I was not just a good student growing up. I was eager, hard-working, and deliberative. And in school, college, and the great majority of graduate school, this will get you the dividends you seek. Whether it was the good grade, the note of praise in the margins, or the opportunities presented by excellent performance, all of those proved to be exceptional motivators and expected outcomes. But what happens when your performance leaves the page margins blank? When the path to earning a gold star is no longer clear?
In my first full-time position I worked for one of the best. My supervisor was a role model to me in every sense of the word, excitedly brought me into my position, rewarded my performance, follow-through, and creativity with more opportunities. The vision and expectations were always clear. So in turn, I knew what to bring each day. Deliver results. Gold star given. Rinse. Repeat. I will be clear: with a great supervisor it should be like that. Someone who sees your talent, opens doors of opportunity to strengthen those talents, and helps you leverage your role to be fulfilled professionally and fulfill the needs of the department is how an employee should have it. The attitude of the department and institution was one of continual excellence. This created an exciting and fulfilling environment; there was always something to create, to discuss, to deliver. However, this post is not about great supervisors or how to create excellent work environments. This is about what happens in the transition from that amazing employer. This is about your past experiences that inform your present lens. This is about what is in your control: your perspective.
After changing positions and institutions to seek out new challenges (oh, the irony), I found the need to develop a type of professional resilience that I had not been accustomed. I work in a department that is old in terms of years of existence but young in terms of student affairs practice. Methods of doing things that I held as standard operating procedure were quickly brought to light as not the unique way that was preferred by professionals around me. There was a level of unpredictability coupled with a lack of understanding of the institutional environment. This was not a plug and play situation. This was not one where my eagerness and work ethic would deliver the feel-good results that fed my form of professional go-go juice. This was one of self-reliance. Could I learn what to give myself to find the results to deliver? In the beginning, I was not certain this could happen.
My first few months, I felt lost. My position was not clear. The department and division were complex and challenging to navigate without finding land mines seemingly with even the slightest misstep. I became consumed and anxious by what I did not know how to anticipate. I had always felt confident in my approach, sure of the right way to go about a task, certain about how to secure positive results. I brought those feelings home and it seeped into many aspects of my life. It did not take long for an anxiety-driven, negative experience to sour my outlook on everything. This was not me. To go from absolute joy toward my work to skittishness about each approaching day was not how I had ever felt toward a job. For the sake of my relationships, my ability to perform at work, and my own mental health, something needed to change.
I began to hit a tailspin, a whirlwind of frustration seen at every turn, focused on looking back with sadness and looking forward with anxiety, feeling inadequate and unworthy, seeing no wins anywhere, where then I realized I had lost sight of it: perspective. Something needed to give and I could not control an environment decades entrenched in history, decisions, practices, and personnel. I had the realization that I was not hired to repeat the high impact practices of my previous employer. I was there to serve the needs of the present community in their present place in time. Student Affairs Graduate Program 101 is meet student where they are; the same can be said for service to an institution. You have to meet the needs in their current state and level of preparedness for change. One must learn to adapt so you can see what’s in the present in a healthy way and take your next steps with deliberation and context.
It is important to remember that your individual work can feel highly personal but you are talking about an institution – a non-living, breathing entity bigger than any one professional. It can be difficult to take the step forward to share your story or find the support you need but there are steps I took to navigate a challenging environment that may help you if you are feeling isolated, unsure, or on unsteady professional ground:
- Open up. It’s difficult at first to share your story, but there are people in your life who want to know so they can support you. In my situation, I clammed up in an effort of perceived strength and continue to cram my square peg of a self into a round hole of a situation. I remember when speaking with a dear friend that she heard the tears in my voice. When I finally released what I had been feeling and shared how hard the transition had been, I found an incredible amount of support. I could not get to a healthy place with my professional practice if I could not be honest with my experience.
- Find allies. These could be professionals you find anywhere in your university community. They are others whether by virtue of similar graduate programs, shared interests, or just openness can provide support, trouble-shooting, and their own experiences. Cultivate this network, reach out when in need of support, and give back to help fulfill their needs as well. Once I found one person through a graduate school connection it opened up the flood gates to others who had been in similar situations.
- Understand the department values. In our search process we talk a lot about seeing what is valued, often demonstrated through where the budget is aligned, how time is allocated, and where personnel are involved. Important and relevant. Once I came to see this chain in my department there was a lot of clarity. And it took time to learn this. Be patient with yourself – it can take time and not be nearly as simple as budget lines and who is at what events to make meaning of these values. Listen to the stories colleagues tell you. Watch for the path a decision follows before it is implemented. Both of these will help you create an understanding of who sets the course. This information will help you make sense of things that can aid your perspective.
- Take a step back. When you feel a personal investment in your work it can be hard when the fit is feeling difficult. I found this was happening because I wanted to be at the same level of satisfaction and knowledge that I had at my previous institution, prematurely. I desire to feel invested and I was desperately seeking a place to hold on to in my new position. What could I connect with? Where could I make a difference in my corner of the world? What gives my work meaning? Consider steps you can take to view the environment from 10,000 feet. I utilize resources such as Harvard Business Review, Fast Company magazine, blogs such as this and askamanager.com to assist me in maintaining a way to view and evaluate my present experience against resources aside from my own experience.
- Take your own steps forward. As I let go of what I cannot change, I find I can focus more on what I can. Your professional affiliation and associations can be a huge help in allowing you to make your way on projects that are both personally and professionally fulfilling. Think about the article you want to write, the professional you want to learn more from, the assessment experience you want to gain. When you are experiencing a low in your work environment, a high in your professional involvement may help give you the personal morale boost you need. I found writing articles and connecting with other professionals on social media both helped me tremendously in experiencing an accomplishment that was fulfilling and assisted in my current position.
When we strive in a similar way to our student selves to reach the top grades and gold stars, it can reinforce an attitude of there being a right way, an ideal method, or a perfect performance. It can make us feel formulaic and institutional work environments are far more complex than that. We owe it to ourselves to be open to rewards greater than the ones we are limited to seeking by a narrow viewpoint. There is excellence to be found in the striving, learning, and enduring. The place where you are in the present is but one piece of your story. Stepping back to envision the timeline of your career, both what is known from your past and unknown in your future, can allow more room to have the present experience free of any preconceived notions of grades or stars. You can earn something every day with a slight change in perspective.