Graphic done by Sophia Yang

By: Eileen Smith, Comm '18

Disclaimer: this is not a critique on Queen’s Commerce or on McKinsey, both of which are incredible institutions. The goal of this is simply to share my experience, mistakes, and a few words of advice on how to approach your first job.

What does it mean to “make it”? As a first year Queen’s Commerce student, I might have defined this by a first year rep position on a club. As a third year, my definition shifted to a specific job. As an employee in my first full-time job, it’s the next promotion.

As I write this, I’ve just crested the one-year mark of full-time work. By traditional measures, I’ve hit some clear milestones: I received the Gold Medal from Queen’s Commerce, one of the top business programs in Canada, and secured a job at McKinsey, a global management consulting firm. Thinking back to my perspective while in school, present-day me has “made it” – and yet I don’t feel like I have.

I’m a year in, and I admit I’m struggling with balancing work and life. I don’t blame this on my specific job; it’s a theme peppered in conversations with my friends irrespective of company or industry. We’re products of our environment, conditioned to set goals and grind to achieve them. But I refuse to believe that this gamut of emotions is what “making it” is supposed to look like.

Finish lines and Queen’s Commerce

The fallacy of “making it” couldn’t be more ever-present than in the ecosystem of Queen’s Commerce, where a majority of students live by the mantra “work hard, play hard”. A finish-line mentality quickly becomes ingrained as we start the program. From the first weeks of school, we’re seduced by the scarcity of extracurricular positions. We look up to our orientation leaders and upper year students for their accomplishments, and maybe we sacrifice a few hours of sleep to practice our “tell me about yourself” pitch with the mental justification that it will be worth it if we get the spot.

In the first couple of years, there are some clear benefits to this approach. Opportunities compound over time, and with the pace of emotional and intellectual growth in university, nailing the right opportunities early on can have a big impact later. For me, the downsides started to emerge in third year. We all talk about how the first two years of the Commerce program are the hard part. Once you make it to that finish line, that’s when you’ll get to relax and enjoy what your hard work has earned you: exchange, a nice internship, and plenty of free time. But is that how it actually plays out? From my experience – it was the opposite. I made it to the two-year finish line and secured an exchange school and an internship, but in third and fourth year, I quickly found myself busier than I’d ever been. I was managing a portfolio on the Queen’s University Investment Counsel, competing at international case competitions on behalf of the Queen’s Case Competition Union, and serving as head TA for a course – adding two new goals in the place of each one I achieved.

The issue is that with each finish line we cross, the incremental effort to reach the next one grows. It’s hard to get into university, but harder still to get into a major, and even harder to get a job in our field. The outcomes of this finish line mindset can range from bad to worse. It’s bad if we overwork ourselves in pursuit of a goal, but we can justify our actions if we achieve it and get the job or extracurricular position. What’s worse is when we race to the finish line but just miss. It’s the sunk cost fallacy on steroids, and from experience, it hits hard. If we sprint for an interview and miss the goal, the feeling of failure is intensified by the opportunity cost of our time. We feel like we don’t deserve the break we’d planned to reward ourselves with at the end, propelling us back towards that finish line for an unrested second attempt.

Structurally, courses and exams in university are perfectly designed to encourage this “making it” mentality. At Queen’s Commerce, as in many other undergraduate degrees, we write all our exams in the span of a couple weeks; for most, this means a week of cramming content that we’ll promptly forget thereafter. We work hard to get the grade, hit the finish line, and get a structural two-week break where we eat Christmas cookies, sleep in until 11, and recover before the next sprint. However, during that week we might also neglect our physical and mental health and put off spending time with friends and family.

I’m absolutely guilty of both taking this approach and giving this advice to younger students in the program. Thinking in terms of finish lines works well for a lot of us at school, and I genuinely didn’t see anything wrong with my study approach until after I had graduated. While at Queen’s, I failed to realize that I was being conditioned to believe in the effectiveness of working in sprints, making it almost inevitable that I would make this mistake when I started work.

In the workplace, living by the “making it” ethos is not that simple. The concept of the finish line becomes blurry, and the break we’re used to getting every few months doesn’t exist unless we plan in advance. In a project-based job, this effect is magnified. We tell ourselves that this project might be intense, but we can just put our heads down and we’ll get through it. My coworkers, like a pool of Queen’s Commerce grads, are resilient people so this strategy works for a while. But quickly, one project rolls into the next, one promotion rolls into the next, and the “just get through it” period starts to look pretty overwhelming.

Subscribing to the idea of working hard until you “make it” doesn’t mean just working hard until you make partner; it never really stops

In a consulting firm, the most obvious finish line is the elusive concept of making partner. What I didn’t realize while in school is that even something like making partner isn’t that finite. After you make partner, you’re expected to lead an office or a practice, develop clients, and recruit the next generation. I don’t say this to scare anyone away from that goal; it’s pretty damn impressive to be a partner at one of these firms and accrue the knowledge and credibility to guide the direction of a company. My point is that subscribing to the idea of working hard until you “make it” doesn’t mean just working hard until you make partner; it never really stops.

Turning 30

Most students I talk to during the recruiting cycle have a version of this finish line mentality. They’re not just okay with the idea of working hard; they actively want a first job where they’ll put in long hours. The logic is consistent: “I have time now to make work my priority. I’ll work hard in my 20s and then later I’ll have a family and pick up my hobbies.” However, this hinges on the assumption that the future state doesn’t depend on time invested in the present.

If you don’t prioritize the rest of your life now, it won’t be there in the future. In The Defining Decade, Meg Jay acutely states that “many twentysomethings assume life will come together quickly after thirty, and maybe it will. But it’s still going to be a different life.” Caring solely about work in the present might get you a promotion six months faster than your start class, but is it worth trade offs you make on your relationships or how interested you really are in the “interests” at the bottom of your resume?

As far as I’m concerned, we could all use a reminder that we should be in less of a rush to hit career milestones at the cost of other parts of our lives. I frequently talk to peers who are worried about taking a few months off to travel or two years to get a graduate degree (something that coincidentally looks like “making it” and not slowing down if you asked a different audience). I’ve even used this rationale to explain why I chose to get a Commerce degree: “I don’t want to be in school until I’m 30; most other things would have forced me to go to grad school.” Newsflash to 18-year old Eileen: you love school. Being in school until I was 30 would not have been the worst thing ever. In fact, it might have served me better on every dimension of my life – time for family, friends, relationships, hobbies – everything that is, except for work.

If you don’t prioritize the rest of your life now, it won’t be there in the future

The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson coined this ethos as workism: the concept that “for the college-educated elite, [work has] morph[ed] into a kind of religion, promising identity, transcendence, and community.” He explored the concept that work as it stands in the 21st century is believed to be a goal in and of itself as opposed to a currency with which to buy free time. This is the fundamental problem of “making it”; we work so hard to achieve career goals, but we’re too busy chasing the next goal to take a break and spend the proceeds of our last achievement.

I think my parents are pretty inspiring on this dimension. Respectively in their late 20s and early 30s, they quit their jobs, packed up their lives, and spent a year cycling and backpacking across Europe, Southeast Asia, New Zealand, and Australia. They had the maturity to realize that a year of time and money didn’t matter in the grand scheme of their lives. It was way more important to them to see the world and figure out if they wanted to get married, which seems like the right choice since they got engaged on that trip and are nearly at their 30th anniversary. Simply, they didn’t feel compelled to live by the doctrine of workism, recognizing that fulfillment comes from way more than just work.

In fairness to our generation, our parents might have had an information advantage – a lack of information that is. When my parents started their careers, they only knew the jobs of their close friends from university. Now, we have access to essentially anyone’s job title and promotion history, making it difficult not to benchmark progress against the pack.

This availability of information on what all my peers are doing professionally is useful for maintaining a network but potentially detrimental when used for long-term career planning. It’s a common strategy to look at the first jobs of our professional idols to help decide what to recruit for. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I’ve looked at Sheryl Sandberg’s career history and wondered if starting out at McKinsey could put me in her shoes in 25 years. I think Sheryl is amazing, but it would be unfair to the rest of her experiences to suggest that McKinsey alone predicted her professional success. I say this to warn against placing unwarranted pressure on having a specific first job. This doesn’t mean those jobs don’t matter, but I worry that we devote too much emotional energy to positions that on average we’ll hold for less than three years.

Finding your passion

Many students I talk to ask me whether I’ve found the topic I’m passionate about yet. While this concept of finding a passion at work is amazing in theory, in practice, having this mindset can be extremely demoralizing. Especially in a project-based or rotational first job, there is significant pressure after a couple years to choose a specialization. Talking to most managers who’ve aligned themselves with a specific area of work, their respective stories of identifying that niche are akin to love-at-first-sight. The number of times I’ve heard the phrase “I just knew” is unsettling when I’ve realized that the person is talking about insurance, pharmaceuticals, or organization design and not their spouse.

With these words echoing in my head, I spent most of this past year trying to identify what my “thing” would be, instead of fully appreciating the diversity of work my job afforded. I wish someone had told me at the beginning that hating things at work is just as valuable as loving them. I often felt guilty during this year for not loving every day of work because I felt like it wasn’t okay to complain about any aspect of a coveted first job.

In my opinion, the first year of your career is the best possible time to work on topics you’re not excited about with people whose work styles are completely incompatible with yours. It gives you information to choose things you will like in the future, and the earlier you can filter out stuff that won’t make you happy, the better. This isn’t to say that the goal of the filtering process is to find some higher calling. For the majority of the population, I don’t think feeling a quasi-religious affinity to your work is realistic. Do people often purposefully choose to specialize on a topic? Absolutely. Should that specialization be something you like doing? Of course. Does that mean that it has to give your life broader purpose? Not necessarily, in my opinion.

In the war for talent, companies pitch that they offer more than just jobs, and we start work expecting some transcendent experience. Prominent business leaders perpetuate this idea.  A year ago, Elon Musk tweeted that “there are way easier places to work [than Tesla], but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week.” He continued, “the correct number of hours varies per person, but it is about 80 sustained, peaking about 100 at times.” When commenters lashed back, his response was “if you love what you do, it (mostly) doesn’t feel like work.”

Similar messages are constantly splashed over social media, with LinkedIn masquerading as the Instagram of young professionals. However, instead of scrolling past influencers promoting their vacation to Mexico, we see a highlight reel of professional accomplishments that can be even more daunting than trying to achieve our perfect body before reading week rolls around. There are thank-you posts from bright-eyed summer interns, panoramic shots from exotic firm-sponsored trainings, and more than a few “incoming analyst” titles: it’s influencer marketing gone corporate. It can be easy to scroll through these posts and feel inadequate rather than inspired. Just like edited shots on Instagram, these posts showcase the moment the person “made it”, typically bereft of the ups and downs they experienced in the process of getting there.

Maybe it’s this social messaging and consequent mindset that drive the overwork in the first place as we put in extra hours seeking out a sense of purpose. Paradoxically, in the eclipse of trying to be passionate about our work, we lose sight of the hobbies and passions that got us the job in the first place.

In the eclipse of trying to be passionate about our work, we lose sight of the hobbies and passions that got us the job in the first place

I haven’t found a passion at work and I’m starting to be okay with that. Notice that I don’t say I haven’t found a passion yet. I’m not assuming that it’s an eventual finish line I need to strive for; I’m just looking for the best learning opportunities I can and choosing to feel like that’s enough.

Choosing to work less

I’ve made a lot of mistakes in my first year of work. Aside from the mandatory week at Christmas, it took me seven months to take one day of vacation. It took me another three months after that to take a full week, despite having accrued twice that amount. There were no expectations placed on me to not take time off, but I was swept up in the fear that I’d forgo opportunities during the few weeks of being gone.

Over the last year, I’ve watched my peers unwittingly try to one-up each other with their accounts of who’s working the most. This comparison has caused some unhealthy recalibration of my baseline; as long as I knew someone working longer than me, I had no right to complain about my hours.

I don’t believe most of us talk about working long hours because we truly think working a lot is admirable. At face value, perhaps it is, but a certain level of self-awareness makes it quite obvious that working until midnight sucks. To an extent, I think we use this one-upping as a crutch to justify underinvesting in personal relationships. It’s so easy in the culture of workism to say we’re sorry we forgot to respond to a text because work got too busy. It’s made even easier when we build a personal brand of being consumed by work and that excuse is pre-emptively made for us by the person on the other end of the phone. I’m guilty of allowing work to be my get-out-of-jail-free card when I let something slip in my personal life. However, having work be an always-accepted excuse disincentivizes me from not bailing on the plans in the first place and having to own up to my priorities.

The first time I actively attempted to work less was roughly nine months into my job. If you know me personally, you’ll know that intentionally doing less than 100% is pretty out of character behaviour. I, along with many of my peers, identify as a consummate overachiever. The catalyst here was family – for the first time since starting my job, instead of being in a city where I knew no one except my coworkers, I was in Vancouver. At this point, I hadn’t seen my parents in five months, and I had clear incentive to finish work early to go for dinner with my mom or a bike ride with my dad.  

I actively decided to try to work less, implicitly accepting that I was going to sacrifice something for it. I was okay with that trade off, but what ultimately shocked me was that I didn’t have to make it. I cut my average work week by more than 10 hours, and the feedback on my work objectively improved. My team saw no difference in the content I was creating, and I started getting credit for an additional dimension. I was commended for my commitment to improving team morale: encouraging my team members to make time to call family or go to the gym and helping to manage the scope of our work. From the perspective of only my performance review, there was strictly upside to the work-less mentality. When I also accounted for the clinically-proven benefits of working less hours, such as reduced stress levels, higher energy, and fewer sick days, it seemed like a no-brainer.

I’m sure a lot of you are reading this and thinking: “That’s great, but that’s not realistic for me.” I acknowledge it’s an idealistic perspective to say you can have it all – work less and see true upside. In many cases, there might be a trade off to make. Maybe you have a billables target or sales goal to hit, or maybe you actually have a manager who evaluates your performance based on the number of hours you sit at your desk. If that’s that the case, I’m sorry, but it doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies you can employ. Try to enforce protected time like weekends and specific events, justifying your need for time off to do things that a reasonable person would struggle to argue directly against, such as spending time with family.

In general, remember that you don’t have to choose work as your only priority to do well in your career. In school we often looked at work as optional. We could study for the exam as much or as little as we wanted to. At work, especially in our first few years, we don’t feel like that choice exists; 100% effort is the only option. When it comes to trade offs, there’s no hard rule, but give some thought as to whether 80 or 90% is enough to satisfy your job requirements, freeing up time that could be better spent on something else in your life.

The other argument I’ll give a few sentences of airtime is this: these situations won’t change themselves and there will never be a good time to start trying. This is a lonely battle if you try to fight it on your own, but a cohort of new hires starting at a company has more power than you might think to voice issues and work together on solutions. My best advice here is to befriend your colleagues and see if there are small changes you can start with. For any employers reading, I ask you to keep in mind that this is a natural prisoner’s dilemma – every employee has incentive to be the only person to stay late and appear unreasonably productive. If you want to make real headway on sustainability, be thoughtful about not rewarding those defectors, as this will prohibit any democratization of work-life balance despite how many times it’s put into print as a “strategic priority.”

Work is like a gas – it will fill all the space you give it. Be thoughtful about how much space you want to give, because by not making that choice, it will default to 100%

I can’t claim to have the right answer on work-life balance, but the way I see it, the key is embracing the true spirit of teamwork. Your first thought might be to set a hard limit of what time you’ll stop working each night, but a black and white approach doesn’t match the dynamism of most first jobs. This strategy sets you up to stay until a certain time threshold regardless of whether it’s necessary, and to be the person who leaves the office the night before a big meeting when everyone else is still working. You might cap your hours at whatever you’ve deemed reasonable, but you’ll miss out on the recognition you’re looking for.

One of the best pieces of advice I’ve gotten in my first year is that work is like a gas – it will fill all the space you give it. Be thoughtful about how much space you want to give, because by not making that choice, it will default to 100%. I hope by now I don’t need to convince you that actively making a choice is critical to your long-term happiness.  What I hope I leave you with is that it might be the right decision in the short-term too.

What’s next

I acknowledge that my peers and I are incredibly lucky to have the job opportunities we do. This isn’t intended as a critique on Queen’s Commerce or on McKinsey: two communities I feel so privileged to have joined. Looking back a year into work, I wouldn’t change the big choices like which university to attend or which job to apply for, but I would change a lot of the small ones.

I wouldn’t change the big choices like which university to attend or which job to apply for, but I would change a lot of the small ones

I’d actively plan to take vacation in my first four months of work. I’d accept the fact that I will make typos in emails and stop staying up late to stress about it. I’d go on dates on weeknights, because that is just as okay as my manager going home early to tuck their kids into bed.

I would actively choose which trade offs I’m okay with making, maximizing my happiness in terms of my whole life, not just in terms of work. And that’s how I would redefine “making it”.