There's no time better to contemplate what it means to be a professional than when you are unemployed. I would know. This time last year, I landed a 9-5 office job and started tackling not only the daily duties in my job description, but the much larger, and (I would venture) ultimately much more important task of learning how to be a young professional. Thirteen months later, that employer and I parted ways, but I think I have a better idea of who I am and how that relates to the rather nebulous idea of professionalism.
In high school and college, I never envisioned myself as that quintessential 21st-century career woman you see splashed around on the media, trotting from the office to the martini bar to the downtown loft in shoes that cost more than that month's rent. I also discovered that working a salaried job didn't turn me into that person, either. That didn't stop me from trying, at first. I felt the need to prove I could succeed at being an adult and having a career.
Everywhere I looked, it seemed like others must have gotten a memo I didn't—one that includes tips about networking, maintaining a salon blowout and how to snag a full work wardrobe from Nordstrom's. At least that's what all the 30-something career women I encountered seemed to have been filled in on. After all, they'd been doing this for a decade longer than me! Whatever they knew, it worked for them! They'd made it! What was I to do with a closet full of Cure T-shirts and out-of-date jeans? Step one in my quest to be a professional was update the wardrobe.
Step two was to try to transition my social life away from late-night parties, from drinking beer in people's basements to sipping early-evening cocktails at bars with atmosphere. This was motivated mainly by the sting of a few encounters with Tuesday-morning hangovers the summer after graduation. Doing shots at 2 a.m. when you have to be at work at 8 a.m. quickly proves unsustainable. All too often, so is maintaining any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise, with someone living on the opposite shift schedule. I spent the first half of 2010 dating a guy who was still living the college lifestyle while I was working normal business hours. The second half of 2010 I dated a guy with a cubicle job while I was closing down late at Books-A-Million. Neither romance went well, and I partly blame the conflicting schedules. It took two years for my social life to straighten out after college as I met people who were going through the same transitions I was and whose lives and interests were in a compatible place with mine.
Step three to becoming a professional was actually learning how to behave, well, professionally. After the self-direction and freedom of college, I was unprepared for how similar office work can be to high school. I had to play catch up on lessons most people learn as teenagers, about power plays, social politics, alliances and gossip. I found out the hard way that an escaped parrot is an insufficient excuse for being late to a morning meeting and that I always needed to always bring a diabetic option to office birthday parties. There was also much to discover completely unique to the workplace. Getting along in an office is about anticipating other people's needs, sometimes taking the heat, and knowing when volunteering is helpful and when it creates more work for someone else. It's about making an effort every day.
I don't think I've got this all figured out after the past year. I still wonder if people who go into corporate niche jobs, like executive coaching or HR, laid awake at night during their youth dreaming of performance reviews and paperwork for sexual harassment claims. Some of my best friends still work late nights, closing down dive bars and pizza joints, and I've never bought a pair of shoes that costs more than the night out on the town I'll wear them to. Martinis are a treat, and to afford to live downtown, I had to take a place where my car gets broken into every week. In my limited experience, however, this is completely normal for 20-somethings trying to start their careers.
Being a professional isn't just putting on a suit and filling a Blackberry with appointments. It's not even about a lifestyle shaped by a certain schedule and a little disposable income. It's about the same thing as any other stage of life—exploring yourself and your values, learning how to get along with others and improvising until you get to a place you feel comfortable. It's about conducting yourself with integrity and confidence that you can do things others can't: that in your niche, you're the best, or have the potential to become the best with hard work and enthusiasm. I've met cashiers and dishwashers with greater professionalism than some executives sporting Rolexes because they know that professionalism is doing the right thing and giving your all. It's a little bit of ambition and a lot of heart. Don't stress. Just remember this and you'll go far, no matter what field your career is in.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.