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Career Lapses: Raw Talent, You, and Reality

A young graduate told me she was feeling like a failure in her first job after college. Her job lacked formal training, leadership, and guidance. Although she was trying to work through it by asking various people for help and working overtime, she felt exhausted and unsuccessful.

I asked her what this experience taught her professionally and personally. Was she going to continue the cycle, hoping it would improve? Or, would she take her talent elsewhere? She didn’t have many answers, because she was struggling between the realities of her job versus the concept of it. 

“The Paper versus Reality” conundrum is where we can find many life challenges and lessons. Whether it’s a job, relationship, marriage, business deal or whatever else that fit in the people, place, or thing categories in our lives … sometimes, it just sounds better on paper: 

  • A friend volunteered as a safety leader on her job’s safety team. Her responsibility included keeping a clipboard with employees’ names for a headcount in an event of an emergency. Recently, when the DC area had an earthquake, her immediate reaction was to run from the building as fast as she could. After catching her breath, she remembered she was on the safety team and realized she had no clip, no board, no head, and no count. She also concluded that being a safety leader might not be the right match for her.
  • Another friend told me about a time he took a one-time security job at a concert. At one point, the crowd started yelling, “gun! gun!” and not only did he start running with the crowd, but he also eventually outran them. He said becoming a hero, with a flashlight as his only weapon, did not sound like the best way to secure his future. 

Sometimes, reality can show us a version of our intentions that is less appealing but very revealing. My friends said that there are times when you find out that some things aren’t for you, so you move on or, in their cases, run on. However, we can’t always run from our professional or personal situations, yet we shouldn’t stay in a situation either if it is hindering us, or our employers, from success. 

I explained this to the young grad by telling her that, at times, your first job is like the leadoff hitter in a batting order. The leadoff hitter’s goal is to get on base so the next batter(s) can advance him to score. He can get on base a few ways: by getting a hit, drawing a walk, or getting hit by a pitch. Getting a hit is ideal, drawing a walk is less exciting, and being hit by a pitch is unexpected and painful, but in the end, it gets him on base. 

Acquiring work experience is like getting on base—sometimes you will get a hit, and sometimes you feel like a pitch hit you. Because, unlike the leadoff hitter, you may not have a coworker(s) whose goal is to advance you to your next level. Some work environments will nurture your talents, and some will drain it, leaving you feeling bitter. Sometimes, you have to push through to get the experience you need for your next level or until you find a better opportunity. It’s a gamble, which is part of the highs and lows in the workplace journey. 

As Kenny Rogers says in “The Gambler,” the key to surviving is “knowing when to hold them, when to fold them, when to walk away and when to run.” Only you can decide when to stick it out or exit gracefully by learning the difference between failing and failure. One way you can tell the difference is while you are sticking it out, whether or not the situation is creating a favorable or unfavorable version of yourself. Before, during, or after your workday, are you complaining? Are you bitter? Are you at peace? Or, are you just feeling upbeat versus beat down? 

At some point, whether it is personal or professional, we deal with the gap between what sounded good on paper versus reality … and then decide how to handle it the best way we can. 

I don’t know if I am a lesser person for knowing my two friends or a more enlightened one. Part of me believes they were shameless, but another part understands the power of knowing your limits when a reality check bounces.