I’m Chill Man…You Know, For the Most Part

Whether you’re preparing to climb up the side of a mountain or preparing to walk through the main lobby on your first day of your first real job, nerves are something that each of us has to grapple with in our own way. But when it comes to the myths surrounding millennials, nervousness is something that tends to be viewed in two starkly different ways. On the one hand, many managers would argue that millennials are never nervous. Some might say that we’re cocky to a fault, and that one of our biggest problems is that we are too sure of ourselves all the time. Yet while I have certainly felt confident about projects I’ve worked on, I’ve lost track of how many times I thought I’d swallowed an entire botanical garden-sized butterfly exhibit before walking into a meeting.

We’ve all seen millennial co-workers pouring over study prep for the GRE/GMAT/LSAT/WNNPs [relax overachievers, I made that last one up] within the first few months of starting their first job. And sure, on the surface that employee probably looks quite confident.

“She’s here two weeks and already she’s thinking about Law School.”

In fact, I’ve been amazed at how many times friends have told me that their bosses just kind of expected them to be confident without any real workplace experience or coaching from their managers. And I think that is where that perceived confidence begins to work against millennials. Confidence is something that everyone strives for at some point in their life, and for a lot of C-Suite executives it’s a defining characteristic for those who are tapped to move up the rank-and-file. It’s a check-mark on the list of being a “Good Executive,” because it has become synonymous with being a driven, hard-working professional who can get the job done.

But when an experienced manager sees a millennial studying for the GMAT on day one, how is that interpreted? In the case of the young woman mentioned above, her studying for Law School was actually viewed negatively in this specific case, because the manager thought it signaled that she was uninterested in her current job and already thinking about moving on. So, in this instance, was a millennial appearing confident actually a bad thing?

Before I get too far ahead of myself, let’s back up and dissect how many of us actually view ourselves as being confident to begin with. I’ve seen over a hundred millennials studying for grad school or working on that first big project through lunch at dozens of companies across the country. But I can’t remember ever seeing anyone who looked remarkably sure of themselves with their head in a study book, cursing themselves for not remembering how to multiply fractions. In one hilariously unfortunate case, I saw a new employee mistakenly adding hot sauce to their 2pm coffee while they were frantically trying to remember PEMDAS.

If we look at the assumed confidence stereotypes of millennials and this observed, frantic behavior simultaneously, then each millennial is floating somewhere between thinking that they invented PowerPoint and their fourteenth nervous lap around the supply room. So, for the last question from our small survey, I wanted to know how each of the participants honestly felt about starting to build their career.

 What surprised me most about these results was not that they were somewhat curved, but the direction in which they curved. Just over half of the participants admitted to “a polite sense of nervousness,” but within the other half, participants skewed much more towards feeling confident than feeling nervous. Although, as I mentioned, managers often view millennials as being hyper-confident, I personally would have expected more of the non-median respondents to feel more nervous than confident. Paying rent, establishing credit, climbing ladders, realizing you can’t only eat ramen noodles, it’s scary stuff! Yet only 13% said that they were highly nervous about their career. Taking that first step up the path is undeniably scary. Yet approximately one-third of millennials surveyed felt confident enough to give me an iconic “Nah man, I got this.”

So let’s go back and put this into perspective with the case of the young millennial woman studying for the LSAT in her first two weeks. We so often hear the phrase that “confidence is key,” and according to our survey results, more millennials have it (or think they have it), than don’t. Yet in this woman’s case, having the drive and self-assertive discipline to begin prepping for an arduous testing process for law school actually hurt her in her manager’s eye. Is that entirely fair? No, it isn’t. And I’m in no way arguing for anyone to set their ambitions aside. But perhaps if nothing else, this last survey question serves to underscore the divide of how managers and millennials interpret things differently. The millennial is just doing what she’s been doing through high school and college, planning ahead and trying to succeed. But the manager sees a strong indication that it’s not worth investing time in the millennial, because the latter is indicating that she will leave soon anyway.

But how do we put this whole survey together? What does our initial portrait of “the real” millennial look like? The most popular answers to each question would suggest that a millennial chooses their first job based on the industry (34%), intends to be named the CEO (36%), will stay in their first job tentatively, but will always be keeping an eye out for new opportunities (46%), and are moderately nervous about their careers (54%). Yet the second most popular choices paint a very different image. They suggest a millennial chooses their first job based on salary or work-life balance (25%), intend to be upper-level management but not the CEO (29%), don’t see any future at their current company (27%), and are confident in the direction of their career (33%).

Both of those sketches are not terribly far apart, but they suggest two significantly different employees. So it would appear that we didn’t discover a set “millennial mold.” But for the generation that is allegedly the most diverse, that shouldn’t be too surprising. If there is one set takeaway from our first survey it’s that even though we all approach our careers differently and our paths are diverse, we all start from base camp, looking up.

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