Written by Nina Banks (’23), Fellow in the Office of Personal & Career Development at Wake Forest University

As I approach the end of my first year after graduation and my first year as a full-time professional, I’m reflecting on the personal and professional growth that I’ve experienced. Everyone’s first year after graduation is different, yet there are similar experiences that many young professionals share. The key challenges that resonate with my peers are uncertainty about the future, lack of direction, and decision anxiety, just to name a few. As I navigate these challenges myself, I frequently return to some of the key insights I’ve gathered over the past year. Here are some of the most important lessons I’ve gathered from personal reflection, conversations with my peers about life after graduation, and advice shared to me by mentors and colleagues: 

  1. Find your pace

I found my pace when I started paying attention to my natural internal rhythm. For the first time, I began intentionally focusing on my energy levels and noticing how they changed throughout the day, in different environments and performing certain tasks. For example, one consistent trend that I noticed was that after lunch my energy typically takes a dip. Once I noticed this, I started dedicating a few hours after lunch to tasks that don’t require a lot of brain power and before lunch I will spend more time on tasks that include writing or research. 

On a larger scale, this also meant being honest with myself about how much I can carry on my plate at once. I discovered that I generally prefer having a steady stream of things to work on so I try to evenly distribute meetings, events and projects throughout the week and month. Some people prefer to alternate between periods of being super busy and enjoying a period of downtime after. Neither of these approaches is better than the other and while not everyone will have the freedom to do this all the time, the main goal is learning how to operate with, not against, our natural rhythm. 

  1. Focus on something

Like many of my peers, I have experienced the anxiety that arises from feeling a lack of direction for my future. There were times when I didn’t have a clear vision around what my future looked like. There were also times when I was considering a million different career trajectories and became overwhelmed with the pressure of dedicating myself to one path. Both can feel like scary places to be in and truly, the only way out is through. 

While it’s definitely easier said than done, I’ve found that the best strategy to overcome that anxiety is to focus on one thing and stick with it. I am becoming open to the idea of compromising on roles that aren’t my “dream job” and exploring opportunities that I wouldn’t have initially seen myself doing when I graduated. I know that, with a learning mindset, whatever opportunities I accept in the near future will bring me closer to the path that I’m meant to be on. But that can’t happen without overcoming the fear of taking the first step forward. 

  1. Trust yourself 

When I was 18 and touring colleges with my father he asked me why I (at the time) wanted to pursue a career in environmental conservation instead of one that “pays well.” I told him that I was passionate about the work and despite his efforts to persuade me otherwise, he would not be able to change my mind. Since then, I have carried that lesson of trusting my instinct with me. 

Letting my intuition guide me has not been easy. In the past year, I’ve received so much advice from many people that have, at times, compelled me to pursue opportunities that I intuitively know do not align with my values or goals. Oftentimes this stems from a pressure to overachieve, to have the prestigious position, to land the job that pays a lot etc. It would be disingenuous to pretend that these societal pressures don’t exist but when I remembered that moment with my father, I realized that I can, and have, overcome them by trusting myself. 

Since that realization, I’ve decided that when new information and advice is presented to me I should pay attention to it, consider it carefully and allow myself to make a decision on my time. I cannot let people convince me to make a decision unless I am comfortable making it because, as I’ve said many times throughout the past year, “This person may be an expert on…but they’re not an expert on my life.”  

  1. Learning doesn’t stop after college

After spending two decades in the education system, leaving it can be a difficult adjustment for many people. For those, like myself, who enjoy learning and are generally curious about life, you’ll be glad to hear that the learning never stops. It has been almost a full year since I graduated and I still feel, in many ways, like a student. I don’t have a syllabus or reading list to guide me, but everyday I am building new skills and acquiring new knowledge.

Most importantly, I’ve learned so much about myself. I’ve learned what characteristics of an organization are important to me. I’ve learned how to better reflect on my ‘Why?’ Why am I doing the work that I’m doing? And to what end? What are the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators? How is this enriching and adding meaning to an area of my life? And I’ve learned that despite the challenges that I may face in the future, I have the tools to navigate them when they arise.