by. Hopefully, it can reach another 21-year-old who needs to know this.

Dear me,

You’re about to graduate, and you feel you know nothing about the field you chose or about life for that matter. And you’re right (it’ll be okay, though).

You’ve never been as prepared and as mature as you are now, but still there’s so much you need to learn about yourself to build a career you love.

So, I’m sharing some tips here that could help you start to navigate the world of work and to make the most of it, but mainly about what to look for in a job.

As you grow up, the things you’ll want and need will be different from what you want and need now – however, the choices you make now will influence the rest of your life.

But it’s not all catastrophic. Nothing is set in stone, or forever the same. When you fail or take a wrong turn, you can go back and fix it. I promise.

So here’s a little guide to help you make those decisions that are coming your way in the next few years, from someone who made all the mistakes and all the good decisions there ever were.

1. Look for a company or job that aligns with what’s important to you

A vegan will never work at KFC, and a pacifist won’t work for a gun company. While these are extreme examples, it’s useful to know what you value and what’s important to you on a personal level and try to find a company that, for the most part, matches that.

Example 1: Is it important for you to achieve things, learn how things work, or serve others? Based on your answer, you need to know if a company is focused on results, processes, or people.

Example 2: Do you want to build a career where your role, salary, and title grow constantly? Look for a big company where internal promotion is continuously practiced.

Example 3: Do you want to build your own business eventually, but before that, you want to learn what it takes? Find a small company where you can see the passion up close and what it takes to make it.

Example 4: Do you want to have the flexibility to get a master’s degree, volunteer, or take care of a family member while working? Look for a leader or company that works based on results, not based on how much time you spend in front of the computer.

Example 5: What kind of people are successful within the company? Does that sound like someone you could be? If you’re the total opposite, run!

You might not find a perfect match right away, or ever for that matter, but it’s important to know what you want in order to look for it. When possible, don’t compromise.

It’s more important to be happy than to be recognized by others.

2. Know your priorities and set limits from the start

Even when you’re starting your career, it’s important to know your priorities and set limits. If you don’t, people will keep asking for more, and you’ll keep agreeing until it’s too late and you pass out from exhaustion.

Your priorities can be personal or career-related. Whatever they are, make sure you’re continually setting time aside for them. And respect them.

Also, respect your time.

It’s important to prove yourself when you’re just starting, but that doesn’t mean always working 14-hour days or saying yes to everything everyone asks you to do.

This one is hard, and you learn to manage it with time. But know that saying no is okay sometimes, and if you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will (not even your mom, although she will be very vocal about it!).

3. Look for a leader, not a boss, no matter what position they hold

A leader will see you as a human being with a life outside of work. They will support you in your growth process, help you learn from your mistakes, and make sure you know it’s okay to make those mistakes. A leader will play on your strengths, stand up for you if needed, and provide constructive feedback.

They will be in your corner and inspire your loyalty.

A boss will micromanage, make you feel incompetent, overwork you, and make a big deal out of your mistakes – which you will make, there’s no escaping that one. They will give you tasks they don’t want to do and not share exciting projects or tasks with you.

How do you differentiate a leader from a boss? See how they treat the people around them. Do people around them work based on fear or inspiration?

This one might be a little more difficult to spot at first, but you’ll know eventually.

4. Look for a team, not stars

Your team is made up of the people with whom you will spend the most time, so you want a genuine team, not one in name only.

Teams work towards common goals, not to stand out one from the others. A team will support you when you need it, and you’ll want to support your teammates if they need it.

A group of stars will try to showcase what they’re doing over the work of others. They will not share responsibility, and instead they will try to look better than others when possible.

How do you find a real team? Ask questions in your interviews about how your success will be measured, the goals that the team shares, and the team’s dynamics.

You can’t guarantee you’ll get all of the information you need, but you can make a better decision based on what you do get.

5. Pay close attention to the interview process

How a company treats candidates during the interview process is important.

Are they organized, kind, and looking for a win-win situation? Then you’re good.

Are they not communicating with you clearly? Do you feel undervalued or that you’re putting too much effort into a process that could otherwise be much simpler?

This is a reflection of the overall culture you’ll find in the company. It’s possible that company culture will not be a factor in your team specifically, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

6. Evaluate how important the salary is to you

Salary is important to everyone. But can you afford to earn a little less at first in order to gain tons of experience in your dream company? Or do you need a little more cash because you want to move out of your parents’ house, get married or support your family?

To be clear, look for a fair salary. Do your research, online and offline (with other people), and evaluate your capabilities. Know your worth.

But with that being said, are there other things you value more than money at this point? Like flexibility, creative freedom, working for an NGO, or other goal?

Knowing this will help you make a better decision.

7. Like life, a career takes time

The only way to fail is to be resistant to change. This is the time to explore, fail, make the wrong choice, and maybe disappoint others – but not yourself.

I guarantee in ten years you’ll be in a place where you didn’t think you’d be (whether you perceive it as good or bad), and that has both benefits and downsides.

But you will have learned, grown, and built who you are at work (and in life) during those first few years.

Success is not measured the way you may now think it is. And it’s okay not to want what everyone else wants. That means less competition, too!



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