The First Year Out
There were times in my basketball career when I’d find myself asking the same question I did in high school geometry. “When will I ever use this again?”. And as I began looking for post-college employment, the Emory career counselors echoed one another in telling me that being a college basketball player would help me in the job search. I didn’t have the time to question their professional opinion, so I took it as gospel. It wasn’t until working through my first year as an Analyst at Insight Sourcing Group that I understood the true advantages that being a former athlete has in a professional work setting.
The Tough Work Days
Even with a career or job that you love, there are days you won’t love the work. For me, those days can come in different shapes. Difficulties at work range from fighting off a sleepless night, to having a hectic day of to-do’s. In the first few months on the job, a tough day looked like boredom from tasks like data entry. I was frustrated that I didn’t feel I was making an impact, and didn’t realize that I had to cut my teeth on tasks like those to build up a fundamental foundation. Now, I’m more experienced, and tough days come in the form of stress: steady flows of emails, competing priorities, and too few hours in the day to get it all done. My foundation as an athlete helps me during the tough work days, because I know that tasks you dislike play their part in a narrative of growth.
I remember practice on December 26th of my freshman year. My high school friends were still at home, enjoying the holidays with their families, and I was honing my jumper in a cold Atlanta gym. I felt restless and homesick, and questioned the motivations that brought me to that place. Basketball had filled me with more purpose than any of my previous endeavors, but it still sometimes brought me to a place where I just wanted to walk away.
Remember the December 26th kind of days in your athletic career that you dreaded-- the early morning practices, the minutia of some of the drills that drove you insane. All the practices and workouts, good and bad, ultimately were pieces of a larger, fulfilling experience. Looking back on my basketball career, I see that I am stronger for having endured the early mornings and sore muscles, no matter how much I dreaded the detail or pain. That experience has helped me a great deal in my consulting work. I now can approach a difficult day of work with an appreciation for the lessons they teach me. View those difficult work days with the perspective you cultivated in your athletic endeavors. If you let them, the trying times can lay a strong foundation for growth.
Climbing the Growth Curve
As a college athlete, you come in your first year with something to prove, but it takes time to understand defensive schema and offensive playbooks. Slowly, you are able to perfect your craft through repetition, until as a senior you become a mentor to younger teammates. If your team is anything like mine was, I couldn’t go a half-day without somebody asking me to get in the gym. Even on my very first day, I was getting texts in the middle of orientation to leave and work out. It’s that kind of support system centered on inclusion and mentorship that ultimately accelerates mastery. Enter your professional career with the understanding that you are a freshman once again. You have to learn new processes and strategies, and in the beginning they will seem inscrutable-- much like your team’s offensive strategy was once a mystery to you.
Treat your working life like you are starting over an athletic career, and put yourself in a position to be mentored. Recognize that in the professional setting, sometimes mentorship isn’t as formal as a scheduled workout, so you may have to consciously learn through observation. Remember the cocky freshman that annoyed everyone because he thought he was the man from day one? All the upper classmen line up for a chance to put him in his place. Don’t be that new hire.
I work with a group of supportive people, and I am not shy about taking advantage of their knowledge. Accepting that I have a lot to learn allows me to drop my ego at the door and be open to improvement each day. Sometimes this is as informal as dropping by somebody’s desk to ask for tips, or more formal like scheduling a meeting to review work with a peer. I also am intentional about scheduling mid-project reviews. These reviews are informal discussions with my project manager to see what is working well, and where I need to improve. This creates a feedback mechanism that allows you to figure out how best to improve upon your work while it is happening. As athletes, we are used to real-time feedback. For me, asking peers for tips and managers for reviews is my way of creating real-time feedback in the professional world.
Pressure to prove yourself as a freshman comes from a subconscious fear that you might not match expectations. Those feelings of fear around your athletic talent breed negativity and hamper your performance. Athletes often struggle with the internal dialogue related to performance, and this dialogue, coupled with a drive for achievement, can morph into an internal beat-down quickly.
In my athletic career, I had plenty of nights when I lost sleep over either a terrible game or an important matchup we had the next day. All the anxiety dissipated when I trusted my instincts and simply played. My parents and I talked throughout my career about cultivating a “f*** it” mentality. This means recognizing that, no matter how high the stakes or how badly you played in the past, you need to shut out all the garbage internal dialogue, trust your instincts, and play.
In the psychological world, this self-worth conundrum has a name: Imposter Syndrome. When I started work, I was worried everyone would find out that I wasn’t comfortable or that I didn’t know what I was doing. In hindsight, everyone did know, and that’s expected. No company in their right mind is going to expect you to be fluent in the way of the business world from day one, just like you aren’t expected to perform at Michael Jordan levels in your first college competition. There is time for you to grow and mistakes are expected. When you don’t understand something, don’t be afraid to ask questions. There isn’t a need to keep up the facade that you know what you’re doing, because that image doesn’t exist to anybody but yourself. Much like athletics, the best thing that you can do is cultivate the “f*** it” attitude, and trust your talents. Work as hard as you can to learn all that you can, trust your instincts, and find solace in the fact that you have done the best work that you can do at the end of the day.
In boiling down some of my growing pains, I hope it will resonate with new professionals of any background, athlete or non-athlete. I believe, however, that athletes have templates of experience that can help them overcome the challenges of the first year out of school. Remember the challenges you have already conquered as a student-athlete. Life isn’t perfect and the transition after sports is challenging, so it helps to always be cognizant of your inner athlete.