January 25, 2015
"Every time I talk to someone about starting my career or being in my twenties everyone says, 'Your twenties are pretty terrible. I don't know if anyone's ever told you that before but your twenties are a hard time.'" - April Laissle
"What I've noticed in terms of getting your first job...is that no one wants to train people...they want someone else to have done that. They want the polished version, ready for work." - Ade Okeowo
For some the twenties are a fun, relatively carefree time (who are these people?), but for many women this decade is stressful. They're trying to work out how they fit into the workplace, whether they're even in the right career, and how to communicate with older colleagues. The world is far more competitive than it was 20-plus years ago when I started working. But that's not the only thing that's different about the old me and today's twenty-somethings.
I did this show because a listener in London, Ade Okeowo, asked me to. She and Broad Experience intern April Laissle are my two main guests. One is several years into a career, the other is on the cusp of hers. Each has plenty to say.
We also hear from Dr. Meg Jay, psychologist and author of The Defining Decade. Her TED talk on not wasting your twenties has been viewed almost seven million times. She will feature heavily in my second show on life in the twenties. That will come out in February.
Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.
This time on the show…life for women at work in their twenties. Some call it the Defining Decade, others wonder if they’ll get through it.
“Every time that I talk to someone about starting my career or being in my twenties everyone says, ‘Your twenties are pretty terrible. But that’s just…you want to do everything you can to not make your twenties terrible.”
Coming up, the first of two shows devoted to the twenties. This time: a conversation with two young women on different continents, one on the cusp of entering the workplace, the other several years into a career. And a little expert advice on how to navigate the exasperating aspects of dealing with us…older people.
Meet my first guest.
“My name is April Laissle. I am an intern at The Broad Experience and I’m also a student at Ohio University.”
Compared to me at 21, April is a miracle of engineering. She’s mature, she has good ideas, she’s hardworking and she knows what she wants to do. She wants to be a radio journalist, and she has done for a while. Even while she’s at college she’s working part-time as a host and reporter at the local public radio station.
AM-T: “What are your thoughts and concerns as you think about the start of your career, other than obviously landing a job in journalism?”
“Well there’s a lot, actually. The biggest one right now is I’m kind of afraid of not doing well. But I’ve been told by so many people that to do well eventually you have to be terrible in the beginning, and that’s sort of a scary concept because I want to be the best I can at everything, but I understand I don’t have the experience to be where I want to be at.”
“That’s so interesting. And I’m trying to remember if I felt like that…I probably didn’t but then I wasn’t starting out in this competitive job world and I wasn’t taking my career so seriously when I was 21, which is one of the major differences between…
“The problem is that you go through college and when you’re a senior you’re supposed to be at your peak, teaching other kids, but at the end you’re at the bottom again and it’s even worse because in my job I’m the youngest one here, and I don’t expect to be older than anyone else when I start, so I’m competing with people who have a lot more experience so I’m automatically going to be the worst, and that is a scary idea.”
And that fear is exacerbated by one looming fact…
“What I think about a lot is at 21, just as a woman, I don’t have a lot of self- confidence. I have enough but I’m still not totally there. I think just because I’m not that confident I’m prone to falling into those issues we talk about so much. I’m more prone to impostor syndrome, constantly comparing myself to other people, I don’t advocate for myself because I’m not confident in my skills yet.”
Which is pretty normal. In fact if you ask me the majority of grown women still don’t have enough confidence in their abilities. It’s part of the reason I started this podcast. I knew April had a boyfriend at college and I couldn’t resist asking…does he share these career concerns?
“No actually, that’s what’s so funny – he’s always been extremely confident. When we were searching for internships I’m freaking out that I’m not going to get anything, and he’s thinking how am I going to choose? Which one am I going to choose? Obviously I’m going to get multiple, which criteria am I going to base my decision on? That’s just never anything I’d think about, you know?”
I do know. I’m 44 and I still don’t think that way. And as the two of them applied for internships at exactly the same time and at the same radio stations…
“I was really freaking out about it. It was really something that was becoming a conflict in the rest of my life. I couldn’t concentrate on anything else. And he was just totally fine, everything is OK, I’m sure everything is going to work out. I was so jealous of him. Because I could never think that way. And it did work out. It worked out for both of us. But I still wasn’t confident even upon getting – I applied for 10 internships, I was interviewed for 6, and I actually rejected two of the offers. And for some reason I just couldn’t get past the fact I was rejected for four. You always focus on the negative stuff.”
And she says even when they got their internships – she in San Francisco, he in Boston – she succumbed to a typical female trap, and he – he just got on with it.
“I was so concerned with making sure my bosses liked me and I think that really affected the way I was working. I was more concerned if I was doing well than just getting the job done. And my boyfriend just knew he was doing OK, if he wasn’t meeting their expectations he would eventually. His attitude is always, alright, this story didn’t go well, but maybe the next one will, and as long as I make a good impression by the end of this I’ll do OK. For some reason I just haven’t gotten there yet.”
My next guess doesn’t lack confidence. She’s five years older than April, at 26. And she lives and works in London. We spoke on Skype.
“My name is Ade. I work in digital marketing for a financial services company.”
Ade actually got in touch with me back in November to ask if I’d do a show on women in their twenties and some of the pitfalls they face. When we spoke I said, well what do you mean? And she said there’s all this stuff you just can’t learn about at school or even on an internship. Stuff about what office life is really like. The politics. The personalities you have to deal with. She’s had a particular struggle with communication – she says that can be a minefield for someone her age trying to communicate with someone…my age. I asked her to give me an example.
“A colleague of mine, a manager, went on paternity leave. I [ended up being] the digital team itself. I was dealing with a lot. I was dealing with a separate colleague, he had never interacted with me before. He was being quite cutthroat. There was a specific issue and he was wrong about the issue. However, every time I started explaining why he was wrong he kept on interrupting me. I didn’t have to time to explain this in a roundabout, nice way. I just wanted to say look, you’re wrong…can we move on? Not the best way…in the end the head of the department who was also a woman, she knew about this, she wrote an email to him sort of saying exactly what I was saying but in a way that was very…I don’t want to say appealed to his ego but was very softly said. You know when you say in a roundabout way but you don’t just say what the issue is? So I think sometimes there’s different ways of communicating what I want to say. Not everyone’s on the same wavelength of go, go, go. She got a positive response from that – and then everyone was like, hmm, maybe we should change the process, which is exactly what I was trying to say! So maybe it was the way I was saying it. But I was busy and just didn’t have time to do it in that roundabout way.”
OK – but if the head of department had the time to write that email that actually achieved results…The fact is Ade thinks it’s silly to spend time on such a thing as a roundabout communication because she’s not used to doing it – no one in her age group is.
“If you send a text you just get to the point, or if you’re on social media or there’s 140 characters you just get to the point of things. That’s another thing that I learned also, starting, I’m sure everyone will be laughing, in terms of when you pick up the phone rather than just being oh hi, yeah, you’ve got to do a whole thing of hi, how are you, how was your weekend? There’s a whole dance you have to do before you just get to the point.”
And how aggravating that is. Ade says on the one hand, she’s learning lessons, on the other, the necessity of doing this so-called dance? It drives her mad. I asked April about this too, and I told her about Ade’s experience.
“I’ve thought about this a lot. I think that millennials speak – it almost feels like we speak a different language than older generations. And that’s what really scares me about entering the workforce. When I was interning I used to struggle over composing emails, because I was afraid there’d be a disconnect. I noticed talking to my bosses maybe I wasn’t communicating in a way that was appropriate for the workplace. And it goes beyond understanding business etiquette.
I think that we’ve come up with a shorthand for communicating with eachother that works really well for us, but there’s a barrier there that we can’t quite reach yet. Like if that had happened to me I probably would have spent a long time composing an email. I think the problem is – maybe it comes down to email. We’re not used to emailing a lot. And I feel like that’s just the way you communicate in the business world, you send these longer emails. And I think with a lot of my friends we’re so used to talking to someone face to face, and it’s so much easier to communicate that way, you get things done so much quicker, that writing emails is just…ugh…it’s too much, and too much can get lost in translation.”
But if she’d been in Ade’s shoes she would have written that longer email to try to get the result she wanted. So I asked her, would that be fine or would it annoy her?
“Oh no, no, no – it very much annoys me – the fact I have to speak in a different way and be someone that’s really not myself, that worries me a lot. One reason I wanted to go into journalism was it’s sort of a non-traditional work environment – I thought I was getting beyond the corporate world. But it’s the real world, and you have to communicate in a way that’s not natural to you. At least that’s the way I’m perceiving it now.”
But maybe that perception will change. Dr. Meg Jay is a psychologist who specializes in adult development. She’s also the author of a book called The Defining Decade – Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of them Now. You’ll be hearing much more from her in the next show, but for now, I wanted her to weigh in on this communication question.
“When you’re young, there’s that sense that any compromise, that you’re being kind of a sell-out, that let’s just call a spade a spade, this guy is a jerk, he’s interrupting me and he needs to stop. And that that feels very authentic and direct and real and not playing the game, and that’s just the way it ought to be. And and that or may or may not be true. But I think it is – I’m from the south, you might have noticed from my accent – but I think it is true that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. And I do feel like rather than thinking of it as you’re being a sell-out or you’re being inauthentic, to think of it as there usually is a nice way or a graceful, gracious way to handle everything, and that really pays off for everybody. And it’s not just about playing the game, it’s really about personal development, and if you want to get through to another person they’re more likely to listen to you if you handle it nicely, but that’s really truly more productive, and that’s part of being successful I think.”
I agree. But what about what Ade said – that she just didn’t have time for these tedious workplace practices?
“I do think when you’ve been used to, most young people have talked mostly to other young people for their lives, that it takes a different sort of communication, because people who are different from you in terms of their perspective or age or experience level or background, they don’t necessary understand where you’re coming from. And so there’s a lot of twenty-somethings who are used to talking to people who already understand where they’re coming from. They already give them the benefit of the doubt and they’ve had experience of, well this person is a good person, they’re thoughtful, so if they kind of cut to the chase with me today I can put it in context. And I don’t think you can make those kinds of assumptions with people that you work with. They’re likely different, and so it can take a more complete and thoughtful communication and even if that does seem like something you don’t have time for, it still may be necessary.”
What’s so interesting to me about hearing Ade and April describe the hassle of communicating this way – is that I’d never have thought of communicating any other way than this roundabout but tactful route. Now I don’t know if that’s down to my personality, being raised in a more formal era where you didn’t even have email when you began your work life, communication skills – I’m not sure. One thing
I definitely did not have to contend with 20-plus years ago was the level of competition these young women are up against.
I told Ade when I left college I had no idea what I wanted to do. I worked, but the jobs didn’t mean much to me for years. I knew I wasn’t doing anything I really cared about until I got into journalism at 30. But frankly after being churned through the rigorous British education system for 16 years years I was tired when I graduated from university. I didn’t really want a heavy job. I wanted to be paid, work with people I liked and enjoy my spare time. I was not ambitious. I was conscious that some of my friends were already on a career ladder and I remember being envious of them and slightly panicked that they knew what they wanted to do, and I didn’t. They were real adults and maybe I wasn’t. But unlike Ade, I didn’t have social media to make me feel even worse.
“You just know more about everyone’s lives, so it’s kind of, it’s very much like, oh, they’ve just got a job, how have they get a job, why haven’t I got a job? I went through a period of typical quarter life crisis thing of feeling I was in competition with everyone and I wasn’t winning, I guess, I didn’t really have a focus.
I hope this doesn’t come across as offensive or anything, but I don’t think it’s possible to have that attitude nowadays. In terms of, to have your 20s to be a bit more free, I guess. I’m …I am kind of drilling it into my younger brother at the moment. He’s in his final year of university, and I’m just, like, have you got an internship? What are you going to do?”
And that matters, she says. Because in London she and her brother aren’t just up against other Brits for jobs – they’re up against competition from all over the EU and the world. And she says you’d better be ready for that environment.
“What I’ve also noticed that in terms of getting your first job, I’ve had a job for a while, but…no one wants to train people. It seems that when you were finding your way people took a chance on you. But I think these days, if you don’t have an internship, if you haven’t worked in something before, if you haven’t written a blog, if you haven’t done something at university, people will rarely look at your CV, will rarely give you a chance. No one wants to train, they want someone else to have done that. They want the polished version ready for work.”
And if you’re not the polished version, you may not land a job in the first place. That’s a lot of pressure. But women have another type of pressure to deal with too. April says at her college, her female friends are already thinking ahead to the aisle…and the nursery…
“Everyone is concerned with the work/life balance thing even now. And when I was reading Lean In she kept saying things like, ‘I regret planning for a family I didn’t even have yet.’ And I feel like that’s a trap a lot of us fall into.
Because many people are in longish-term relationships with fellow students…
“We’re at this point now where you have to make a decision whether to abandon this relationship you’ve been in for 2 years, or make your career choices around a relationship at 21. I see lots of friends doing that. Actually I think that also comes back to confidence. We’re afraid to be alone and to make decisions for ourselves without having someone to cheer us on, and I think that can lead us to make bad decisions.
“It’s hard, because I’m at a point right now where I’m applying for jobs everywhere and I don’t know people in any of these cities. And I know that’s not unique that you are starting fresh without knowing anyone. But when you have the option to have someone on your team, starting out, maybe that’s what gives you the boost of confidence you need to succeed in the job. That’s one of the arguments I’ve heard, at least.”
She says the way it works with a lot of couples she knows is that they have a deal: whoever lands a job first, the other one will travel with them to that city. But she says with heterosexual couples the vast majority of the time the guy gets the job first…so the women end up following along. And they get a job eventually, but often it’s just a job in that city where their boyfriend is, not a job they really want.
Ade says in her job in London she can be made aware of her gender from time to time. She says the language some people at her office use for women can be quite demeaning.
She was working with this older guy recently – by older I mean late 40s…
“What happened was I was working and I had to then go off with someone to talk about something. And the guy at the time who was older was like, oh, can’t you just get one of your girls to do it for you?”
Ade was not going to take that one lying down…
“And I was like, excuse me, like, one of the girls, one of my girls, what do you mean? First of all, we all do a specific role, people don’t just…you know, our work is valuable, it’s just trying to dismiss what I do. And second of all, we have names, we’re not just the girls. And I mean, he took it well. He hasn’t said it again, so…”
But April still has a lot of questions about the future. After all her career hasn’t really begun. She’s heard some discouraging things about this decade.
“Every time that I talk to someone about starting my career or being in my twenties everyone says, ‘Your twenties are pretty terrible. I don’t know if anyone’s told you this before but your twenties are a hard time.’ But that’s just…you want to do everything you can to not make your twenties terrible.”
And that’s what we’ll be discussing next week – including how to lose some of the anxiety Meg Jay sees in young clients all the time…
“…that they’re going to make a mistake, that their boss is going to yell at them, that they’re going to be fired for any little thing. You would be stunned by how many hours a week I spend talking to young women workers about that – very competent, capable smart people…who really feel overwhelmed by the idea they’re going to get something wrong and that’s going to be the end.”
And looking back at our twenties with some perspective…
“We can constantly re-invent ourselves if that’s what we choose to do. I know that I felt pressure to make all of the right moves in my twenties, but as I’ve grown older I’ve learned I’m happiest and most fulfilled when I listen to and trust my inner voice.”
That’s next time on the show.
This episode of The Broad Experience has been supported by Mailchimp – I use Mailchimp to produce the Broad Experience newsletter which you are most welcome to sign up on the homepage – and I’m very glad to have them on board.
Also if you’re in the US and you work in a creative industry you should know about Lady Boss – it’s a new initiative to help women in these industries crack the glass ceiling. I met the founder Tracy Candido recently because we were sharing a workspace. Now so far the events they’ve held have all been here in New York but if you are in the creative sphere check it out because it’s more than just events. It’s Lady dash Boss dot net.
Thanks again to April Laissle for helping with the production of this show and for taking part.
I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.