By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

What does it mean to set realistic expectations as a young professional? What should you do when those expectations still don’t live up to the reality of showing up, every day, and working in this place that is paying you for your time and effort, but maybe doesn’t feel so aligned with your passions and interests?

One of the unexpected differences between college and work and life after college is the clear structure and defined expectations of school and the lack of structure and lack of expectations at work and in life. While you might have an idea of what “success” in life looks like, it’s entirely subjective and to a great extent you get to define it. You no longer exist in the world of syllabi and immediate feedback. No one is handing out grades for your performance (though you will, most likely, be subject to some kind of annual or semi-annual review). For many young professionals, this lack of guidance and feedback is unsettling and takes some adjustment.

In an ideal world, your manager will set expectations for you through a job description, clear goals, and accountability measures and will engage you in that conversation as part of your onboarding process. Unfortunately, with greater frequency than we would like, this sometimes doesn’t happen. You should still ask for it, along with regular feedback. But just because you want something, doesn’t mean you’re going to get it.

So, then what? Part of being an adult professional means taking ownership for your path, even when what you were expecting doesn’t happen. And this is a great learning moment, because this won’t be the last time you will have to do this work for yourself. Even experienced professionals sometimes have to work to seek out clarity on their role and their performance. Even experienced professionals find themselves, sometimes, in a situation that doesn’t quite live up to their expectations. Here are some tips for doing that work, starting right now:

  • Identify your expectations. Take some time to reflect on what you were expecting from this role/your life at this point. Create a bulleted list or write out a vision statement in paragraph form that describes what you saw for yourself in this moment. Ideally, you would do this before you arrived, but you can still reflect on what you were hoping for or expecting on day one. What kind of work did you see yourself doing? How did this role fit into your short or long-term goals? How did you envision you would be spending your time each day? What did you think the workplace culture would be like? What kind of an impact did you think you would make?
  • Identify the gaps. Once you are clear on your expectations, take stock of your reality. Which of those expectations aren’t being met, and in what specific ways? What is within your purview of control to change or impact, and what is not? Where there are gaps or a misalignment, ask yourself: Is this a deal breaker for me? Were my expectations flawed? Can I still make the most of this situation?
  • Ask your manager (and others) for feedback. Seek out feedback on how you are viewing your experience, and whether you are looking at it the right way. Don’t go into this conversation ready to make accusations about how others have let you down; rather, be open to gaining additional information. Perhaps your manager wasn’t aware that you were expecting something else from the experience, and there are changes they can make. Perhaps there is a reason that right at this moment things look or feel the way that they do, but there are changes ahead. No one ever did a worse job having too much information, and before you jump to (possibly incorrect) conclusions, you need to collect all the information you can.
  • Define what success means to you. Finally, both for the short-term and the long-term, it’s up to you to define what success means, and then to create a plan that gets you closer to that goal. For some, success will look like financial security. For others, it will mean a life of service to others. Still others will find success in achieving greater responsibility. Success may look like becoming a leader in your field. The point is, you get to define what an “A” life looks like, for you, and then do the work to create it. Being an adult professional means not sitting back and waiting for someone else to create your career path for you. This is your life. You do the work.

For more information on setting and defining expectations, check out Year One, our resource for new professionals in their first year after college.

Blue paper that says "Expectations vs. Reality" with balled-up paper around it

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