michael king

stack of stained pages, redacted love letters, spilling ink, pressing it into tomorrow

3: you will annoy your co-workers.

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“Wait, Michael,” you might be saying, “Maybe this is more of a you thing that you’re projecting as a universal truth so that you can deal with the fact that you annoy your co-workers.” I hear you, and I’ll own that it’s a possibility, but hear me out.

The twenties, for most, mark a time of entering the workforce and beginning a career. Fresh off of whatever schooling was mandated, the twenty-something taking their first position is often ambitious, driven, and eager to prove that they were worth the hire. Having grown up with workplace sitcoms, we twenty-somethings approach our first jobs with hopes of making friends and doing good things.

Here’s the reality: You are somebody’s colleague nightmare. Maybe you come to work with a smile and a cup of coffee each day, but your cubicle-mate notices you don’t ever arrive quite on time. Maybe you are dependable and reliable, answering every e-mail with lightning precision and creating workplace efficiency flow like none other, but your project manager notes you’re harmful for team morale. Maybe you are passionate and contribute solid ideas, but the three people sitting behind you in that meeting think you like to hear yourself speak. Maybe you’re a team player who creates waves with nobody, but somebody on your task force thinks you’re a schmoozer with very little vision. Your co-workers are going to find your ‘but.’ 

The reality is that the process of teamwork and cooperation is, and always has been, a pretty challenging undertaking. Because the twenty-something years typically mark the introduction to a workplace setting, they are also the years we are figuring out our identity as an employee. It may be tough to hear, but there is a ‘but’ about your approach to work.

There are two keys, I think, to moving forward with this information: (1) Own the feedback, but (2) don’t dim your shine.

Own the feedback. It’s important to be self-reflective and to understand that you probably wouldn’t mind what your co-workers are telling you (or each other) if there wasn’t some truth to it. Your weaknesses will not be erased, and hiding them is temporary at best, so it seems helpful to acknowledge them, to work against them when possible, and to apologize for them when necessary.

Don’t dim your shine. Sometimes there is an additional ‘but,’ that sounds more like this: ‘But I’m only picking at that because you’re such a good problem-solver that it makes me feel insecure.’ ‘But I wish I could network like that; it doesn’t come naturally to me.’ ‘But I don’t know how to put people at ease like that.’ ‘But you always seem to know what you’re doing, and it makes me unsure.’ You can’t take all the feedback, or you’ll always be in evaluation mode and you won’t get anything done. Trust your brand. Accept that it’s going to annoy somebody.

2: nobody’s immune from the mess.

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I made it 25 years into my life without ever being too much of a mess. I grew up approaching life a little bit like crossing rocks in a river: careful, tentative steps and eyes on the horizon for hazards. It was exactly this tendency, during my emergence into young adulthood, that landed me in occasional hot water with friends and family: You think you’re perfect. You always do the right thing. I don’t want to disappoint you. It was isolating, occasionally, but I shrugged it off. I was there to help people through their mess, which was easy, as I had very little.

My first foray into messy, ambiguous territory came when I realized I was gay. The coming out process is unique to every LGBT+ person, but it’s generally a universally big mess to manage. There are a lot of people to tell, many of whom are going to make it about themselves, and it might involve a few chips to the support system. The act of declaring oneself, of professing one’s very heart, should not involve the concept of ‘damage control,’ but it often does.

Despite the messiness, however, I moved forward with insistent commitment to my life strategy: Plan it out, bring it to life, help everybody put the pieces together, group hug, and hope for the best. And not everything was perfect. Things were hard, the mess was a bit out of my purview, and my support system took a few hits. But I kept my shit together.

At 25, I failed at my relationship and struggled to find the ground. I struggled to eat, avoided my bed for the better part of a month, and I got really into Taylor Swift. After 25 years of ‘having it together’ and ‘having a plan’ so that everybody else could feel calm, I was a hot. damn. mess. And, in that process, I had to rely on my friends for support and trust them to love me anyway. It was hard, being truly vulnerable, and I missed the feeling of being the shoulder rather than needing it, but I found myself in that process. I found the broken pieces inside of me and figured out that they didn’t erase my worthiness.

I bring this up because the twenty-somethings are going to come along with some mess: We are emerging adults making our way into the world, and we are – at best – trying to ‘fake it until we make it.’ Nobody’s immune from the breaks, from the mess, from the failures.

The key is, I think, to help each other through. I’ve learned to put my judgment to rest, to hear my friends and family out as they share about their latest mistakes. I’m going to need them to love me through mine, so I’ll love them through theirs, and not in any kind of distant, holier-than-thou way. Nobody’s immune from the mess, twenty-somethings. We’re all still learning to walk on our own.

1: your life hits fast-forward.

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In May of 2012, I graduated from college with the best of friends. Commencement week was a blur of celebrations and nostalgia, toasts to the world we built here together, and a mess of excitement and apprehension about the big What’s Next. We lived off of microwave S’mores, Diet Coke and Jim Beam, and an appalling lack of sleep. Hugging one another, whispering goodbyes, we embarked from college and into our true twenties.

It’s been four years, almost, since that time. It feels like yesterday. Those four years have brought us all our own adventures – for me, graduate school and my first professional job. For all of us, broken plans and new dreams, struggles with life and love and the pursuit of happiness. I am very nearly 27, and I have to ask: How in the world did this happen?

Even now, when I think about the four years that were my high school experience, I remember time moving along with a gentle, reassuring thrum of predictability. Days dragged, months dragged further, and the journey to that diploma felt hard-won.

College was a journey in its own right. Embarking from home, discovering the giants in the sky, figuring out who I was. I remember it went faster than I expected, but it felt manageable. They were four epic years (it was cool to say things were ‘epic’ then), and we had ‘done college right.’

But I never did quite get my feet to the rhythm of the past four years. Grad school ripped by underfoot at a breakneck pace, and it feels like I started this job – this new adventure – mere weeks ago.

A secret to the twenty-something years: Life picks up. The train starts ripping forward, and it pays no mind to the fact that we don’t know what we’re doing. Facebook friends begin families, nostalgia channels start playing the shows we grew up to, and memories of our good college years start to sound like our parents’ stories.