9 Things I Wish I Had Known Before Starting My First Job After College
Most people don’t know this about me, but I majored in history as an undergraduate.
Like many college students, I didn’t have a clear picture of what I wanted to do with my life. So I decided to study a subject I loved, figuring I would at least enjoy my classes even if I wasn’t sure whether my major would help me after graduation.
Majoring in history was a good decision in that I did love my coursework, but it didn’t bring me any closer to figuring out what my first real job would be. Concerned about finding a job after college, I decided to join my school’s Air Force ROTC. While I wasn’t sure where it would lead me professionally, I knew joining the military would give me leadership experience and the opportunity to learn new skills. It also guaranteed me a real job post-graduation, relieving me of that anxiety-inducing, senior-year job search. I couldn’t picture where I wanted to be 10 years out of college, but I knew at least the first four would be spent in the Air Force.
As I reflected on that time in my life recently, I began thinking about all the question marks students and young professionals face during their early careers. I decided to share some hard-won insights I wish someone had told me when I was new to the working world:
Your first job sets the trajectory of your career.
The first few assignments you accept or jobs you take establish your career momentum and often set you on a path that’s hard to change. You acquire certain skills appropriate to your field, and people associate you with the body of work you develop in your early positions. Should you decide you’d like to try something new, you’ll likely have to overcome strong biases.
Hiring managers gravitate toward safe bets because their jobs are on the line when they make new hires. A guy whose only experience is in retail looks like a risk to a tech or engineering company, no matter how bright or enthusiastic he is. That doesn’t mean you can’t make a career change (see my next point). But you should be mindful about the types of work you choose early on because you will be pigeon-holed based on your experience, and you’ll have to work twice as hard to prove yourself when you move to a new industry.
Nothing is set in stone.
When you first graduate from college, you might be incredibly passionate about finance or marketing, only to find that your interests change as you mature. A volunteer trip might inspire you to pivot to the nonprofit world, or you might want to transition from accounting into software engineering.
Those moves will be challenging, but they are achievable. You may need to go back to school or take internships to develop the relevant experience. But the career you begin early on doesn’t have to be the one you follow through to retirement, as long as you’re willing to put in the work to make the switch.
Changing industries isn’t easy, but it’s doable. I often give the example of a man I know who started his law career in his forties, when he was already a husband and father. No doubt he pulled some late nights studying for the bar after putting the kids to bed. But he made it happen, and so can you. Don’t limit yourself based on your past experience.
You need to connect the dots.
Millennials are revolutionizing the workforce, and new companies expect people to move quickly between jobs. But hiring managers at traditional companies will have traditional expectations. They’re innately skeptical when they see that someone has worked in five different industries and held a wide range of positions. It’s up to you to connect the dots for them as to why your diverse professional history makes you uniquely suited to the job.
I’ve been in this position myself. On more than one occasion, I’ve met with hiring boards at private equity firms who didn’t know what to make of my eclectic background. I’ve worked for government agencies, startups, and nonprofits. I have a bachelor’s degree in history and a master’s in industrial engineering. I’m not easily categorized.
Initially, people see that as a red flag. But once I explain that my experience in different areas has given me a nuanced perspective on the market and makes me especially qualified to lead, they pay attention. It’s all in how you present yourself.
Gain a wide breadth of experience.
People often ask me whether having five or six jobs on their résumé will hurt them in job interviews. Again, that’s up to you. Don’t apologize or act sheepish when discussing your career decisions. Own those positions and tie each one to the job for which you’re applying in the present.
When you’ve worked in several industries, you bring a fresh perspective. You may see things the guy with 20 years’ experience at the company misses entirely. It’s very easy to develop blinders when you’re at the same organization in the same industry for your entire career. Even the most dedicated managers and executives can miss critical market signals when they become too entrenched.
As the world becomes more globalized, it’s the people with broad experience and deep insights that will be most sought after.
Relationships are everything.
I cannot emphasize enough the importance of cultivating good professional relationships, and most universities don’t spend enough time teaching students about interpersonal dynamics and communication. Many young people are so accustomed to forming relationships through social media and text messages that they really struggle when they get into the workplace and need to manage conflicts face-to-face.
People who communicate well and know how to de-escalate conflicts are far more successful than those who struggle to maintain healthy dialogues and peer relationships. Employees who cause drama and sew discord rarely get promoted or referred for other jobs. More often than not, they get shown the door.
I’ve seen very talented people miss out on great opportunities because they were so unpleasant in the workplace. It doesn’t matter how good you are if no one wants to work with you.
Ask questions and listen to the answers.
My team and I have observed that many recent college graduates seem averse to asking questions. Whether that’s because they’re afraid of looking foolish or they think they already know the answers, I’m not sure. But when you first enter the workforce, you have a lot to learn.
You may have done three internships and graduated with honors, and that’s all great. However, there is nothing like actually being part of the workforce and being called upon to do your chosen job, so ask questions at every opportunity. Your boss will appreciate your enthusiasm, and most upper-level staff are more than happy to help eager young employees.
Just be sure to listen to their advice. Don’t tune them out when explanations seem redundant or boring. Let them know you understand X part of the process but are confused about Y step. Take their feedback seriously and engage them on anything you disagree with or don’t understand. You’ll learn a tremendous amount from those conversations, not to mention strengthen those relationships.
Practice asking questions and listening to the responses throughout your career. Even when you’re in positions of power, don’t just tell people how things will be. Invite their input, address their concerns, and let them know you hear them and take them seriously.
Remember, careers are built on relationships, and you can’t maintain good relationships without mutual respect.
Once you have your diploma in hand, you may be tempted to see certain tasks as “beneath” you. Sure, you’re not the intern anymore, but it would still be nice to grab coffee for everyone once in awhile. If you have some spare time in your schedule, why not give a junior co-worker a hand with the tough report she’s writing?
When you focus solely on your goals and responsibilities, you miss opportunities to learn and grow through service to your peers.
Seeking opportunities to serve others keeps your attitude in check and reminds you that you’re part of a team. It also attracts positive attention from management and could lead to new opportunities. The report you jump in on might seem routine, but perhaps you’ll glean a new insight that gives you an idea for an innovative product. Bringing that to your boss will put you on the map and demonstrate your commitment to the company’s success.
Most importantly, when you serve others and look outside yourself, you experience increased job satisfaction and a deeper connection to your purpose.
Go all in.
In many ways, the new workforce is exciting. Millennials are committed to finding jobs that fulfill them and enable them to contribute meaningfully to the world. However, sometimes the quest for the perfect job leads to lackluster performance.
Too often, I encounter young people who become disillusioned when their jobs turn out differently than they expected, and they stop giving 100%. I advise them to embrace their problems instead of running from them. There’s a good chance that you can fix whatever is bothering you through a few honest conversations with your boss.
If you find yourself floundering, try our Career Boost Formula. Sometimes you just need an extra boost to connect with the right people and find your groove at a new company. Besides, you learn more by showing up and giving it your all than you do by mailing in your performance while you look for other jobs.
People who go all in also get the best offers and opportunities. When you’re invested in your work, your performance improves and managers assign you bigger, more interesting projects. If you’re truly miserable, then by all means, resign. But in most cases, you’ll find that your perspective changes dramatically when you bring more positive energy to your work.
Choose your friends carefully.
Motivational speaker Jim Rohn famously said that you are the average of the five people with whom you spend the most time, and his words ring true for everyone, from Tim Ferriss to a freshly-minted college graduate.
I admit that when I was in college, I didn’t pay much attention to whether my buddies were going to help increase my earning potential or motivate me to reach great heights of success. But as I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized how accurate Rohn’s theory is. The people with whom we associate have a huge impact on our lives. In fact, you can estimate how much money you’ll earn by averaging the incomes of the five people closest to you.
Your friends and peers shape your beliefs, values, habits, and decisions, so build your circle wisely. People don’t become successful by accident. They seek help from people they admire, they connect with peers who share their interests and ambitions, and they build networks based on their goals and values. If you’re working hard, seeking opportunities to serve, and consistently giving 100% at work, you will get noticed and you will break into the right circles.
When I was in college, I thought that if I showed up and worked hard every day, I was guaranteed to get ahead. But that’s not how it works. Yes, hard work is one component. But it’s also about who you know. Almost every big break in my life happened because a friend or mentor opened a door for me, and I’ve heard countless stories from peers who have had the same experience.
Many variables will impact the trajectory of your career. Industry shifts, changing personal circumstances, your evolving values — all of these can lead you to forge new paths. The key to maintaining your success regardless of where you find yourself is to be conscientious in your work and to prioritize service and relationships with others. If you do that, the rest will take care of itself.