So you’ve graduated from college as an overachiever with awesome grades, and are stepping out into the “real world” we hear so much about. You’re a perfectionist, and want to get this “adulting” thing exactly right.
If that’s you, then this one’s for you. Because as I learned when I went through this myself as a young professional, the work world and living-on-your-own adult life is very different from student life. It’s much harder and comes with some tough truths that can knock you off your feet if you’re not ready.
And that’s why I’ve prepared this guide: to share my best tips on adulting, especially if you’re a recent graduate just starting that first job. Good luck!
Lessons to Get Adulting Right When You’re a Young, Perfectionist Overachiever
First Lesson of Adulting: Your Value to Your Company Is Measured in Dollars
In school, you are the “client” or consumer. You pay, they teach you. For the most part, there are no adverse consequences for a professor that gives you (or even most of your class) high grades (arguably, there’s even a strong incentive for grade inflation). There are not a lot of external obstacles to being a perfectionist overachiever.
The workplace is completely different. At its most fundamental, the purpose of a corporation is to make money for its shareholders (excepting government and nonprofit entities). You are no longer the consumer, but rather a tool (or even an accounting liability), whose expense can only be justified if you either help the company make money, or help it save money.
In this environment, being treated well or nicely is not a given. At its best, you will have a nice, human, and somewhat accommodating boss who wants you to be happy enough to be productive. Perhaps more commonly, you will be in a pressure-cooker environment (especially if you have a “power job”) where your supervisors will demand more of you than you can reasonably give, and you will have to either burn yourself out or adopt survival strategies in order to cope.
There Are No “A” Grades in the “Real World”, Even if You’re a Perfectionist Overachiever
In school, “perfection” is possible, in the form of straight-A grades. That can lead to (1) a need for external validation, for someone to let you know you did a great job, and (2) a self-imposed expectation that you will be perfect in everything you do. Both are harmful and unrealistic in the “real world”.
External Validation is Rare in the Workplace
In a workplace where profitability is the main concern, your bosses and colleagues will be too busy and stressed out to validate everything you do, even if you’re an overachiever. You might get good evaluations a few times per year -but don’t expect perfect ones, which rarely happen no matter how good your work product- and a “good job” or fat bonus every now and then. But there are no 4.0 GPAs in the workplace, even if you deserve them.
Also, remember that vacations are few and far between, and exhaustion common. Most often, your reward for doing great work will be…more work. You don’t get to turn in your final exams and leave for a fun-filled summer break. Instead, and as I read someplace, work is like a pie-eating contest where the prize is more pie.
The “Real World” Will Quickly Cut a Perfectionist Down to Size
Even if you’re a lifelong overachiever, you will fail or fall short at something – have no doubt about it. You will make mistakes at work, overeat, forget to call your mom on her birthday, or get rejected for your dream job. These things will happen (even to perfectionists), and they’ll happen more than once.
Just know that they happen to everyone, and don’t mean your life is over. Indeed, one of the truest tests of character is not whether you can be perfect at everything, but whether you can “fail forward”, learn from your experiences, get back up, and keep going.
There’s Little Room at the Top
Another important adulting lesson to remember is that there is less space at the top. In college, a lot of people in the class can be overachievers and get 4.0 GPAs, and it doesn’t affect you too much if both you and your classmate got an A. There are lots of As to hand out, as it were.
At a company, there can only be one CEO; at a law firm, not every associate can make partner. In hierarchical pyramids, there is less room at the top, which leads to fierce competition and nasty office politics. Be on the lookout for backstabbing, sabotage, fake friendship, and other bad behavior.
True Wisdom and Street Smarts Usually Trump Academics and Book Smarts
A buddy of mine once told me about a top-tier law school overachiever who couldn’t use a fax machine (back in like 2007). You still hear these stories all the time, especially about those that were “overparented” as kids and never learned crucial life skills, even if they were perfectionists with stellar marks at school.
Or, as I read in The New York Times, “snow plow” parents who’ve always cleared everything in their kids’ way raise young adults who “flounder” because “[the parents] never let their children make mistakes or face challenges”.
Personally, I know people who have succeeded, and others that have failed to live up to their potential (including several academic overachievers who couldn’t make it in the working world). What I’ve learned is that while a college degree is usually necessary to get a “good” job early on, street smarts and practical wisdom eventually go further than college pedigrees or grades. This phenomenon becomes more evident the older people get.
In other words, if you take an overachiever that went to Yale and someone that went to a state school, the Yale grad will usually get the more prestigious job out of the gate. However, over time, the one with the most street smarts and wisdom will be more successful (whether that’s the Yale or state school grad).
Specifically, these are some of the adulting skills that get you ahead, beyond basic competence in your job:
- Knowing how to charm people.
- Resilience and the ability to problem-solve.
- Creativity and outside-the-box thinking.
- The ability to survey situations, anticipate problems, and position yourself to come out ahead.
- Being able to survive low points and crises without collapsing.
So yeah, a fancy degree will get you a better start. But you’ll eventually fall behind if you’ve got nothing but book smarts.
People Act According to Their Self-Interest
I always say that the first rule of human behavior is that people do whatever they think is in their own interest. If that’s something “bad”, most people will do it anyway, and then justify it to themselves later.
So expect people to be selfish and self-interested; be pleasantly surprised by decency, but don’t assume you’ll see it often, especially if acting badly won’t have any immediate consequences for the people you’re dealing with. Honesty and principles are rare in this world – treasure those who have them.
Put another way, most people’s decision-making process goes like this: if it’s in their self-interest, they’ll do it. If it’s bad but they think they’ll get away with it, they’ll do it anyway, and then find a way to justify it to themselves or others.
The dumb or desperate will act like this at a petty, everyday level. The smart will think more strategically and long-term, and will be better at hiding their motives.
What People Do is Far More Important than What they Say
Talk is cheap, in other words. People will say all sorts of things; it matters little. What matters is what they do, and whether they stand behind their words (and not when it’s easy, but when it actually comes at a cost to them).
So don’t put too much stock in what others say. Rather, watch what they do, and base your opinion on them off of that. If they consistently hew to their word (even when it’s hard), then trust them a little more. But not before then.
You Will Be So Busy That You’ll Have to Cut Corners in Your Personal Life
A magazine-perfect life, where you have a rewarding job, awesome friendships, a spotless and tastefully-decorated apartment, and an often-used gym membership is not possible after college, and especially as you approach your 30s. Perfectionism sets an impossible standard.
The day has 24 hours, you only have so much energy, and something’s got to give. Welcome to adulting.
So the first thing you’ll probably notice is that your job will take far more than 8 hours per day, especially if you’re in a “greedy profession” like law, finance, and consulting. It’s only after you put in your 10+ hours per day (plus “invisible” work time on your smartphone at all hours) that you can start doing everything else, including essentials like sleeping, eating, and buying clothes. As you’ll soon realize, this leaves little time and energy for the nice things in life, like socializing and traveling.
It’s not that professional life is an endless black hole of work. It’s just that life gets really busy, really fast, and the social media and movie ideal of a perfect, happy, and fulfilling existence is just not possible, and thinking you can achieve it will only lead to frustration and self-doubt. Strive for the best you can do, but not for an unrealistic ideal of perfection.
Today’s Work Culture is 24/7
I’m writing this sentence at 11:19 PM on a Tuesday. At 10:03 PM, I got an electronic notification on my phone telling me that someone filed a motion in one of my cases (I’m a lawyer). This is not an unusual occurrence.
And that’s the thing. With the advent of smartphones, e-mail, and remote work there has come a 24/7 work culture, where the office may come to you at any time of the day. Indeed, I hear that some companies and firms will expect you to not only check your e-mail well into the night, but answer the messages as well.
In fact, if you work at a firm that operates globally, your phone may buzz at all hours, as your colleagues in Tokyo e-mail you at what, for them, is 10:00 AM.
A Lot of People Will Do the Minimum
You may be a perfectionist overachiever, but most folks are not. Most will do an acceptable job, but a lot will do the bare minimum need to skate by and not get fired.
It’s a fact of life that comes with another unfortunate fact of life: often, others (such as yourself) will find themselves forced to pick up the slack and fill in the gaps. Don’t think that because a team does excellent work all of its members are excellent workers.
Not All Workplaces Are Strict Meritocracies
As a general rule, if you’re an overachiever that does great work and gets along with your bosses and coworkers, you will be promoted. However, oftentimes this doesn’t hold, particularly when you are competing with others that may not be as good as you are, but have other factors in their favor (such as family connections).
It’s not fair, but it happens all the time.
Adulting 101: Know the Six Main Sources of Power
Yes, this is a theory of mine. Based on my life experience and education, I’ve identified six main sources of power and influence for individuals: money, skills, looks, partner selection, inherited circumstances, and the vote.
Obvious and doesn’t need much explanation. The more money you have, the more power you have. You can buy people’s time, and make them want to please you because they want or need money from you.
The more skills you have (especially useful and rare skills), the more unique you are, and the more your labor is worth. Highly skilled people can make more money, and demand more concessions from others.
This includes both technical job skills, and “people skills” like being charming and a good conversationalist.
It’s one of life’s truths that being good-looking will help you out. It will draw others to you and make things easier.
Who you choose as a life partner (and whether you choose one at all) matters – after all, there’s a reason for the term “power couple”. In general, you will accumulate more power and influence if you pair up with the “right” person.
Who’s the “right” person? I think it’s someone who brings out the best in you, and vice versa. Not someone who just wants to make you comfortable, but rather someone who challenges you, calls you on your BS, and pushes you to be better every day.
This includes everything from your genetically-determined looks and talents to the country you’re born in. You can’t influence these, but obviously “better” circumstances give you a head start in life.
If you live in a country with free and fair elections, your vote gives you a certain amount of power. Unless you have very fringe beliefs, you can rest assured that there are many out there that agree with you. When many like-minded people vote, they have an enormous amount of collective power, from the local level to the national one.
Part of Adulting is Exercising Power
You can’t increase your voting power or choose your inherited circumstances (but dang it, vote!). However, you can increase your skills and your money and, to an extent, improve your looks. You can also choose your life partner.
Whether you set about to “upgrade” your skills, money, or looks is up to you. Just know that the more you have, the more power and influence you will gain. By and large, your life will be easier, and you will have more access to the “desirable” things, including essentials like better housing and food. You’ll also have access to more luxuries, and to powerful people who can make your life even easier.
There Is Little Tolerance for Dissent in the Workplace
Universities are famously tolerant of protests and other forms of free speech and dissent. Businesses are not.
Businesses are more akin to dictatorships than democracies. Taking an unpopular position is usually neither wanted nor appreciated, and can come at significant risk to your career (especially if you haven’t yet amassed a lot of power).
All I can say here is pick your battles, consider your values, and know that you’ll sometimes have to bear situations that don’t seem fair.
Part of Adulting is that You’ll Have to Deal With A-Holes
Some are in positions of power, and there’s nothing you can do about it. As my mom often says, it’s like a bullfight. You can’t stop the bull, but you can step out of its way.
The point is that you’ll have to learn to deal with a-holes without getting crushed yourself. Some you can fight, others you can evade. So think about your options and your principles, and decide how you’ll handle the charging bull. Will you stand and fight? Step off to the side? Distract it? Avoid getting in the arena in the first place?
Think, anticipate, be clever, and don’t let your emotions control you.
A Lot of Nice People Become A-Holes When Highly Stressed
Lots of otherwise good and nice people (including high-performance overachievers) will become a-holes when they’re very stressed. They can become erratic, petty, aggressive, etc. It’s not an excuse, but I’m just telling you so that you know to expect it. Not everyone can keep their cool under pressure.
You’re Not Special or Unique Until You Prove Yourself to be Special or Unique
A hard truth of adulting, especially for a perfectionist overachiever. The reality is that you’re average (at best) until you do something that makes you extraordinary. Potential does not equal actual achievement.
But wait, you might say. I graduated from Harvard with straight-As! Not many people can say that!
True. But if you go on to a mediocre career and life, nobody will care. You’ll have peaked in college. To be special and unique, you’ll have to do a lot more. You’ll have to accumulate achievements over the years, and truly leave your mark on this earth.
I’m not saying you have to be famous. Few people know who invented seatbelts (I don’t). But you can be sure that he or she was a very unique and special person, because they saved the lives of millions. And it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic – if you do something that improves life on this planet, whether it be in a big or small way, well, that’s something to be mighty proud of.
Bonus Adulting Lessons for the Young Overachiever
Life is Expensive
Even if you don’t have kids, living on your own can get very expensive, very quickly (especially if you live in a major city). You’ll have/want to pay for the following:
- Water, power, internet, and perhaps cable.
- Cell phone and wireless service.
- Any apps and streaming services.
- Student loans and other debt.
- Dry cleaning for nice work outfits.
- Dining out.
- Health insurance.
- Retirement accounts (which should be a priority).
- Insurance (car, renter’s, etc.).
- Jewelry, accessories, etc.
- Personal care items, haircuts, etc.
- Home goods and furniture.
- Miscellaneous purchases.
- Taxable investment and savings accounts.
- Travel/vacation expenses.
Even if you’re an overachiever with an awesome, high-paying job, you’ll quickly find yourself in a tough financial spot if you don’t budget prudently. But the bigger point that I want to make is that, as the song goes, you don’t always get what you want – but you can get what you need.
And you have to accept that. That you’ll have to make sacrifices and compromises, and will not be able to live a five-star lifestyle in New York, LA, Miami, or anywhere else. Even if you’re a well-compensated professional, the money just isn’t enough for everything.
Social Media is Not Real Life
Nope. It’s usually just the best moments in someone’s life, put out on an online album. It doesn’t reflect everyday reality – you won’t see that Friday night when they didn’t go out, or that low point when they just needed a friend. Plus, as photo editing gets easier and more advanced, even the pictures are not fully real.
And that’s not even going into all of the paid and wannabe “influencers” out there, who make it seem as if their life is a fairy tale when it’s really not. Even the honest ones have to do a lot of hard work to get those perfect shots and manage their profiles; it’s not like they just snap a picture here and there.
So if you’re a perfectionist overachiever, be careful not to take your standards from social media. You’ll only wind up frustrated when you set out to achieve the impossible.
Pro Tip: To see the worst photo manipulators, check out the Instagram Reality Reddit community. Here’s one funny example:
If You Don’t Control Your Emotions, They Will Control You
For the most part, high school and college are structured environments with clear guidelines and expectations. You do what’s asked of you; if you do it fully and do it well, you’re rewarded with good grades and a pathway to the career of your choice. Your housing and other life necessities are mostly pre-picked (or at least facilitated) for you.
Adulting and the working world are different. You have many choices as to your personal life, and the workplace tends to be a far murkier and more treacherous environment than college. If you’re lucky, you might find yourself at a well-run company where you are well managed. However, even then, most workplaces will expect you to be far more self-motivated and self-taught than any school.
For example, here are some things that you, as an ambitious young professional, can do to get ahead in the workplace:
- Never go to one of your bosses with a problem – go to them and present the problem, as well as your analysis and one or more proposed solutions.
- If you are given an assignment that you don’t know how to do, try to figure it out before asking for help. Then, if still in doubt, ask your boss (or a colleague) if what you propose to do is correct.
- Proactively find ways to be better at your job and understand changing systems and expectations, rather than waiting around to be trained for every little thing.
For the Most Part, People Don’t Change
They have a saying where I’m from – a tree that’s born crooked will never straighten itself out.
It’s a solid guide, though not an ironclad rule. Some people change; most don’t. The person you’re expecting to change is probably not the exception.
So accept that most folks will retain their personality flaws over the long run. You have two choices: cut them out of your life (partially or completely), or accept them and find ways to deal with them. Don’t expect them to change or try to make them change; unless they truly want to change and have the discipline to do so (or are forced to change), they probably won’t.
A Large Part of Adulting is Choosing the Lesser Evil
In college, maybe you agonized over which one of two interesting courses to take. As night fell, you might’ve agonized over which party to go to, or which club was hotter. When you got to the bar, you weren’t sure if you fancied a Moscow Mule or Gin & Tonic.
Ah, those were the days. I’ve found that, as you get older and busier and take on more responsibilities and obligations, your choices become narrower and often worse. A lot of life and adulting becomes a matter of choosing the lesser evil. For example:
- You can’t afford the car you want, and so must choose between models that you don’t really love.
- It’s Saturday and you need supplies. Do you go to your nearby supermarket and pay more, or to the farther warehouse club and pay less?
- You have a baby but need to go back to work too soon. Nanny or daycare?
Self-Care is an Essential Part of Adulting, Especially as You Get Older
As you get older, you’ll tire more easily, and will need to restore your mind and body. Because of this, I consider self-care to be a big part of adulting.
If you neglect self-care, you’ll become less effective at work and at life, and you’ll eventually burn out. So you need to do it. Find what works for you – exercise, meditation, travel, or anything else. Just be sure to do it regularly – become an overachiever at self-care!
Relationships are Hard and Vulnerable to Outside Pressure
Relationships are easy-ish when things are great and everyone’s in a good mood. But they’re tested when the inevitable time comes when you’re under pressure and life is harder.
A good example is when you take one of the biggest steps of adulting: start a household. As financial pressure accumulates (bills, mortgage, etc.), you can’t spend like you did before. If one of you is a spender and the other a saver, you’ll have to compromise.
And that’s maybe the best relationship skill: compromise. No two people are identical, and your preferences and interests will come into conflict sooner or later. Only by compromising can you bridge the gap and avoid the creeping resentment that can wind up severely damaging or even destroying the relationship.
Summing Up Adulting for the Perfectionist Overachiever
I’d say the most important part about adulting is to be smart and think things through, always considering the long term. More than ever, you’re on your own, and need to be strategic – there are probably less support systems (family, lifelong jobs, etc.) than in the past, which puts more weight on your shoulders to set yourself up well.
But it can be done. Just make sure to learn all you can, seek out good advice, and, again, think before you act.
Cheers to you!
Are you a young professional? How do you handle adulting? Are you still a perfectionist or overachiever?