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Why It’s Okay to Be Unsure About Your Career in Your 20s

November 30, 2016, 2:00 AM UTC
Apatow Productions/HBO

The MPW Insiders Network is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for, “What should every college intern know about succeeding in business?” is written by Sally Blount, dean of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.

I often meet young people who think that they will find their true life calling if they can just get the right first job or internship. And I try to explain to them that whether it’s paid or unpaid, finding your true life calling in your early 20s is both unlikely and really not the point. Your first real-work experience is not meant to seal your fate for the next 30 years; it’s not meant to reveal your outstanding analytical skills; and it’s certainly not a time when you’ll show the world that you’re ready to be the next CEO (you’re not). The most important thing you can learn from your first job actually isn’t about you. It’s about the phenomenon of working and how human organizations get things done.

Up until this point, most of your “education” has focused on developing your IQ—that is your problem-solving and reasoning skills, your factual knowledge base, and your ability to learn. But once you leave college and hit the “real world,” you need to shift to developing your understanding of human dynamics and how organizations function. That means learning how to develop different types of intelligence, including your EQ (emotional intelligence), SQ (social intelligence) and, what I refer to as your OQ (organizational intelligence).

These three types of intelligence typically take decades to develop; they are the roots of what many people call wisdom. And you can’t learn them from lectures, books, or group discussions. They require experience.

EQ is all about people’s emotions, because emotions are what ultimately motivate individuals, including you, to act in both productive and unproductive ways. Having a high EQ at work means that you have developed an ability to feel, understand, and regulate your own emotions and emotional responses. It also means that you can sense and understand the basic elements of other people’s emotions and have an appreciation for how emotion influences social interaction and productivity.

For example, people with high EQs usually say the right things with the right tenor. When they don’t, they readily sense that things are getting “charged” and work to defuse those dynamics. They can motivate other people to act by redirecting potential misunderstandings or providing affirmation at just the right time.

See also: Never Finish an Internship Without Asking for This

People with high EQ are also an important source of positive energy, because they don’t introduce toxicity into the workplace, especially when under stress and in times of boredom—either or both of which you can expect to experience in large quantities during your first real job. As research increasingly shows, emotions can be contagious. People with high EQ don’t spread negative emotion. That doesn’t mean that they never get bored, frustrated, or overwhelmed at work. But it does mean that they know how to deal with those emotions productively—at the right time and pace.

SQ is all about social interaction. It’s about paying attention to and responding to the relational and group dynamics that surround you across time—weeks, months, and years. It’s about learning to see what actions increase collaboration, harmony, and productivity in groups and what actions detract. It’s about effective expectation-setting in meetings and work plans; it’s about inclusiveness and pacing—allowing everyone into conversations at the right points in time. It’s about knowing how and when to take certain kinds of conflict “offline” and when and how to allow other types of conflict into a meeting for effective resolution. It’s about knowing when the group needs to blow off steam together by going bowling or when they need a tough talk about “buckling down.”

OQ is all about the human systems that emerge when you put a group of 15 or more people together and give them a common goal. While many people have written and talk about EQ and SQ, I now spend a lot more time thinking about organizational intelligence with our MBA students. It’s because this is the rarest skill—understanding how human systems work—and this is the type of intelligence, in my mind, that really distinguishes great leaders. People with high OQ develop a capacity to anticipate how large groups of people with a shared social identity and mission tend to behave and react over time. They develop an instinct for how to increase fluidity and harmony in all types of organizations—both large and small, be it in the private sector or public. Even more importantly, they know how to counter the deteriorating effects of status quo bias that is endemic to human organizations and enact change to keep the organization moving forward. They understand power dynamics, both formal and informal, and how to get things done in organizations. They can materially increase performance and work meaning across groups of tens, hundreds, and thousands of people.


Developing EQ, SQ, and OQ takes a combination of observation, reflection, and real-world trial and error. That’s why it takes time—because unlike facts or mathematical equations, no two people or situations are exactly the same. Hence, you can’t “memorize” EQ, SQ, or OQ. You have to learn to feel them and sense them.

So the sooner you make the psychological shift at work from focusing on you to focusing on learning all you can about the human dynamics around you, the more effective and satisfied you will be. Regardless of whether you enjoy your first job or not and whether it stimulates your IQ or not, if approached with the right mindset, any first full-time work experience can be an amazing growth opportunity.