February 24

Finding new career mid 20s: How I went from social work to starting a company at 26


Make no mistake.

Being in your 20s is difficult.

There’s one particularly poignant moment over the past few months that I remember.

I’m going home after a meeting in 71 Robinson Road, one of the WeWork offices.

After coming down the escalators, I walk past one of the cocktail events held in the meeting rooms below. In the room, there’s a panel of speakers seated at the front, with their hairs nicely coiffed, and dressed to the nines.

Listening to them are other young working adults, professionally dressed, nodding along to what I think must be a pretty engaging conversation.

Finding new career mid 20s
It can suck to see others having fun at their career, and you, not.

As I walk past, it strikes me.

I could be there.

No, I should be there.

Yet instead in my first full-time job I was issued with a Performance Improvement Plan (a get better or get sacked plan).

Later when I looked for a job to move into, I was rejected in 106 job applications, and told ‘no’, at 31 interviews.

Was this what I expected after graduating with a first class honours from the University of Nottingham, a Russell Group university (known for being a self selecting group of the 24 more reputable universities in the U.K.), after being shortlisted for awards, and even being on a board of directors of a $14 million charity in the U.K?

And maybe this is you today.

Despite your sterling achievements in university, you find yourself struggling at work.

Finding new career mid 20s
Maybe you find yourself on a long road, to nowhere.

You’re not sure why you’re being overlooked for promotions, even though you’re clearly doing more than the average person.

Even worse, you’re not sure why your mediocre (and frankly, let’s admit), lousier colleague is being praised instead.

Worse still, you find yourself with the better ideas, but not getting those ideas through.

You find yourself stuck. And you wonder what you should do.

At 26, I gave up trying to look for a job and went to making my own company.

But what should you do?

Let’s first look at some of the idiosyncrasies of work, that they may have never told you in your years at school.

Toss out what you learnt at school

Stephen Krempl, who was previously Vice President of Global Learning at Starbucks Coffee Company, shared with me an anecdote that summed this up.

When he met a friend of his, who leads logistics at a global company, he asked,

What’s the first advice you give to those new graduates that come in every year?

Be prepared to toss out everything you learnt in school.

School, and university teaches you one lesson.

That doing well at your exams or tests has a useful, set guidance.

When lecturers mark your script, there’s also a useful guidance they use.

Not so in work.

At work, whether work is good or not, is very subjective. There’s very little clear definition about what constitutes good, or bad work.

Let me explain.

In my previous job as a social worker, I was in charge of planning a programme. I suggested something different from what had been done in previous years. And suddenly, the team leader became very concerned. He sent out an email (copying everyone in the team), about how

You need to inform me if you have new ideas…

and there’s no ‘I’ in team.

When you’re dealing with something as variable as programmes, where what’s good or not good, is extremely variable, you can end up on the losing end if you don’t do what your boss prefers.

finding new career mid 20s
You might find yourself trying to please everyone, but yourself

But you might ask,

What about more technical areas like coding or engineering?

There may be clearer performance indicators there about what works, and doesn’t.

But again, you will see that it’s not just the coders that can work well with code that rise to the top, but those who make the move to working well with people.

I’m sorry.

It’s not the best idea that wins

This might have surfaced before, but I will smack you on the head with it.

Again and again.

Work isn’t necessarily meritocratic. It’s not the people who execute best, or who have the best ideas that win.

It’s often the people that might be better able to cozy up to the boss, spend time eating and drinking with them, who are able to get the praise and promotions.

My advice?

Just accept this as a rule of the game. Don’t try to change it.

It can be frustrating. That’s why my next advice is:

new career mid 20s
You need to know if an organisation can bring you where you want to go.

Find a workplace with a structure that fits how you grow

Broadly speaking, after working with about 50 people on their careers, I’ve realised this.

There are two types of young adults in their first job.

  1. Those who need structure
  2. Those who don’t fit well in structures

Those needing structure

For those who need structures, it’s better for you to go to established organisations with a Management Associate Programme, or companies who are known for being a wellspring of talent.

Another good source of information is to go to the company’s Glassdoor review and understand more about other people’s experiences there.

You can also ask during the interview:

  1. How do you onboard your staff here?
  2. What kind of support will I get in my first month?

But how do you know if you do, especially in your first job?

I would personally advise that if you’ve not taken a full-time job before, and you’re completely clueless about what you need to do, then you should take the chance to join an organisation with better structure.

In my first job, I made the mistake of going to a Singaporean Small and Medium Enterprise that had little structure. In my first day, I was asked to read a bunch of manuals.

For the first month, there was little else to do except to shadow people.

It can be bad. Really bad.

If you don’t need structure, find the person who understands you, not the organisation

How do you know if you wouldn’t fit well with structures?

The traditional, logical advice is that you would work well within startups.

That’s not true.

A startup’s messiness initially may make it difficult for you to find your footing.

You need someone who understands your idiosyncrasies and is able to look past them, to work with what’s within you.

It’s what Finkelstein calls ‘Superbosses’.

If you looked at the top fifty people in these industries, you would find that perhaps fifteen or twenty had once worked for or had been mentored by one or a few talent spawners—or “superbosses,” as I came to call them.

Sydney Finkelstein, Superbosses

You probably know you’re a little different

If this describe you today – you knowing that despite your best efforts to fit in, you’re not; or despite your valiant efforts to push the organisation forward, nothing is happening; and it is frustrating.

Bosses might see you as this pesky kid.

And they try to ‘control’ or manage you with things like Performance Improvement Plans, the informal coffee chats, (that probably spell trouble the moment the boss says, “Can I have a word with you?”) and which leave you reeling.

You wonder what it is you’ve done, when your intentions were good.

There’s nothing wrong with what you’ve done, but it’s just that you’ve come to a place where people just don’t get you.

I’m sorry.

And I will say this gently.

No one ever will get you,

as well as you get yourself.

Only you know what you need to progress in your work, and to find work that you will truly flourish in.

And in your early years, take the opportunity to try as many things as you want, yet anchored in your strengths, rather than your passions.

You will find yourself slowly building your own fit.

Just trust yourself. Not what others say about you.

Because you’re going to have people who talk behind your back, supervisors who report to you what their peers have told them about you, and nasty emails (especially in Singapore) that go round your back to talk about all the bad things you’ve done.

It’s painful.

Acknowledge it. Label the emotion.

Then accept it.

People just don’t get you.

It’s okay.

But you need to get yourself.

And pick yourself up, again and again.

However long it takes.

Don’t give up the fight.

I will close with this poem from William Butler Yeats, titled ‘Aedh Wishes for the Cloths of Heaven’.

It reads,

Had I the heavens’ embroidered cloths,

Enwrought with golden and silver light,

The blue and the dim and the dark cloths

Of night and light and the half light,

I would spread the cloths under your feet:

But I, being poor, have only my dreams;

I have spread my dreams under your feet;

Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Each day, you bring your dreams, and your best hopes to your employers, and the organisations with you.

People will trample on your dreams. They will scream, shout and shoot your dreams down. No matter how good your intentions are.

It isn’t about fighting back with them.

Rather, be like water. Flow with it.

And realise that they can get you down, but they will never get you out.



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