In my last few weeks before graduating college, I was aware that I was about to leave something very special. Chapel Hill was a magical place with rose bushes that bloom right before graduation every year, a campus that rallied around an amazing basketball team, and a culture of people determined to change the world and none of them jaded by real experiences yet. It was a place where people came to open their minds to new ideas and new friendships and all the other cliches that make the “college experience” so pivotal for so many.
While all of that has proved to be true so far — I have yet to find a place where making friends came as easily or where challenging ideas flowed as freely — I didn’t realize I was also leaving a vital feedback loop I had come to rely on for the previous 16 years:
I have always been a high achiever, and I’ve always measured my achievement by my grades in school. Conveniently, grades come often enough — sometimes daily —to evaluate my performance and adjust course if I’m not meeting my own standards.
The working world does not hand out grades.
I wish I had fully understood what this means earlier.
Some industries provide more formalized evaluations than others, but in journalism, it’s standard to only get real feedback on your performance once a year. It only took me a few months to notice this dramatic shift from all of my life experiences up to that point.
I wasted a lot of time wondering why my bosses weren’t giving me feedback about my performance. At my first annual review they said I was doing a great job, but I knew that I was not knocking it out of the park on every task. I wanted to know where I had swung and missed, even if my overall performance was satisfactory.
I craved mentoring and I knew I was in good company. I read dozens of articles reflecting on surveys of millennials that noted we seem to want more feedback than previous generations. I vented my dismay to friends who were in the same boat. “How are we supposed to improve when they don’t give us specific feedback?” I daydreamed of an ideal job where my boss and I met once a week to review my performance and talk about what I did well and what I could do better, never realizing that in all but extremely rare cases, that’s a fantasy. I wanted my managers to recognize my drive and attention to detail, and to call me into their office to discuss my career future.
After a year and a half of frustration, I finally cracked. I went to my boss and tearfully explained that I didn’t think I was getting the mentoring I needed in my career in order to grow, and on another occasion, that I didn’t think I was being valued. In both cases, my boss moved mountains to try to help me, and even gave me a significant raise. Why had that never happened before? He had never known what I wanted until I expressly told him.
My boss couldn’t read my mind. Mind-blowing, I know!
But the message didn’t sink in for another few years.
In my second full-time journalism position, I began to realize that mentoring was going to look different from how I had always imagined it, and that it would only happen through my direct request. I began to ask women I admired and had met through interviews to join me for a happy hour or lunch, at my treat. I picked their brains about their careers, and jumped straight into asking for career advice. In each case I was blown away by how quickly they became personally invested in my career in ways I had never experienced from my own boss.
But I still wondered: Why does a relative stranger seem to care more about my career satisfaction than my boss?
I must be a little slow, because the answer seems obvious now. When did I ever invite my boss out for a drink and ask him about his career and tell him my aspirations?
So here’s my message to my younger self: Your career is what you make of it. If it’s not taking you where you want to go, let your managers know. I can promise you this: They cannot read your mind, even if you think you’re the most transparent human alive. And if you’re good at your job, they will want to help you make the most of your career. But it will not happen without you asking. In the real world no one is obligated to give you a grade or call to check in on you to make sure you will graduate on time or hit any other career milestones.
Career satisfaction is something you will be striving for all your life, and it’s not something that will just fall in your lap, even under the best manager at the best company. It’s up to you, so make it happen.