After finishing five years of law school and living through COVID-19, I started working in a corporate law firm in 2021. My first ever job.
Entering the elusive “real world” was something I was excited about. I thought it would be a fresh start, after the tiring experience of the pandemic.
I started my job reasonably confident in my abilities. I thought I could perform well for a fresher and that I wouldn’t disappoint my team or the people I was working with. It seemed perfect.
This was a stupid expectation to have from myself.
In the first few months, I was faced with the reality of my work — a high degree of responsibility and expectations, constant pressure and my awareness about the lack of skills and experience to deal with this.
This by itself, wouldn’t have been a problem. But I saw my peers and seniors being able to deal with situations at work smoothly. People who may have joined a year or 6 months before me, managed difficult tasks really well, and from the outside it seemed like they had it all together, while I kept making blunders.
I went from being excited about work to constantly feeling scared of making any mistakes. In those first 6 months of my job, whenever I was working and I made a mistake, there was always a lingering thought, “I’m a failure, they shouldn’t have hired me”.
I had lost all confidence in my abilities and competence. It was replaced by constant doubt. It didn’t matter if I was getting work done. I often felt overwhelmed by the fear of failure and thought about “not being good enough”. It was nerve-wracking.
Over the course of conversations with friends and peers - people who started working for the first time during the pandemic, I’ve come to realise one thing - many of us start our jobs feeling incompetent. We feel inadequate, even when there might be evidence to suggest otherwise. We believe we’re impostors who will get caught soon by our colleagues.
Stories of first jobs.
When my friends across different careers started working in their first jobs, every single one of them was faced with the stark reality of just how much they didn’t know or couldn’t do. In the initial months, we had a lot more doubt in our capabilities than confidence. The transition is a daunting task, and even the tiniest thing feels stressful.
“The first time you start working, everything is stressful. The first time you do some kind of a particular task, you make tons of mistakes. The first time you speak with your colleagues, you are really worried about your impression. The first time you speak to a client, or a very senior member of your team, the interaction is filled with stress,” said Shubhang Upadhyay, about transitioning from university to his first job
The tension of being a brand new employee, a stranger to your team and an outsider to the organisation adds onto the existing burden of believing that you’re not performing well.
For Rakshith Chhajed, who started off as a management consultant — the first few weeks were a struggle. What helped him the most during that time were the simple ways in which his company provided support. They had realistic training sessions which helped set up the right expectations from him and his role immediately - it set the tone for his work.
There was a mentor he could consistently seek aid from when he wasn’t sure himself about tasks. His team built a culture where even when mistakes were made, the priority would be to first figure out how to fix them and then provide feedback in a calm and stress-free manner. No one was beating you up, when you were already down.
As a new employee, if you feel like the people you work with aren’t being supportive or are creating an environment which causes you to be afraid— that transition from being a student to an employee, becomes tougher.
At least two of the people I spoke to quit their first jobs due to the environment they were in. Despite already being in high pressure roles, they didn’t get the support from their teams and bosses. Mistakes were always associated with personal incompetence, and not as avenues to improve on.
They didn’t feel like they could talk to them. There was a lack of trust, which also meant that any legitimate concerns they had would never be addressed with empathy. The team dynamics only became a source of anxiety, fear and more doubt in their personal capabilities. They couldn’t figure out if they were improving. Feelings of inadequacy and stagnation were constant. This eventually led them to quit and search for more compatible workplaces.
‘The best way to prevent errors is to freely discuss them.’
What helped me the most in coming to terms with the way I made mistakes was not having unreasonable expectations from myself and recognizing that just because I’m ‘feeling’ incompetent, doesn’t mean I am. I couldn’t do this alone of course, I was assisted by my senior colleagues in tempering my goals and expectations.
Vivek V.S has been in the startup ecosystem for around 8 years now. He’s founded companies, and currently operates in an agri-tech startup. He works with a lot of young graduates. In his view, “younger people are generally smart these days. But in the process of only projecting confidence, they don’t ask questions or resolve doubts. This is where they start feeling overwhelmed”.
His approach to dealing with younger graduates is to be extremely clear about expectations.
“When we hire. I tell them that you are here to learn. I expect you to ask me questions and do work which you will not know the majority of the time. If you don’t ask me questions, you are failing yourself, not me.”
Sooraj Rajmohan has been an editor in a highly circulated newspaper for a few years and has had to deal with many fresh graduates coming in to write and report stories. His approach was to account for their inexperience while allocating work - always leave a little room for failure so that if things do go wrong somewhere, there is enough time to fix things.
No one is shouted at just because they made a mistake. The focus of feedback is always to figure out what issues the newer team members are facing, and see ways in which they can solve them.
When a mistake is made, all of us already feel terrible. We know we’ve messed up. The scary part is acknowledging the mistake, because there’s always an irrational fear of extreme negative consequences. In those moments, I don’t want to feel more anxious.
An environment which creates a culture of safety and trust is more likely to help a young graduate deal with mistakes and self doubt.
As Adam Grant notes:
“Blaming and shaming doesn't stop people from making mistakes. It stops them from admitting mistakes. If people can't share their blunders, they can't learn from them—and neither can the rest of us. The best way to prevent errors is to make it safe for people to discuss them.”
If in doubt, ask.
Data from LinkedIn suggests that people in the ages of 18-25 are the least confident in their jobs as compared to any other generation. ‘Gen Z’ are the most stressed out about their jobs. It is clear that the pressure to succeed in our new roles can be intense. We want to prove we’re worthy and that we’re capable of performing really well, but at the same time we deal with crippling doubt.
In my own limited personal experience working, and the many conversations I’ve had there are two things which I have constantly observed.
- The first, is that in order to get past this hurdle of self-doubt, ‘I can’t avoid work’. You can’t run away from it no matter how scared you are. To paraphrase Ira Glass, we need to get through a volume of work, and make a ton of mistakes in order to close the gap between what we aspire to do, and what we’re currently capable of.
- The other is even simpler but something that bears repeating- don’t hesitate to reach out for help.
My biggest struggle as a new employee was the willingness to reach out for help. If I asked for help or guidance, it meant that I am incompetent at my job. This approach is ineffective.
It was only by reaching out for help and having honest conversations about the mistakes I was making that I could improve and feel more comfortable in my own skin at work. I had to be intentional about expressing my concerns to the people I was working with. Being open with communication helps build the support around you.
Building confidence in yourself as a professional takes time and the transition from being a young naive student, to a working adult will be difficult but we’re not alone in that journey. Dealing with self-doubt will always be a work in progress, but there are people around, who you can always rely on and I think we tend to forget that.