Willard Says...

May 8, 2024

The “Real World” Isn’t Real

By Amanda Friedlander

“In the real world, this would never fly.” “In the real world, you’ll need to know this.” “In the real world, you’ll be held to a much higher standard.”

These are some of the sentiments I recall hearing in almost every academic setting I’ve ever been in. As early as middle school, we were trained to expect a different set of standards in the, quote-unquote, “real world.” Fast forward two decades, and I’m still hearing about this mythical, elusive world where all of my academic and social education is simultaneously tested and ignored. I was taught that my bosses would be strict and severe; that my every move would be scrutinized by my peers and colleagues; that my personality and self expression would become unacceptable the moment I entered the adult workforce. 

What a bunch of nonsense.

I’ve been a legal adult for a decade now, but I’ve been working since I was 15 years old. My parents enrolled me in leadership classes and I snagged as many professional internships as I could, minimizing the apparent risk of matriculating into a world for which I was woefully unprepared. 

But the older I got and the longer I’ve been in the workforce, the less I understand what exactly I was preparing for. I’ve agonized over drafting emails, carefully curated my online presence, learned how to navigate and mediate difficult discussions, and developed a healthy facade of self-confidence to project in a room of strangers. And while I’ve been blessed to be surrounded by a community of kind, generous, talented people thus far, it seems that a not-insignificant number of people march to a different drum – not necessarily better or worse, but one whose function depends on the odds of success rather than the cultivation of a symbiotic community. In other words, I was taught to predicate my professionalism on perception…say that five times fast…whereas some others predicate theirs on efficiency. It remains to be seen which strategy is more successful, but at least in my experience, the tortoise seems happier than the hare.

For those of you rolling your eyes at my idealistic dream of a global kumbaya, just hear me out. I realize that capitalist society functions on a marketplace of ideas and sometimes brutal competition. I know that we are all subject to the curse of being perceived and many of us routinely practice the art of code-switching to protect ourselves and our jobs. I know that the “real world” is a rat race, and our livelihoods sometimes depend on us sacrificing respectfulness for profitability. I know courtesy looks different to everyone and sometimes is reserved for those we deem most essential to our ultimate goals. And as Shakespeare once said, “all the world’s a stage.” But he also said “virginity breeds mites, much like a cheese,” so I guess we can take his wisdom with a grain of salt.

With all that in mind, it’s understandable that compassion sometimes takes a back seat to sexier things like “synergy” and “deliverables” and “optimization.” The corporate world rarely rewards gentleness. And we’ve all heard the phrase, “life isn’t fair,” and many of us were probably taught to expect unfairness and disappointment once we grew up and into the “real world.” But that “real-world” lesson doesn’t begin once you hit adulthood. It’s ubiquitous and omnipresent. Privilege, of course, plays a major role in how fair and just the “real world” is, but that’s exactly the point: the real world isn’t something you age into, it’s something you’re born into. That is to say, it’s useless to try to prepare kids for the real world, because they’re already in it. So lessons about courtesy, productive communication, intersectionality, and yes – even professionalism – shouldn’t be contingent upon whether those lessons will result in traditional employment.

I’m grateful for the difficult lessons I learned in pursuit of being prepared for this so-called real world, but were they really necessary? I’ve received messages, emails, DMs, and calls from peers, professors, administrators, and C-level executives that barely pass for professional. “Sent from my iPhone” as a signature instead of a name. Critical messages consisting of one letter: “K.” I’ve encountered colleagues who still use outdated terms and phrases that I care not to repeat here. There’s no-call, no-show appointments and meetings; cover letters addressed to the wrong company; unwelcome late-night text messages from sales representatives; repeatedly misspelled names despite multiple corrections; it’s excuses and entitlement, whether earned or not; it’s mistakes made by experts and innovations made by accident. And more than anything, it’s the reality that it really isn’t about what you know, it’s who you know. 

There’s no straight line and no ladder to climb. Whether you sign off with “best wishes,” “sincerely,” “yours truly,” or the dreaded “regards,” the email gets sent and read and acted upon. Whether you wear a three-piece suit or those stretchy jeans you pulled out of the laundry basket this morning. Whether you work through your lunch hour or, like me, opt to nap on the common area couches. The only skill you need is self-awareness, and awareness of your environment. You might have to trade comfort for class, or respond to a hostile email with poise and stoicism. You might have to take stock of your moral compass and decide whether the salary is worth the sacrifice. But the real world doesn’t disappear when you get home and close the door behind you. It’s still there, you’re still a part of it, and you’re still successful just for having participated in it.

We have to recognize that the real world isn’t real at all – it’s relative. It’s a gamble. You can spend your whole life preparing to enter a society of homogeny and cooperation, but you’ll never find it. Hostility isn’t always discouraged, and altruism isn’t always rewarded. The real world is about flexibility and adaptation. Surviving and thriving in a fast-paced, big-city corporate culture is less dependent on academic and professional worthiness, and more about radical acceptance and empathy. Despite everything we’re taught, there are no hard and fast rules for succeeding in this so-called “real world.” If there were, we’d all break them to carve out space for authenticity. The real world isn’t a place. It’s not a threat. It’s not a reward. It’s not a goal to be achieved or a bar to set. It’s a fishbowl surrounded by mirrors, and we’ll all just ride each other’s currents and bump into one another again and again. But as long as there’s water, we’ll just keep on swimming. 

So if you take nothing else away from this, take this to heart: maybe the real world isn’t so real after all, but we are. We can’t control how our kids, students, mentees, and interns experience the joys and woes of corporate culture, but we can teach them acceptance, adaptation, consideration, and collaboration. Professional etiquette is important, sure, but so is playing well with others. The tortoise and the hare both eventually crossed the finish line. They enjoyed the same scenery and probably shared a beer afterward. And maybe next time, their race will be a relay. 

Listen to this episode on Spotify or Apple Music here.