I don’t like to generalise, but I imagine that there are a few questions that almost all twenty-something-year-olds fear. Do you have a partner? Do you still live at home? Did you go to university? And of course, the dreaded…What do you do for work?
For the lucky ones that managed to glide straight from university into postgraduate study or the workforce with clear goals in mind, I’m sure this would sound like a standard, non-threatening question. But, for those of us that have found ourselves in jobs we don’t like, are still working part-time or casually and feeling left behind because of it or are unemployed because of this thing called COVID-19, this simple question becomes an anxiety-ridden minefield.
When I was two years out of university, staring down the barrel of a global pandemic with only some casual babysitting work and so many job application rejections that I could’ve piled them up and created a scrapbook (this is not a dramatisation, I actually wanted to make a scrapbook) – this question was the very bane of my existence. Not only did I find it difficult to answer, but it created this ripple effect inside of my mind that powered up an endless loop of self-deprecating thoughts that would stay with me long after I’d stumbled through an answer.
After a lot of reflection and a few people calling me out on it, I realised that the way I spoke about myself was a lot of the problem. The New Year is a great time to sit down and reflect on the words you use when you talk about yourself. You might find that like me, you’ve been selling yourself short along the way simply because of the language you’ve been using. Setting a resolution or just striving to speak with confidence is a massive step, but so worthwhile.
Even though our job circumstances might not change overnight, the way we speak ourselves can. So, here are some things I’ve learnt the hard way so hopefully, you don’t have to:
1. Stop dismissing your achievements
I plead guilty to this crime. The truth is you’ve got to be your own cheerleader when it comes to talking about your achievements. When people asked what I did for work I used to say “Oh, I’m just a nanny”. When they would ask me what I studied I would answer in a dismissive tone “Oh, just an arts degree.” I was putting myself down with the language I was using which set the tone for the other person’s reply straight off the bat. No wonder these conversations were uncomfortable when I was so readily able to push aside my achievements.
Giving these answers did nothing for me. It didn’t tell the other person that I was still a nanny because I had grown a babysitting business from the ground up and at one point had ten clients that sustained me financially throughout my study and beyond. It didn’t tell them how I had completed a three-year degree studying incredibly interesting subjects that have since informed my choices, values, and career goals to this day.
I quickly realised the word “just” was a bit of a crutch for me. I was using it to diminish my work so others couldn’t put it down because I had already done so. This was so damaging to my confidence and sense of self-worth. Once I realised this, I tried my best to stop using it. I still trip up now and then, but I find it interesting that people call me out on it all the time and tell me what I’m doing is a lot more than “just” anything. People don’t want to hear you diminish what you’ve done, so try your best to take out those filler words that add a negative connotation to what you’re saying. Even if you aren’t over the moon with what you are doing, speak about your role and your job with respect, because you deserve it.
2. Stop limiting your answer
Humans love to categorise things. It gives us a sense of control and structure in our world when we can put things in a certain place to define their meaning and purpose. We want to do it with everyone we meet, we want to be able to say, “He’s a doctor, she’s an engineer, they’re a teacher” and then leave it at that. But it doesn’t give anyone a lot of wiggle room. So many of us are going to change careers throughout our lifetimes and are our whole identity shouldn’t go through a crisis every time we want to do so. That’s why as young people and graduates we have the perfect opportunity to save ourselves the trouble later by putting in the work now and not defining ourselves by what we do.
An easy way to start changing this is to learn to answer this question broadly and with a lot of compassion towards ourselves. When I realised I could answer this question by not only saying I was studying or saying I was a nanny but could also include the fact I volunteered and that I was a writer – my whole world opened up. Suddenly, I wasn’t so insecure because even if I was a bit hesitant about one aspect of my answer, there were other things I loved that I could mention. This helped cushion any negative feelings that might arise. My go-to answer these days is “I do lots of different things” then proceed to list a bunch of different things I do, which has the capacity to change all the time. I find it also makes for more interesting conversations because each new person may pick out a different aspect of what you do because they find it interesting too!
3. Don’t pre-empt judgement
A lot of us find talking about ourselves to be so difficult because we’re scared of what others will think. I know I’ve worried about other people thinking I’m not doing enough or that I’ve failed because I don’t have a full-time job yet when I’m not sure I even want one. It’s a weird balance between wanting to do what everyone else is doing so people can’t judge you and needing to be true to yourself so you can feel real success and happiness.
I think it helps to remember that if you’ve felt like this and I’ve felt like this, then a lot of other people probably have too. Perhaps the people asking you these uncomfortable questions are also worried about what you’ll think of them. At the end of the day, the only way out of this cycle of fear and judgement is to decide not to participate in the first place. This is hard and I’m nowhere close to mastering it. But I realised that the person that suffers the most from assuming that other people think I’m not good enough is me. So, I’ve been trying my best to remind myself of that fact every time I feel insecure or scared about some facet in my life, work-related or otherwise.
I think going forward, we, as graduates and young people, need to remember that if we want these pressures around us to change, then we need to make a change. Every time you huff and blame society, remember you are a member of society and you do have the capacity to make a difference. You never know how far that positive influence can reach. So, speak about yourself with kindness, with respect and most of all, don’t take yourself so seriously.
The beautiful and wise Maya Angelou once said: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” So, go out into the world, speak about yourself with love and confidence and be a kind, radiant light. People might forget what you do for work, but they’ll remember who you are.