My first job was an interesting one. (I worked at a tech startup for 13 months right out of college.) I wouldn’t change it at all because it was a valuable experience no matter which way you slice it. There were plenty of good days and there were plenty of bad days, but they all added up to a great first job. One where I walked away knowing a lot about myself and with skills I either didn’t know I needed or didn’t have at all. There’s really only so much you can learn at school and in internships– sometimes you have to dive headfirst into the water.
This post is actually an edited and extended version of an answer I gave on Tumblr. (In case you didn’t know, I answer all sorts of questions over there! But there’s a long queue, so if you want something answered ASAP, I recommend contacting me directly.)
Although I’ve been working for myself for almost three years now (?), what I learned at my first job is still so ridiculously important. I think you’re going to learn a lot whether or not you’re prepared for it, but a bit of advice can’t hurt.
1. First in, last out. I made it a habit to be the first one in the office (literally unlocking the doors, turning the lights on, putting the coffee pot on, etc.) and being the last one out. At the very least, I’d leave with my manager. There’s a lot of research behind having face time with your coworkers and this is a solid way to do it. Plus you look committed. Even if you work in a large office, being the first one from your team to arrive ensures that you get to greet everyone who walks in!
The office I worked in was small (at the beginning there was fewer than ten of us), but even as the number of employees reached thirty or so, I was the first face people saw when they came into the office. I always made sure to say “hello!”
2. Your actions become your reputation. Similar to the first tip, what you do becomes what you’re known for. Good or bad. I made the mistake of not shutting off. I’d answer emails whenever because I never set boundaries. I’d answer the email, pick up the phone, put out the fire even if it was 8am on a Sunday. I became known for that so when there was a problem, I was always the first call. Not good for my work/life balance. Will you be early or late? Will you be friendly to everyone or a gossip? Will you dress appropriately or skip washing your hair for three days? Will you finish assignments on time or will you miss deadlines?
3. Nothing is “beneath” you. This was probably the biggest mistake I saw made at my old office. (There was one girl who didn’t think she should have to print labels for water bottles and it was so bad we nicknamed the event “watergate.” It may or may not have been a bigger deal than the actual Watergate scandal.) If someone asks you to take out the trash, do it. If someone asks you to grab a coffee, do it. If someone asks you to shred paperwork, do it. It doesn’t matter if you graduated from an ivy league with a 4.0. You’re establishing yourself at your first job. And even though these tasks seem unimportant, treat them like they are important, because really, they are. (Don’t forget #2! If you’re treating the trash task with professionalism you’re telling your manager that you’ll handle anything and everything with professionalism.)
** I do think there’s a difference between being a team player and being taken advantage of by a higher up. Use your best judgement.
4. Try to figure out questions on your own. At a new job, especially a first one, there will be a lot of stuff you don’t know. Between figuring out your role, learning new procedures, and navigating company culture, there WILL be questions. But try your best to figure out the answers on your own. That way when you have a real question that can’t easily be answered, it won’t be a crying wolf scenario! This is such an important way to establish competency.
I think this was the hardest thing for me to grasp. In school, pretty much everything you want to know you can ask someone. Gosh, even the professor lays everything out pretty neatly on the syllabus and exam questions have clear prompts and you know exactly how your projects are going to be graded. Not so much anymore. Break the habit of needing to know how to do everything now. The real kicker? No one cares how you do it as long as you get it done. (You know, within reason.)
5. Find a buddy. Find someone at your company who’s around your age and experience level. She’ll be your coffee break buddy. Your lunch buddy. Your sounding board buddy. Your “shit I forgot a tampon” buddy. Especially when the going gets rough, it’s nice to know that you have someone on your side that you can talk to.
Be careful to make sure your buddy is a positive one and not someone who is going to drag you into office drama or taint your view of work. There are good buddies and there are bad buddies. Make sure you have a good buddy on your side and make sure that you’re being a good buddy.
6. Cry outside. And if you have to cry, excuse yourself.I take what I said before back, this was the hardest thing for me to grasp. Take five minutes to get fresh air and GET OUT of the office. Sit in your car, walk around the block. Do what you have to do to compose yourself. (Always loved the advice from Kelly Cutrone.)
One thing that really helped me was picking a theme song and listening to it whenever I felt overwhelmed or upset at work. Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” was mine and it saved my butt too many times to count.
7. Don’t gossip. This is a no-brainer. Offices are notorious for rumors and you don’t want to contribute to any of that! I hate that this is the case, but office politics is a real thing. (At least where I worked it was.) I carefully navigated the politics situation and tried to back out of conversations that I knew weren’t going to contribute anything positive.
Are you worried about something in particular with a first job? Is there something you wish you had known sooner at your first job? Would love to add even more advice in the comment section here!