Last year, someone offered me not an unreasonable sum of money to talk to a bunch of graduate and postgraduate students about navigating early careers successfully.
I was surprised at having received the offer out of the blue and asked them how they thought I could contribute to which they replied saying, “You are an early career influencer. We genuinely believe you can help a lot of people out.”
I was equal parts flattered and confused. What does an early career professional even mean?
Isn’t a ‘career’ a somewhat similar passage of time till you retire, focusing on linearly climbing a series of steps till you keep becoming a bigger boss with a bigger paycheck?
Aren’t we all first freshers then bosses then bigger bosses?
Quite like the food chain where the bigger fish eat the smaller fish?
Where every promotion adds a layer where the smaller fish works less and pfaffs more in meetings?
This assumption is all wrong. First, let me give you a context of my career so far and then walk you through what does being an early career professional today even mean.
Over the last year, I have grappled with and proved my own assumptions wrong so when people tell me today that because I am twenty-five years old or two years into work post a management diploma - I am a suitable role model for doling out advice on early careers, I politely disagree.
I have been working since I was sixteen across a bunch of sectors, freelancing, interning, taking up projects, travelling, following up for payments, running my own gig. By the time I was 20 and employed in the corporate world, I was again being treated as a newbie because I had moved into a role slightly big for my boots. I was asked to be a Product Manager for a product that only saw portfolio/operational roles up till that time. Was it great learning ?
Hell yes. For one I did not know how to use excel or make dashboards or write business requisition documents for enabling new features.
By age twenty-two when I left, I knew how to use excel without a mouse, made dashboards for my business lines that somebody in the analytics/corporate team collated into a dashboard for Reserve Bank of India’s website, had launched one new product (contactless terminals for payments), one feature upscaling (enablement of Discover cards for payments), revived a dead product for portfolio width (withdrawing cash against a point of sale machine or a mini ATM) and most importantly circumvented a lot of bureaucracy to enable small merchants to ditch business documentation that allowed them to avail our products with just an Aadhar Card (there used to be reams of documentation earlier). The last had hit our topline with the speed that coronavirus has spread across the world today.
So now when at twenty-five, people equate me to an early career professional, I quite wince.
Because since I stopped working in an individual contributor role as a product manager in banking, I did do some brand marketing at a large retail company but even more importantly, did freelance projects in publishing, social media listening, IT, HORECA, education, content writing, media, SEO, digital marketing and event management.
So, no I am not an early career professional but being a somewhat mid-career (three roles across three industries as of now and 9 years of freelancing) professional at the demographic age of an early career professional helps to provide a perspective that few things do.
I don’t talk to freshly minted or people with 3 years of work-ex with either the holier-than-thou perspective that people in their 30’s and 40’s use but I am also not convinced on the rosiness of career paths that a lot of younger people take for granted.
Now that we have got the context out of the way. Who is an early career professional?
I like to think of them as graduates or postgraduates with 3-5 years of work experience depending on their sector.
Here is why in today’s time - knowing how to manage an early career path is important.
We are more expensively and diversely educated than before:
I would not say we are better educated than before but quite diverse in our exposure. Irrespective of if you come from a small-time college or a top three institution in your field of study - you have seen an internship, articleship, live project. When I was hired on campus after my undergrad with 13 other top undergrads - we cleared strenuous aptitude tests, psychometrics, multiple interview rounds and background verifications. If you were expected to make the same mandatory for an average employee in your office, they’d fail.
The point is not that they should be expected to pass. The point is that younger employees are already quite evolved. If I could tell you the number of people who are CAs, CFAs and whatnots - I would exhaust a lot of time and still not make it.
Younger (privileged) people have a lot of knowledge about what work is like, how they want to navigate everyday work life and how much skin they have in the game.
So freshers and not-freshers with MBAs, Masters, professionals like accountants, architects, dentists, lawyers and what-not were not born yesterday.
They are actually not bacchas. They are extremely savvy and put a lot of effort in bringing the kind of skills that modern companies demand (one of the reasons for the influx of IITians in every data science team across industries).
Further, an ‘expensive’ education burdened with student debt makes this worse
There is a wide gap in what young people think works and what actually works
A lot of young people are obsessed with the idea of meritocracy, learning as much as possible in as little as time as possible and burning out. A week does not go by without people complaining to me about their bosses, about their work culture, about terrible processes, about commutes, hours, everything.
If young people know their financial modelling, R and 4P’s so well then what is stopping them from getting these things to work?
The answer to that is simple. There is a gap in expectations and reality. There is a gap in aptitude and attitude and there is a massive gap in what people think works versus what actually works.
I know a B.Com graduate who struggled with a role in internal audit where he got placed as a graduate trainee. He only wanted to do a CFA and not a CA and held onto hopes that he would miraculously be moved to a treasury/risk role when he would finish his CFA.
He did not ask HR what he should do. He did not align his manager, afraid he would be chucked or sidelined.
In the end - those roles had a minimum requirement of an MBA finance from a top B school. His consistently high ratings made him an asset to the internal audit team (he worked insanely hard just to ensure that he would meet the minimum criteria for an internal transfer).
CFA in tow, he was rejected by the internal hiring committee. Pissed off his manager for being dishonest who then did actually sideline him till he stopped sensing purpose at work and finally went to a smaller organization in comparison in their internal audit team at a hike.
Put like this - you would say that he should have studied for an MBA or made his wish known to someone who could be an influencer, or networked with the treasury team.
But in our daily lives, we are very reactive and hardly proactive.
Biases and bad advisors around us make it worse.
Work is not your only early-career challenge
I love the myth of the mega-productive single person who requires no work-life balance.
Companies irrespective of size, type, an industry think that it is in their best interest to squeeze out interns, freshers, and younger people at work.
If only most middle and senior management career staff delved into the lives of a typical new joinee from a campus or walk-in interview, they will realize how precarious the mental balance of a lot of young people is.
This is worsened by living with flatmates in tiny apartments in expensive cities, not having enough time to exercise or practise hobbies or relying heavily on partying as a way to let go off steam.
I know everyone from consultants to bankers to engineers to marketers to accountants to designers who are on the verge of burnout or positively hate their jobs. It’s not that the job is terrible but simply, that in your 20’s perhaps having lived cocooned at home or campus, does not prepare you for the unsettling reality of having to always make decisions for yourselves.
So then how does one deal with early career challenges and curve balls?
I like to think of it this way:
Whatever you do today builds a base for what you will be doing in the future. Also because you are new to everything you learn and assimilate everything faster. You also resent it a lot more.
Think of an infant - who is going to discover the wonders of eating, talking, laughing, walking but also will end up crying a lot more about what is not even disproportionately painful - just because they are not acclimatized to reality.
Early careers is infancy and terrible two’s and three’s. It is only till (sometime later) in your life you will realize that it was not as awful as you thought it to be!
Thank you for reading the background of what makes navigating the first few years of your career so difficult.