One of the most invaluable teaching experiences of your life will be your first job. Although you may think your inexperience and naiveté are overwhelming and insurmountable obstacles, they’re actually blessings in disguise. If you keep an open mind and a positive outlook, you’ll find that your first job is actually a gold mine for major life lessons that will follow you wherever you go. Here are a few of the most important lessons you will learn.
1. It’s okay to ask questions
Nobody expects you to know everything at your first job! Provided you were honest on your resume and in your interview, your boss is well aware of your professional background or lack thereof and is most likely willing to help you navigate the newly discovered working world.
Cindy Chu, director of engineering at Polyvore, says, “It’s important to recognize in your first job that you’ll begin cultivating knowledge in the shape of a ‘T.’ Focus on having a broad yet shallow understanding of many different areas,” and work upwards, specializing your knowledge and expertise.
The only way you can truly learn is by abandoning the fear to ask questions about tasks or policies that you don’t understand. Your uncertainty will only frustrate you further and hinder your overall performance. Asking for help doesn’t make you less competent, rather more self-aware and committed. Just be sure to ask the appropriate individuals and to commit your newfound knowledge to memory so that you don’t ask the same questions repeatedly.
2. Always be humble
As a new employee, it’s important to recognize the value of humility and gratitude when completing your everyday tasks. Regardless of your feelings about the company or your position, you have been afforded the opportunity to work as a member of a team and you should extend the same level of courtesy to everyone you interact with.
Lucy Wallace, lead engineering campus recruiter for Bloomberg LP, says, “I live by the idea that it’s nice to be important but more important to be nice.” She adds, “Whether your first job is a one-month contract or two-year placement, seize every opportunity, be prepared to learn every single day and be gracious to everyone you meet along the way.”
It’s OK (even encouraged!) to be confident in your work, but don’t let that get in the way of your ability to recognize room for improvement or to be receptive to constructive criticism. Remember that we’re all works in progress and in every experience, we’re evolving.
3. Seek out meaningful relationships
We cannot stress enough the value of getting to know your colleagues as a newbie in the workforce. After all, you’ll be spending a considerable amount of time with them. More than just networking for professional gains, you will learn to listen to the people around you as they share their experiences, opinions and wisdom with you.
Wallace advises, “Invest time and effort in getting to know people—not only because they can get you somewhere, but also because you can learn from them.”
If your interests in connecting are genuine, people will be more receptive. Your work relationships will be less anxiety-inducing and more organic and you may even develop a few long-lasting relationships in the process. Chu reminds us that whomever we work with is just as important, if not more, than our job responsibilities.
4. You still need a mentor
Speaking of getting to know your colleagues, it’s also a smart idea to identify a mentor—someone who understands the difficulties of your transition from student to working professional. Beth Derrick, author of The Organic Catalyst, stresses the importance of learning from someone who has been with the company far longer than you have. You may have identified someone in a leadership position whose level of professional success you aspire to achieve. It’s not unusual or inappropriate to approach this person for advice.
To initiate the connection, try asking them to meet with you briefly or invite them to lunch. Express your admiration for their accomplishments and why you think your own goals mirror theirs. Your first job will inevitably teach you that there’s no shame in asking for help.
5. Say yes more often
As a new employee, seize any and all opportunities for more exposure. The lessons you learn and experience you gain will be invaluable. Derrick’s advice? Don’t be afraid to do the unpleasant tasks. “File endless boxes of papers? Yes. Run an errand for your boss? Absolutely. Make 100 copies and have them neatly organized and filed within half an hour? Of course, I’d be happy to.”
Kyomarys Figueroa, a junior at Texas State University and an aspiring writer, recalls having to make major sacrifices when she secured her first retail job at age 17. "I started working right before the holiday season and I honestly hadn't known what to expect." Upon her manager's request, Kyomaris worked extended shifts, even on Christmas Eve. "It sucked because that's an important night in my family. But I learned quickly how to work under pressure and that tough manager taught me to be meticulous with everything I do," she says.
The moral here is that, regardless of what you do, you should always strive to be good at it and learn as much as you can. Derrick adds, “How you do one thing is how you do everything, so give it your all, always!” Let people know that you are happy to be there and that they can count on you; in the end, the benefits will be mutual.
6. Success is not instantaneous
One of the biggest misconceptions about entering the working world is that it signifies the end of a journey when, in reality, it’s just the beginning. You will not be immune to first job disappointments but you shouldn’t let these derail your ambition.
Caroline Beaton, kununu’s millennial career expert, says, “My first job out of college was so disillusioning that I considered drastically lowering my ambition of being a full-time writer. But I’m so glad I didn’t, because what I realized over time is getting what you want takes, well, time.” According to Beaton, for millennials, developing a career is more long-term than anything else we’ve ever dealt with. “Our lives up until our first jobs are composed of short-term milestones, but our lives after college become more about resilience and sustained effort,” she says.
Your first job may come as a rude awakening, like Beaton’s, and you might wonder if this is all you’ll ever be able to accomplish. But it’s important to keep the bigger picture in mind. “Don’t give up on your dreams just because you haven’t accomplished them one or even five years out of college,” Beaton warns. Your first job is not necessarily your forever job!
7. You are in charge of your own professional direction
Perhaps the most important lesson you can learn at your first job is that you are responsible for your own destiny—a liberating but simultaneously terrifying realization. Unlike high school and college where a path may be laid out for you, the working world expects you to develop this path on your own.
Beaton says, “High school and college outline some general, critical goals for us: good grades, prestigious work experience, extracurriculars. But, in the real world, nobody cares what you’re doing. It’s up to us to decide what we want to do.” She explains that once she figured this out, she felt open and ready to pursue things that actually mattered to her.
Like Beaton, your most valuable asset in this process will be your self-awareness; your first job will help you identify your strengths, weaknesses, likes and dislikes, allowing you to alter your professional roadmap with every new realization.
Landing your first real job is a major accomplishment! You’ve proved that every bit of your hard work has paid off and that you’ve earned your spot within the company. It’s important to remember that regardless of where you are on the hierarchy of employees, your first job is exactly that—your first job. There is so much left to learn and experience. Your journey has only just begun.