Whether you’re straight out of college or starting a new career path, that first job can be scary. You might think you know the ropes, but it’s a lot more than just getting your work done. Here are a few tips I wish someone gave me before I took my first job.
Everyone’s workplace is a little different, but when it boils down to it, we all face the same set of challenges at a new job. You’ll probably need to start at the bottom of the totem pole even if you’re an experienced worker, and integrating yourself into the company culture is a lot harder than you think. Keeping your expectations in check is a good place to start.
Accept Your Newbie Status and the Work that Comes with It
When you’re just out of college, it’s easy to get a big head about what you can do in the workplace. Unfortunately, chances are you’ll need to clean the proverbial toilet for a while before you’re given any real responsibility. This means you need to show off your work ethic even if you’re stuck doing tasks you don’t like.
It might sound like simply “paying your dues,” but it’s easy to get a little full of yourself when you first start a job. In a recent episode of Still Untitled: The Adam Savage Project, the podcast crew detail why work ethic is insanely important when you’re faced with work you don’t want to do:
When you do [the boring work] and you do it well, about 10% of the time you get to do the fun stuff. You get to dress something and make it look cooler, or you get to solve a problem. If you do that well, you get to do a little more of it. Then a little more… You have to dedicate yourself to the drudgery, and doing the legwork that’s not fun or glamorous… No one comes out of college or trade school knowing what they need to succeed down the line.
Their advice? Revel in working hard no matter what the job is. You might be smart and clever, but a solid work ethic is the main thing that’ll separate you from all the other viable candidates. You may start with a bunch of grunt work, but you can’t be an oversensetive employee. If you’re not learning anything, it’s time to look at yourself and figure out what actually sucks: the job or you. Photo by Leigh Marriner.
Stay Organized and Never Miss a Deadline
Your new career is probably nothing like school, or any other job you’ve ever had. That means the organization principles you used in the past may not be any good to you now. Being on time, getting your work done, and keeping it all together is incredibly important at a new job.
In a lot of careers, your boss isn’t really going to notice you at first unless you’re doing something horribly wrong. Being on time every day, keeping your desk clean, and doing your job ensure they won’t single you out right away as being unproductive. You can worry about standing out later. At first you just need to get your work done as efficiently as possible.
If you need some tools to help keep track of everything, our Lifehacker Packs have everything you need to stay organized, productive, and on time. It might seem like a minor thing, but showing you can reliably get things done goes a long way. Photo by Blake Patterson.
Pay Attention to the Company Culture
Every company is different, and fitting in is increasingly important when hundreds (if not thousands) of other people want your job. We’ve heard that interviews test for cultural fit and that carries over into the job itself. While you don’t need to go out of your way to change your personality for an employer (if you do, you probably shouldn’t be working there), you should make an effort to meet everyone as quickly as possible. Introducing yourself around the office is certainly a good start, but the Harvard Business Review also suggests you never eat lunch alone:
One of the best things about a new job is the incredible learning experience it provides. Every single person you’ll work with in your new position—from the receptionist to the CEO—can teach you something valuable, and each of them can be a friend and mentor in your career… Your office is full of intelligent, thoughtful, and experienced people. Get to know them. Treat them with respect. Ask them questions. Learn from them. And have fun in the process.
You don’t need to literally eat lunch with everyone. The goal is make a good impression with various people around the company, and learn as much as you can. Making friends is the easiest way to do that.
When you’re constantly seeking a broader knowledge of the company as a whole, it makes you look good. It also helps you figure out what really matters at a company, and you can change your own behavior slightly if needed. Photo by Jere Keys.
One thing you likely learned in school that carries over to the real world: asking questions is important. Your boss and your coworkers want nothing more than for you to do your job correctly the first time, and the best way to do that is to ask questions when you’re starting out. Be sure you actively listen to the answers, and ask followup questions so you avoid miscommunication. If you’re still not entirely certain you’re doing a project right, give your boss simple progress reports that outline where you’re at. That way, your boss can steer you back on track if you get lost.
You want to ask questions when you need to, but don’t overdo it. Wanting to learn is an excellent quality, but so is initiative. If you understand the basics and what’s expected of you, don’t be afraid to find your own shortcuts to get the job done, and don’t pester your boss for help with every small decision.
The next best question you can ask is: “What should I do next?” Pretty much every boss on the planet loves to hear that you’re done with a project and ready for more work (or even better, just find something that needs to get done and do it). While it’s important not to stretch yourself and take on too much work, one of the best qualities of a new hire is the “run not walk” attitude that keeps you busy. You’ll have time to relax once you’ve settled in at the company, but now is not that time.
Even when you ask a lot of questions, you’re also going to make mistakes, and that’s perfectly okay as long as you don’t repeat them. Unless you start a fire in the office your boss will likely let your first few mistakes slide. Just be honest about it, ask what you should have done, and make sure you learned something from it. Photo by Gavin Bobo.
Watch for Burnout (and Deal with It the Right Way)
It’s remarkably easy to get caught up in moving your career forward when you’re first starting out. Regardless of how young you are, this eventually leads to burnout, which means you end up doing your job poorly. It might seem like you need a gung-ho attitude at a new job to really get ahead, but your productivity and creativity can suffer when you work long hours, so it’ll do more harm than good. Here’s what you need to keep in mind:
- Recognize when you’re overworked: If you’re working too much, you’re not sleeping enough, you’re not taking breaks, and you end up stressed out. When you’re first starting at a new job, it’s tough to request a two week vacation, but that doesn’t mean you can’t take a day off every once in a while.
- Give yourself breaks throughout the day: Work-life balance is incredibly hard to manage when you’re starting your career, and chances are you’ll have a lot of long hours when you’re first starting out. When things start to get messy, remind yourself to take short breaks and reward yourself with something small and simple. It won’t save you from that 16 hour day on a tight deadline, but it’ll at least save a bit of your sanity.
- Take those sick days: You want your new employer to see you as reliable, and taking a sick day seems in exact opposition to that. However, when you’re sick—truly, honestly, horribly, sick—nobody wants you around. Any good boss should allow you to take a sick day when you’re actually ill, so don’t feel the need to push yourself into work when you have the flu.
It’s a fine balance between maintaining a consistent work ethic, being reliable, and still giving yourself the time off you need to survive. Your first job is not only about showing that you can get the job done, it’s also about forming connections and learning as many tricks of the trade as possible. This likely won’t be your last job, and the more you can take away from it the better.