Remember your first job? I still remember those first weeks, the sense that I don’t really know what is going on around me, that everything is new, the language a bit foreign, the people unknown, more experienced, more capable, busy. I remember the loneliness, the confusion, the anxiety that it will not turn out to be what I had hoped for…
Twenty-five years later, I watched my son take his first steps at his first real job. And with him, I re-experienced those feelings of not knowing: the people, the rules, the tools. Not knowing what is expected of you, who to talk to about what, what is appropriate, what matters, what doesn’t.
The transition from almost a lifetime of education to the world of work is scary. Up until now, someone else set the path for you, the expectations were clear. You were given material, told what to study, when to submit, how to prepare, what is considered a passing grade, an exceptional one. And suddenly, during those first few weeks on that first real job, you quickly discover that there is more to it than to do what you learned. You don’t really know what a right decision looks like, on the job training doesn’t feel like a class and there is no grade or test to help you figure out whether you are on the right track. And most of all, it isn’t even clear what success looks like…
Your first priority is to learn
One cannot underestimate the importance of the first job. Many times it does come with somewhat of a disappointment. You thought you were going to change the world, or at least the organization, and then you discover you are at the bottom of some sort of ladder, doing what looks like menial tasks. That is the first thing to understand, there is no such thing as menial tasks because your task is mainly to learn. Yes, to learn, you haven’t finished learning when you graduated and learning, that is your number one job during this period. Learning from everything and everyone. My first manager taught me many things, but the most important one was that you can and should learn from everyone, even if what you learn is “what not”. Think of your career as a diamond, one that you continue to polish over years and roles. Right now it is still raw, unpolished, so it doesn’t really matter where you start working on your diamond, as long as you start. And so there are no small unimportant tasks. You are learning about the team, the organization, the work, the way things work, who’s who, what is important, what is considered success, who your customer is, your boss, your system…
Do your very best
While what you’re doing is not that important, doing your best certainly is. Even if you can’t yet see what you will learn from what you are doing, you are building your “professional you”. If you do “boring” work very well, a number of things will happen. First, your work ethics will be visible, the fact that you take your work seriously, you do not grumble and you do your job well. And then, most probably, you will get another task, even if still small, but of more importance and impact. And you’ll do that well and get another one. This is how careers are built, through hard work, through being excellent even when you’re doing the smallest of tasks. A friend of mine gave this advice to his new employees:
I remember that day when I started Waze and it asked me “are you on your way home?” I smiled. Did you make your users smile today?
In his book Outliers: The Story of Success, Malcolm Gladwell discusses what he calls the 10,000 hour rule – the principle that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to become world-class in any field. And that, according to research, takes about a decade of hard work done well to accomplish. Your first job is the very first step on this road and if you choose to view every task as part of your journey to your 10,000 hours, you will be developing your career in the right direction.
In a great article on HBR Five Tips for Your First Job, John Coleman recommends that you don’t “pretend to know”. No, you are not expected to know all the answers at this stage of your career. On the contrary, the more you ask, the more you will grow. Your first job is an opportunity to learn, research, ask questions, even “stupid” ones and get away with it “because I am new”. It would be wise to recognize the capabilities and experience of your co-workers and view your first role as a sort of internship.
The importance of the people around you
And this leads us to another important aspect in your first job: the people around you, the team, your manager. Your first job is a lesson in working with people, building networks, working in teams. And it’s nothing like the friends from school or even the people who teamed up with you on a class project. In today’s world of work, it is not enough that you are smart, capable, innovative. If you don’t know how to work in a team, with other people, the organization will not benefit from your full potential. I’ve met many smart people over my career who found themselves in less than optimal places in the organization because of their inability to work well on teams. It is important to remember teamwork is key to success so you must be great team players. Or as someone once told me: don’t be lone wolves, be part of a school of dolphins…
You are part of a team!
Every person you will work with will team you something, and maybe even become a friend or a mentor in your career. The ability to become part of a team, not to work as individuals but as part of something bigger, that ability is important to your career. You probably have interesting, experience, dedicated people around you. Get to know them, respect them, learn from them, each and every one of them is now part of your network for better or worse and one of these days you will meet them again, in this organization or in another one. With time you will discover you too can help co-workers, your manager, your customers, external or internal. Give generously of your knowledge, your time, your attention, your experience. Give generously and you will receive. Not from everyone, but from those that matter. And never, never eat lunch alone at your desk! You need to know what is going on in the organization and you will not learn anything if you stay at your desk most of the time.
Let go of Ego
Remember, it is not important to be right or to be the smartest person in the room. It is important to be able to have open conversations, even if you are passionate about a topic or a decision, and keep it professional without it becoming personal and a battle of egos. Staying open for the benefit of the topic itself is a very important ability at work. Especially at the start of your career, when you still do not know what you don’t know, so regardless of what you think you know, you probably don’t have the full perspective on what is being discussed.
Stay close to your manager
Your manager is especially important at this stage of your career. A good manager will be a mentor, someone to teach you more than just the job, but how to engage in the organization, in the team, at work in general. This is your first job, and you still do not know how to work in an organization. Your manager knows what is considered success. They want you to succeed, ask them, they are sure to tell you what you need to know. Your role is to listen well to the answers and make sure you stay connected to your manager so that if you are not on the right path they will steer you back. How do you stay connected? You don’t worry about asking, updating, ensuring your manager knows that you understand what you have been asked to do. And when you’re done with one task, go back and update and ask what to do next. This will help you hit the ground running. If you don’t have regular meetings with your manager, ask for those. And ensure that you understand how they define success for you. In a month, in three, in a year. Wherever they see you going, that is where you need to arrive.
The organization – you are now part of something bigger
Your manager and your team are a wonderful source of information on the organization. This is a new entity; one you have not met before. In the organization you will discover culture, norms, rules, values, objectives. You are now part of something bigger. The more you are connected to these objectives, the more you will understand how your work is connected, meaningful, important. And you will be able to give it all you have and do your best. If you understand where you fit in the big picture you will know what is considered important and what isn’t and will be able to adjust your priorities.
And then, one day, you will discover you are no longer new. And a time will come when you will ask yourself, or get asked to consider moving on from your first job to your next job, or organization, or venture. Remember the diamond that is your career and make sure you know exactly how you are polishing it with that next step. Good luck!