Find grit to ace the early stages of your career
The best way to take off in an Apache attack helicopter is to turn the nose towards the wind and “fly straight through it”, says Shannon Huffman Polson. The resistance will help you rise.
One of the first women to fly an Apache for the US army, she led two flight platoons across three continents before joining the corporate world — learning about grit and resilience in the face of setbacks along the way.
Fear, like the wind, should be faced head-on, she says: “We have a tendency to shy away from the things that are difficult . . . The only way to face your fear is to acknowledge it and then turn towards it.”
Starting a new job or navigating the workplace for the first time can be daunting. There are new responsibilities, you may feel pressure to say yes to everything, and you are meanwhile trying to fit into a new culture. And, in any new job as a young person, you are being sized up, says Gorick Ng, author of The Unspoken Rules: Secrets to Starting Your Career Off Right.
Think of “three Cs”, he says: competence, commitment and compatibility. “Can you do your job well? Are you excited to be here? And do we get along? Your job is to make sure the answer is yes.”
The transition from studying, where assignments are laid out for you, to working life can put pressure on new recruits’ mental health, says Ng. “You have this bubble wrap around you in school. In the workplace, your managers are invested in your success but no one will think about your career in the same way you will.”
Unexpected obstacles or a change in circumstances can also throw you off course.
For Huffman Polson, author of The Grit Factor: Courage, Resilience and Leadership in the Most Male-Dominated Organization in the World, persevering through such challenges requires grit — having it, or developing it.
“Grit is having a dogged determination in the face of difficult circumstances. It’s being able to shift your mindset — to say, I’m going to look at this a different way.”
For instance, you may have narrowly missed out on a job. Reframe it as a positive opportunity, she says.
“Start with the sentence: ‘Another way to look at this is . . . ’ and force yourself come up with two or three ways. It puts you in a space of creation and discovery.”
That said, when you face setbacks, do not try to snap straight into a positive mindset, says Emily Anhalt, clinical psychologist and co-founder of Coa, a “gym” for mental health. “When we don’t process something we carry it with us,” she says. “Take time to feel sad for what you had wanted to happen.”
Having a sense of purpose can make the difference when a situation feels tumultuous, says Huffman Polson. Even if your first experiences of working life fail to match up to expectations, you can find something in them that will relate to your values.
For Huffman Polson, this was initially being stuck in a back office admin position in the military after completing her pilot training. Her response was to adapt the Five Whys technique originally invented by Japanese carmaker Toyota to improve manufacturing processes. You can adapt it to ask yourself “why”, not just once but five times, to drill down to what really matters to you, she explains.
In her admin job, Huffman Polson’s initial answer to the question, “Why am I here?” was that she wanted to fly a helicopter. Her fifth, final answer was that she wanted to serve her country. Recognising that kept her going.
Personal motivation is one aspect of starting in a new role. Then there is navigating workplace dynamics.
“The biggest challenges are always with people,” says Huffman Polson. One example, she suggests, is if you feel you have upset your manager or a colleague, and facing it is the only way to end the tension: “Schedule a meeting and raise your concern.”
Understanding the difference between intent and impact is also important, says Ng. “There are cases where your manager has positive intent but, due to stress or deadlines, their impact is negative.”
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Getting insider intel from colleagues you trust can help: “Find someone who can help you decipher what this person is really like,” Ng advises.
Anhalt advocates building “resilience muscles” so that you are mentally stronger when challenges arise. Making time for interests outside work, for example, is particularly important now, when work and personal life are bleeding into each other, she says. And check in often with people you trust.
She says: “Things can feel really muddled but, by running our frustrations through another person’s mind, [they] can be reflected back to us more clearly.”
If faced with an overwhelming list of tasks, and someone asks you to take on another project, there are ways to push back without looking unwilling, says Ng. “People can’t read your mind, so don’t just smile and nod . . . Say, I would love to help, but just so you know I’ve got X [and Y] going on.”
And do not be too hard on yourself if you make mistakes, adds Ng: “The key is to avoid making the same mistakes [again].”
Five feel-better tips
You’ve had a disappointment at work? Then you are in good company — most people have faced setbacks in their careers, says Emily Anhalt. Here are some practical responses:
Talk about it. Speaking about failures or problems out loud helps you move through them.
Beware of comparing your “behind-the-scenes” life to everyone else’s highlights reel.
Stop “should-ing” — “I should know this”, or “I should be further along in my career.” It puts you in a fixed mindset.
Keep a self-esteem file: a collection of any pieces of good feedback you have received, or when something goes really well. It is hard to argue with years of evidence.
Don’t personalise professional criticism. Hold your work separate from your personal identity to help you take in feedback more easily.