Everything I learned from the University of Waterloo
The leaves haven’t changed colour yet, so I didn’t see fall creeping up behind me until we were on the precipice of Thanksgiving. I have a lot to be thankful for, 6 months out of a university degree that I loved I have a good job in the field I wanted. But as I scroll through my social media I see the photos of friends just behind me and just ahead of me in the career game and it’s made me very worried. I’m not sure I’ve done enough.
I’ve been asked how I’m liking my job so far, how does it feel to be a graduate, what are my career goals. The truth is: I don’t really know? Uncertainty seems to be a constant factor, without any syllabi, rubrics, or grades ahead of me the world seems like a swirling mess. I have a ton of questions. Should I have replied all to that email or just to one person? Should I ask to clarify or try to figure it out on my own? Am I missing out on course x which will unlock my secret ability to be better than the other candidates swimming constantly beside me?
The safety net is gone. I feel like a young giraffe just learning to walk, stumbling around trying to find my center of gravity. And then I realize, that is how I feel with a great education and fantastic co-op experience behind me. Sometimes I wonder how on the earth anyone else could possibly make it with less than me? And yet, there they are by the thousands.
Which is why this piece by Tammy Smitham, the VP of External Communication at Loblaws & Shoppers Drug Mart struck a chord with me. She says this one thing has really shaped her success:
I happened to overhear a conversation in which it was suggested that I could take on some of the receptionist’s duties like photocopying and making coffee. I was enraged, thinking these tasks were not part of my job description. In fact, I didn’t even know how to make coffee. I marched into my boss’ office and pleaded my case. I thought she would wholeheartedly support me, but to my surprise she said: “Tammy, life isn’t fair.”
And you know what? She was right. It isn’t. That day I learned to accept the fact that as hard as I might try, some things were still out of my control.
I didn’t like reading this quote at all. I was 100% with past-Tammy; coffee-making is not a part of “the work,” and that is without getting into the ramifications of delegating such tasks to the youngest woman around, etc.
The fact is, no matter whether you have the right grades or have successfully sold off your first startup, everyone has to make coffee sometimes. How you roll with the punches when this is thrown at you says more about you than your transcript will.
But, what bothers me about this is the confidence. Smitham writes from the tranquility of retrospect because she has had years to move past it and grow. Down here at the bottom where it is actually happening, it feels like complete chaos. It is the terrifying feeling of struggling to get your first co-op placement or internship times a thousand, because it doesn’t stop. Your career will just keep going.
Amandah Wood, collected advice from interviews with 50 professional women about how they work and came out with these three tips:
1. Find out what matters to you and ignore everything else.
2. Find opportunities to do that thing, and if you can’t find them, create them yourself.
3. Learn what you need to do your best work and build a structure around that.
What do you do when you’re stuck at Step 1? As I thought about this I realized that this is what your program is really training you for. Your education is not about getting better grades than the next person or scoring that average you need for that name on your degree. This is a time in your life that is dedicated to finding out what matters to you, in whatever colour, shape, or form it could possibly be.
This is why there are breadth requirements, why you should go to that lecture even if you find it boring, or try out for that team even if it doesn’t fit. Experimenting is the only way to figure out what really matters. I almost feel bad for Math and Engineering students when I think of it because when you’re bogged down by weekly assignments and fierce competition to score higher and higher, where is the space you need to fall on your face or fail?
If there is one thing I learned the most from being an Orientation Week leader it is this: if you haven’t failed before now — whether it is academically, athletically, or socially — you might have a devastating first year. After a lifetime of learning that failure is bad how are you supposed to cope well? But what’s so much more important than your list of successes are the lessons you have from failure.
Believe it or not, it is all about innovation.
In the past, passion was not essential for all great careers because you could have done well with a strong work ethic, good communication skills, and good sales skills… But now, if you are to have a great career, you must be an innovator and you cannot innovate without passion.
Straight from the horse’s mouth, this advice comes from Prof. Larry Smith in an interview with Forbes. He goes on to talk about the opposing force to our University motto: fear. The reason why my friends who are still students ask me all these questions is fear. I remember that fear really well. I remember being scared to graduate, and scared to start co-op, and scared to start university, and scared that I wouldn’t get into university, and scared of getting my first part-time job, and scared of starting high school, and before that I can’t really remember what I was scared of but I do remember the fear was there.
The funny thing is everyone gets scared. What Smitham was saying is you need to just work through that fear, and learn to make coffee (and then probably fail at it). Just keep pushing on and trying new things, and eventually you will stop being scared of that new job or class or project and then start being scared of some other new job/class/project.
Fear is sometimes the best barometer for figuring out that mythical passion you’re trying to track down. I was too scared to ask my own friends if they thought I could be Valedictorian, one of my roommates casually put it out there. It took another person to flatter me out of my own fears. I shook myself off (terrified the entire time), started asking for signatures, wrote draft after draft, and I ended up making my address two months later. It is one of the proudest moments of my life, and it almost never even happened.
Some of you are at home for Thanksgiving, fresh from failing/passing midterms or in the beginnings of your career. You may feel like you are miles behind another classmate or coworker who just seems to have it all. You might cry a bit and panic as you stuff yourself with turkey but that’s ok. It’s ok to not feel like you’re enough sometimes.
My time at UW taught me that above all you just have to keep going. Make the mistake, observe the lessons, and try it again or try it better. It’s probably not going to go your way but that’s okay, life doesn’t go anyone’s way. It just goes.