Things I wish someone told me at 22 (Career edition).
I was 22 and a fresh university graduate when I first started working in the Tongan Government. Seven years later, I resigned at 29. Here are some things I wish someone had told me when I first started out 7 yearsago.
1. You can say no.
When I first started out, there was an unspoken rule to take on as many challenges and tasks as possible, because everything was a learning opportunity. As a fresh new grad, it was initially exciting for me to be responsible for so many things so early on. Looking back, I realized because we were so short-staffed at the time, I was given a lot of work well above my pay grade. I was young and new and afraid to say no for the fear of looking incompetent or being labelled as a bad team player. Nobody told me I can say no. No, it’s beyond my capacity. No, it’s not my scope of expertise. No, I already have urgent priorities. No, I have other planned commitments. Nobody told me I can say no and being a yes-man would only wreck me in the long run.
It was only a few years ago that I learnt about setting professional work boundaries. It was simple things like not taking work-related phone calls or answering emails outside of mandated work hours. Saying no to working on the weekends. Taking annual leave and leaving work at work during that period. Turning down tasks that aren't in your job description or interests. Saying no to uncompensated overtime and unplanned workloads. It was only in recent years that I had the confidence and courage to say no and set all my work boundaries (trust me, some people weren’t happy lol), but I really wished someone had told me or showed me when I first started out.
You can say no, and you don’t have to feel bad about it. Saying no doesn’t mean you’re incompetent or a bad team player. It’s all about the work-life balance, babes.
2. Watch out for burnout.
“Burnout is a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion caused by excessive and prolonged stress. It occurs when you feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained, and unable to meet constant demands. As the stress continues, you begin to lose the interest and motivation that led you to take on a certain role in the first place. Burnout reduces productivity and saps your energy, leaving you feeling increasingly helpless, hopeless, cynical, and resentful. Eventually, you may feel like you have nothing more to give.” Smith, M., Segal, J. and Robinson, L., 2019. (Burnout Prevention and Treatment, Help Guide.)
Ok, so when you’re a yes-man all the time at work and you don’t have work-life balance, you will only crash, burn and crumble. But the thing is, when you’re a young gun, people will assume you have an unlimited abundance of energy and enthusiasm, and you will happily channel it all into work. This goes back to the point above though. If you don’t say no and end up consistently overworking yourself, you’ll end up burnt out.
One terrible habit I used to have when I worked in government was pushing myself to keep working when I knew full fucking well, that I had already maxed out mentally, emotionally and physically. Continuing to push yourself when you have nothing else to give is not a champion move. It’s a fucking dumbass move. You can’t pour from an empty cup. Retreat, rest and reset.
Burnout is now classified as a type of mental illness, and trust me, it is immensely difficult to feel like you again when you get burnt out. When you keep running on empty whilst burnt out, you’ll eventually end up depressed and with a myriad of other mental illnesses. Trust me, I’ve had it all. I’ve been there, and it's fucking hell.
I knew senior management didn’t have my back when I first expressed how stressed, exhausted and burnt out I was feeling, but their response was dismissive. “What?! Going home at 10:30 pm every day is nothing. When we started out, we’d go home at 4:00 am, and be back at 8:30 am! And there were only 10 of us working in this whole organisation! We’ve really had it worse! You’re lucky now but you're just weak!”. I was being serious about how dire my mental, emotional, and physical health was, but I was casually gaslit because “they had it worse in their time”. It doesn’t make sense to me, like, if you went through shit, why do you want someone else to go through the exact same shit? It’s not a competition of who can tolerate shit and hell longer. If you’re not making things better for people who come after you, don’t call yourself a leader.
No one told me at 22, so I’m telling you now. Don’t push yourself to the point of burnout. You can work competently and diligently without risking your mental health. Set your boundaries and take your rest. Rest is important. Balance is important. Don't burn yourself out.
3. You don’t live to work. (Your career is not your whole identity)
I wish someone told me at 22 that my worth and identity is not linked to how productive I was, how punctual I was, or how many long hours I put in at work. I really wish someone told me that people don’t live to work and that “workaholic” isn’t a good word. To me now, a workaholic is someone who can’t balance work priorities and life priorities. Being a workaholic is not a flex.
When I first started out, another unspoken rule was that overworking was a sign of a dedicated and committed team member. Overworking and workaholism were a badge of honour and pride. For instance, our team would be the first to arrive at the office every morning and the last to leave at night. Yes, night. There was an unspoken rule that our team was expected to arrive between 8:00 – 8:15 am every day, and if you arrived at 8:30 am, you were late. The unspoken acceptable time to leave work was 5:30 pm at the earliest on “normal” days, and if we had additional work, we were expected to stay behind and finish it, no matter how late it took. This was not paid overtime.
When I first started out, I was at work way too much. Like, way over the mandated 8 hours. I would be the first to leave our house in the morning at 7:30 am and arrive at work by 8:00 am. I’d come home around 10:30 pm and my family were already asleep. From Monday to Friday, that was the routine and occasionally on Saturdays too. I was at work more than I was at home, so I started to feel like my identity and self-worth were closely tied to the job. I was able to consistently deliver high-quality results in a high-pressure, high-stress environment and I thought that if I lost it, then I was a nobody and I would have no proof of all my hard work. I thought that if I wasn’t a workaholic, I would be worth nothing.
However, I don’t know what age I was when I completely lost it. Maybe 26 or 27. I was chronically exhausted and depressed. So I said, well, fuck it, I’ve had enough. I started enforcing my boundaries and saying “no” more. Any time I was asked to do work outside of working hours, I would ask, “Is this charity work or paid overtime work?. Will I be compensated in my time with days off or monetary payment?”. It made people uncomfortable when I asked that, but their discomfort stemmed from their past comfort in exploiting my unpaid labour. It wasn’t my problem and I had fucking enough. I would pack my bag and leave at 4:30 pm on the dot. I was shedding the workaholic badge and throwing the whole fucking thing out. You don’t live to work. Being a workaholic means you neglect your family, your friends, your passions and your interests all for work. Don’t do that. It’s not healthy, realistic nor is it sustainable. You don't live to work, and your career is not your whole identity.
These are the first three things I really wish someone told me that at 22. I really hope it helps someone who's just starting out in a high-stress-high pressure environment. You can say no. Watch out for burnout. Your career is not your identity.
Take a rest, take a breath. I hope you'll be okay.
Until next time. 'Ofa atu.