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by Erin White | March 10, 2009


Fresh out of college last year, Lindsay Jones was eager to impress her new employer, an apparel retailer in the Northeast. After completing a day of orientation, she showed up right on time for her second day at work. There was just one problem. She had completely forgotten where her desk was. The receptionist had to draw her a map.

It's a typical newbie blunder. But Ms. Jones, now 23, couldn't commiserate with other new college grads. She was the only person her age in her office team. Most of the colleagues she worked with were at least four to six years older. That might not sound like a lot, but it can seem like a lifetime when it's the difference between no experience on the job, and some. "I was the new kid," Ms. Jones recalls. "I didn't really know anything."

Making the transition from college to the working world is always difficult. But it's even harder when you're the only rookie. At offices that hire scores of college grads every year, new employees go through training together, ask stupid questions together, and lament over their lowly status. But when you're the only college hire, all the normal insecurities about starting an adult life feel like they're uniquely yours -- because you can't see anyone else going through the same thing.

What's worse, if there's a big generation gap in the office, senior workers sometimes don't know what to make of a fresh college grad. The young person doesn't know the industry lingo and seems more like a kid than a co-worker. So the young grad not only feels like an alien, but sometimes gets treated like one, too.

"Every new employee feels like an idiot" at some point, says Brad Karsh, president of JobBound, a Chicago-based career-counseling service. "But if you're sitting there by yourself and everyone else is 30 years old and they've got the lay of the land, you're going to really start to doubt yourself."

If you're lucky, you'll have a compassionate boss who will offer reassurance and be patient with basic questions. But your boss can't be your therapist when you're drowning in self-doubt. And even the most patient boss doesn't have time to answer all your tiny questions all the time.

So young workers who have succeeded in this environment have learned to be their own mental cheerleader, figured out who can help them and suppressed their embarrassment about being so ignorant. "If you feel like you're isolated and you feel like you're the only one, you have to do something to overcome it," Ms. Jones says. "If you go in thinking, 'Oh my gosh, I'm the youngest person here, I don't know what I'm doing,' -- if you go in feeling overwhelmed -- you're not going to get anything accomplished."

Ms. Jones found a mentor. Not a formal one, just someone who was a little bit older and wouldn't be irritated by frequent, basic questions. Ms. Jones found her by chatting with colleagues about personal interests. She hit it off with one woman who was about seven years older and had a lot in common with her. Both were athletic. Ms. Jones was a competitive swimmer at Babson College; the older colleague enjoyed swimming, running and marathons. They were both avid travelers, too. The woman had the same job as Ms. Jones, but had worked at the company longer.

Ms. Jones peppered her with questions: What to wear? What kind of insurance plan was best? Who was in a good mood that day, and who wasn't? The woman also taught Ms. Jones how to anticipate project deadlines. Experienced workers had learned that certain reports would likely be due at the same time every year. But the boss might not assign those projects very far in advance. So when Ms. Jones got a head's up from her mentor to start working on a project that would likely be assigned in a week, she helped Ms. Jones better manage her workload.

Ms. Jones also vented to friends her age outside work. That enabled her to realize she wasn't the only one experiencing new-worker anxiety. "We'd all be like, 'Oh, we had such a terrible day,' " she recalls. "That was always a good stress reliever."

Kevin Passolt, a 22-year-old who is the youngest person on his account team at an ad agency in California, had to gain the confidence to contribute ideas. At first, he worried about whether to speak up in meetings. When he started hearing other people say things he had considered saying, he realized his ideas weren't crazy.

He also devised a strategy for getting his basic questions answered. Rather than go to his boss with everything, he started from the bottom up, asking more junior colleagues first. If they didn't know, he'd work his way up the ladder until he found someone who knew the answer. He also had to put aside any embarrassment about his ignorance. "It was just no shame -- I was constantly asking questions," he says. "I knew there was just no way that I could have known, so I just asked."


Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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