November 2, 2012

The Truth About Your First Job

You aren’t the second coming. Your employer did not glimpse your resume amongst a pile of worthless ones, aglow with the light of fairies, and proclaim “Yes! I have found her!” What more likely happened was the HR department found itself drowning in a sea of both qualified and unqualified candidates and your resume had at least some relevant skills, education, or combination thereof, and you were the one who seemed the most normal during the interview. Should you feel confident beginning your first job? Absolutely. Should you think you were plucked from a pool of less intelligent, less qualified candidates, the sole beacon of hope for your employer? No. A good dose of perspective on this point is necessary for going into your first job with the appropriate frame of mind: that you haven’t proved anything yet.

You will not do anything groundbreaking for some time. Your head might fill with thoughts of the moment you’ll discover a solution to a problem your employer has had for years. Or you might envision yourself making intelligent observations during a staff meeting and getting a pat on the back afterwards. None of this will happen for a long while. You will mostly be doing grunt work; work that the employees above you no longer have to do since you’re there now. A lot of what you do won’t even require any of the knowledge you spent so much time and money acquiring through years of education. You will respond to emails, fetch documents, and/or prepare reports of other people’s creative ideas or complex projects. None of what you do will have any demonstrable effect on your employer’s business. Not saying what you’ll be doing isn’t necessary, just that it won’t be very visible in the final work products.

You’ll have to figure out most stuff on your own. Even at companies that have well-established “mentor” programs, you’re mostly responsible for your own skill development. Your bosses will tell you to begin or complete projects that you have no idea how to do, and they won’t have time to instruct you. You’ll have to figure out which colleagues can point you in the right direction or give you examples, and which colleagues or higher-ups don’t have the time or inclination. You’ll also need a little ingenuity and find ways to figure it out on your own, because sometimes people just won’t want to tell the newbie how to do something.

Most of what you learned in school is not relevant. I know you spent hundreds of hours studying and doing “practical” exercises, but that won’t help you. 99% of what you need to know to do your new job? You won’t learn it until you’re actually doing it. None of the substantive information you stuffed into your brain during your lengthy education will be particularly handy, because even if the information is relevant, the practice of it in various circumstances can stray so far from the way you learned that information in your educational bubble. Learn to be okay with this, and accept the anger you feel at all the time you wasted studying when you should have been doing some sort of on-the-job training.

You have to go. Every. Single. Day. This one seems like a no-brainer, but the reality is much harsher than you think. You’re used to having class a few days a week and getting to adjust your studying (and partying) schedule to suit your needs or desires. In your first job, after the honeymoon phase wears off, the awful reality that you have to show up every day regardless of whether you are tired, hung-over, or PMS-ing will eventually set in. You’ll realize that you probably have somewhere around 2,200 more Mondays ahead of you in your working life, and contemplate every get rich quick scheme before accepting that you are in the rat race for life.

You’ll get blamed for stuff that isn’t your fault. You might do everything right and by the book, but a client or colleague will be unhappy and the buck will have to be passed to someone, usually to the youngest and newest employees. Don’t underestimate people’s inclinations to put their own personal interests over yours and/or the truth. Don’t be a doormat, but also don’t get caught up in petty games of placing blame. If the mistake is a big one with real consequences and you aren’t at all responsible, by all means speak up, but if it’s something inconsequential, ratting out a fellow employee instead of just saying you’ll make sure it doesn’t happen again can actually make you look worse.

It’s up to you to monitor and tout your accomplishments. You can’t expect your boss or other supervisors to remember the time you wrote a really great portion of a brief, or how you handled a particularly difficult account with finesse. They have too much going on in their own work lives to remember each of your achievements. Take charge of your own career and make sure to note times where you did exceptionally good work and communicate that to your superiors when it comes time for performance evaluations or promotion consideration.

You’re expected to do more than you think. Think of those optional tasks as “pieces of flare,” a la Jennifer Aniston as the waitress in Office Space. They may tell you that you’re only required to do X, but in reality you should take the initiative and do Y too. If that means volunteering to stay late to handle a non-work related project or doing the boring work on another, make sure to do your fair share. It’s expected of you, even if not explicitly stated.

Be grateful. You have a job, and a lot of people don’t, so don’t take your position or security with your company for granted. TC Mark

image – Shutterstock