We're approaching that time of year when new college graduates look to join the workforce for the first time. Yet even for those who quickly land jobs, transitioning from college to career isn't always easy.
Just ask Jenny Blake, who jumped into the real world earlier than she expected when she took a leave of absence from UCLA in 2004 to help launch a start-up company. (She returned the following year to complete her degree.) She now works as a career coach at Google, writes a popular blog called Life After College, and recently published a book by the same name.
U.S. News talked with Blake about challenges new graduates face, searching for the elusive work-life balance, and why it makes sense to think of your career like a smartphone rather than a ladder. Excerpts:
Your book's title is Life After College: The Complete Guide to Getting What You Want. But what about college graduates who don't know what they want? How should they go about figuring that out?
I found the most helpful thing was giving myself an opportunity to answer some of life's biggest questions and actually say, What do I want? What's important to me? What are my values? What activities light me up? What do I find exciting? ... Even if it's a little foggy at first, just by starting that process and putting something down on paper, I find that people start to make a lot of progress.
Start taking baby steps. I think a lot of times, [people] hold back from doing something that interests them because they're thinking about it in terms of all or nothing. I either have to go all out, quit my job, go become a full-time life coach—or nothing, just stay doing what I'm doing. For me, I was able to do both. Keeping my day job, start pursuing coach training, and blogging on the side. And it's really exciting to see the evolution of those things over time.
Sometimes new graduates feel pressure to prove themselves in the workplace. How can they make themselves—as you write in the book—indispensable?
Jump in wherever you're needed, and be proactive. The people who are most indispensable, in my mind, are the ones who are jumping at every opportunity to help ... and looking for where they're uniquely skilled. No matter what role someone's in, say you have a hidden talent for organization or Excel spreadsheets or Web design or social media. In most jobs there is an opportunity to pitch in and help in those areas—it's just a matter of making it known that a new grad has those skills and interests.
You write about the myth that life starts after the office. Why do you say employees should stop thinking that way?
Some people have the misconception that my life starts when I leave the office. It's okay if I'm miserable for eight hours a day; work-life balance is finding something cool that makes me happy right when I get home or on the weekends. My big encouragement in the book is that work is a huge part of our lives. It's five of the seven days of the week. So don't wait until you get home or until the weekend to find some balance in the day or to structure the day in a way that's going to be sustainable in the long term.
The other part of that myth-busting is that work-life balance is some state of nirvana. That once you get there, you're set, you can just brush your hands off and call it a day. It's much more fluid than that ... It's always changing, it's always evolving, and it's different on any given day. There's a piece in the book called "Own the day," which is all about, What can you do in a given day to make it your own? Instead of hitting snooze, running to work, feeling buried by email, getting stressed out, going home, how can you take proactive steps to make the day yours? For me, it might be building in yoga or reading the newspaper in the morning, [or] exercise. Things that are going to really help start me off on the right foot.
A blogger who reviewed your book wrote about how she loves your tips for being organized, including your Keeper File. What is that and how do you use it?
Back when I was training new hires at Google, one of my fellow trainers said, When someone sends you a nice email, you've got to save it. And he would save it in a folder called Keepers. So a keeper is any email you get when someone says "great job" or they compliment you in some or say how nice it was to meet you—anything that will bring a smile to your face. I was keeping these in email but now I've moved over to keeping them in a Google Doc ... It's so nice on a rainy day, when I'm feeling down or discouraged about something, I can scroll back through this Google Doc that has all these kind words and expressions of gratitude and it makes me feel so thankful.
In the book, you write about tiptoeing around a big goal. What advice do you give to folks who might be doing that?
The bigger the goal, the louder the sabotagers and critics. So the more exciting and thrilling something is, the more we tend to hear that rush of voices saying things like, "You're not good enough, You're not smart enough." ... A lot of times, people have a big goal somewhere in the back of their mind, but it's so big that it's scary. So they kind of tiptoe around it, they're a little afraid to say it out loud, and admit that this is actually a goal. For some people, it's writing a book, for some it might be taking an around-the-world trip ... Saying it out loud is the scariest part. From there, it's about addressing any concerns, building a support network, and taking baby steps ... Even for young people and recent graduates, I just want to encourage them—you don't have to wait 10 or 15 years to start doing something that's important to you.
What other career-oriented advice can you offer new graduates?
[Don't overlook] the power of informal interviews. ... [Start by] reaching out to people you admire and asking to sit down with them for a 30-minute coffee or lunch. ... [It's] a great way to learn more, expand my network, and pursue my big goals. So often, people want to pay it forward ... Don't be afraid to ask someone for their time. The worst they can say is no, and I've found that nine times out of 10, the answer is yes.
Be proactive about your own development. Don't wait for a manager to tell you how to improve or what areas to focus on ... Part of being at the entry level is learning how to navigate ambiguity.
I give a talk called "Career in the age of the app." Instead of thinking of our careers like a ladder and trying to go straight up to the top to some point in the sky, really think of our careers like a smartphone. Our upbringing and our education is our basic operating system on the phone. And instead of thinking about big ladder rungs and big leaps, think about your career as a series of little apps. Skills and experiences that you can download to make your phone work for you. There's no phone competition, [and] it doesn't matter what phone your friends have. Some of the apps will be fun, some of the apps will be side projects and passions, some of the apps will be skills you're learning on the job.
We're in a time right now where career is much more fluid than it's ever been. Instead of just having a day job, a lot of people have their day job, and they're downloading all these apps on the side. It's really empowering for people when they realize, just like a phone, your career is truly in your hands.