- Wise Words -
Talk the talk and walk the walk.
This and the other lessons of my transition to the office
by ben seymour
Early on in Martin Scorsese’s 2014 film The Wolf of Wall Street, Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort is shown the stockbroking ropes by the charismatic Donnie Azoff, played by Matthew McConaughey. As the baby-faced Belfort looks on in awe, Azoff dismantles the notion that brokers are any more informed about the finer workings of the stock market than anybody else. Says Azoff: “First rule of Wall Street: nobody knows if a stock’s going up, down or sideways, least of all stockbrokers. But we have to act like we know.”
This advice remains as one of my early workplace experiences involved acting as if I knew what I was doing a lot of the time - without the advantages afforded by McConaughey’s effortless cool.
My goal in writing this column is to share my experience in the event they help others as they make the transition (a nice word for the upheaval we face from the comfort of life at school and university) from formal education to the workplace. I will do this by following the first lesson I learned, to maintain the façade of someone who knows what they’re doing!
Everyone Talks a Good Game - You Should Too
It took me a long time to learn the “Donnie Azoff Lesson” but I was not the only person in the office struggling to get a grip on how things worked. For my first graduate-level role, I landed in the compliance office of a prestigious law firm. Having studied Spanish and History at university, my only legal experience at that point involved binge-watching Suits on a Saturday morning while recovering from the previous night. What’s more, the only transferable skill which I carried over from my undergraduate studies was the ability to talk like somebody smarter than I really am!
This skill turned out to be key, although I was too proud to admit at the time. I remember very clearly talking with a colleague, who remarked that the one thing his working life had taught him was that it doesn’t matter how smart you are and that the key to making the best of any job was learning “how to talk a good game.”
I remember, thinking that that was a cheap shortcut to success. Even to this day, I believe that we increasingly undervalue intelligence and expertise (more on this later). However, a good article on LinkedIn by Maurice Ewing talks about the importance in the workplace of ‘the ability to recognise the social context of one’s work situation and adjust one’s behaviour so as to appear sincere, inspire trust and influence others’.
This is not to say that the key to making a success of working life is to be dishonest, hide our intelligence or not work hard. Rather, employers value skills such as the capacity to maintain relationships, hard work and decisiveness just as much as they do academic credentials.
You are not a fraud
Following on from the first point, in a working culture that seems to place more value on attributes other than academic qualifications, it is not uncommon for graduates to feel as if they only ended up in their position due to luck as opposed to talent. We can suffer from imposter syndrome.
Imposter syndrome is the “feeling of inadequacy or self-doubt that prevail despite obvious accomplishments and successes” or “the fear that your friends or colleagues are going to discover you’re a fraud and you don’t actually deserve your job or your accomplishments.” The Independent, says one-third of people between the ages of 18 and 34 will suffer from imposter syndrome and there’s other research out there that suggests most of us will suffer from it at one point or another. It’s natural, especially when you land your first professional role after university or begin postgraduate education, to feel as if you somehow don’t belong.
I certainly felt like I didn’t.
After gaining a place on an MA degree course, I convinced myself that I did not deserve to be there, that I was not smart enough to complete the degree and inevitably would drop out. That I would fail. Like many, I discovered that these fears were misguided. However, that does not disguise how debilitating these negative thoughts can be if left unchecked.
So how does one check this imposter syndrome? What helped me was “policing my thoughts” and identifying the specific mental “triggers”. I got this from reading an article by Dr. Loren Soeiro in Psychology Today. “When you know what these are”, he continues, “start questioning them critically in your thoughts and challenging them in your behaviour…[and by] confiding in someone you can trust. You’ll most likely learn that you aren’t the only one suffering from these feelings.”
For me, this meant facing my doubts, and being honest with myself about what I hoped to achieve. After a long wait between accepting my offer and starting the course and constantly second-guessing my decision, once my return to university life was completed, being able to take matters into my own hands was a great release.
Although I was far from the most naturally gifted student on the course, I refused to let anyone work harder than me. If that sounds petty, it was not born out of a sense of needing to be better than everyone else. Rather, what this approach gave me was a feeling of being in control over my thoughts, and giving myself the best possible chance of proving myself wrong. In doing so, I realised that it was impractical to allow myself to be dragged down by a scenario that was highly unlikely to come to pass. Quite the opposite, in fact. So take that first, most daunting step- you will forever kick yourself if you talk yourself out of opportunities that come your way.
A call to action. Don’t be afraid of showing your intelligence
In the build-up to the 2016 Brexit referendum, Michael Gove proclaimed in an interview that “The people of this country have had enough of experts”, an alarming assertion from a political leader who, at the time, was in charge of the UK’s education system.
What I want to say in this final part of my column is that we should value our expertise and intelligence and not hide it away.
Anti-intellectual sentiment starts innocently enough in schools, where the smartest kids are rarely the most popular or confident classroom personalities. However, the true extent of anti-intellectualism becomes most apparent when we reach adult life. In the workplace, I have seen people to err on the side of feigning ignorance rather than show off their passions and interests. Some even say that the most intelligent members of the office are passed over for promotions in favour of more charismatic and extroverted colleagues.
There is, admittedly, justification in the argument that there is more than one kind of “intelligence” which is valued in leadership roles- namely empathetic traits such as emotional or social intelligence which cannot be measured by exam or university assessment grades, and which all the best leaders exhibit. Rightly, these qualities play a crucial role in determining who receives the positions of responsibility.
But if we in the workplace continue to undervalue- even demean- expertise in areas like education and science, how can we look on in horror as these same trends play out in the real world? I understand that this is an extremely tricky balancing act. It is essential that leaders at every level- professional, local and national- possess the confidence, vision and courage to make the toughest calls.
But an even more crucial aspect of leadership is bringing outside expertise into the decision-making process and demonstrating a willingness to embrace both radical new ideas and hard truths. If more senior officials valued such contributions, then the world would be a richer, more diverse and more hopeful place. Here’s hoping….
Related content: "Reputations Travel So Manage Your Professional Relationships, Be The Genuine Article, Don’t Take (Stage) Fright,
More transition from College to Workplace experiences: Mind The Gap. How I Moved From College To Office, Millennial Reflections,
Ben Seymour holds an undergraduate degree in Spanish and History from Nottingham Trent University. Upon graduating in 2017, Ben worked for a year as a compliance officer for Freeth’s Solicitors, before returning to NTU in September 2018 to study a Master’s Degree in International Relations. He graduated last December with First Class honours, earning the university’s prize for the best performing politics student. He is about to embark on the NCTJ’s Diploma in Journalism, and hopes to pursue a career as a Foreign Affairs Correspondent. You can read some of Ben’s writing about international politics at his blog, “Engage, Inform, Advocate”.