10 Lessons You Should Learn (and Accept) at Your First Job

In school we learn the basics about the work world: be punctual, keep deadlines, work hard, and don’t burn bridges. But school can only prepare you so much. Take it from someone who’s been there, done that.

My first job out of college didn’t go as planned, but through the experience I learned a lot about what I really needed to know to successfully navigate the workplace. For recent grads on the hunt for their first jobs or those who are just starting, here are my 10 key takeaways to help you avoid the pitfalls of being the new kid on the block.

1. Be grateful for the opportunity.
Keep in mind you’re fresh out of college and don’t have much (if any) experience. Despite this, someone was willing to take a chance on you and offer you a job. Don’t let pride cloud your judgment on accepting. Your first job is the cornerstone of a strong resume, a stepping stone in your career. We all have to start somewhere. Pay is pay. Remember: No CEO started as the CEO. You have to work your way up just like everyone else.

2. Don’t expect to know everything because you won’t.
It’s OK to ask questions. And, no, it doesn’t make you sound unintelligent. You’re not supposed to know everything – this is your first real job; it’s all new. You’re expected to ask questions. There’s a difference between asking every question that comes to mind and asking the questions necessary to get the job done. On the flip side, not asking questions leads to misunderstandings, mistakes and lost time which makes you appear unqualified, unprepared and aloof.

3. Understand that everyone works differently.
No two people operate the exact same. We all desire things to be done a certain way – our way. Instead of focusing on what you want, take time to understand what your co-workers want. Start by determining your personality type and the types of those you work with. You may discover you’re a Thinker who thrives on routine, details and perfection, while your boss is a Director who wants little talk, quick actions and results. Knowing how others operate will identify expectations across the board and ultimately make your job easier.

4. Don’t beat yourself up.
You will make mistakes. You will make a fool of yourself at times. There’s no avoiding it. At the risk of sounding maternal: Everyone makes mistakes. You’re only human. It doesn’t matter if you’ve been working the same job for 30 days or 30 years – it happens. For perfectionists, this simple truth is an Achilles’ heel. By not accepting it, you set yourself up for extreme disappointment.

5. Believe in yourself.
If you don’t believe in your ideas, dreams or abilities, why should anyone else? You can’t expect to accomplish great things if you don’t have the assurance that you can and will. Once you allow that little weed of doubt to sprout in your mind, it’s hard to kill. While success can breed confidence, more often than not it’s confidence that will breed your success. Don’t allow naysayers to discourage you. Be your own cheerleader.

6. Know you have the right to say “no.”
It can be tricky to know if and when it’s appropriate to say no, especially at your first job. No one wants to be a yes-man, but that doesn’t make it any easier to say no – especially to people like your boss. Truth is, you have the right to say it and should. Saying this two-letter word shows confidence that most will appreciate and respect (yes, even your boss).

7. Use it as an opportunity to identify what you want (and don’t want) in a future job.
Your first job is a learning experience and chance to draft your wants-and-needs list. So, when the time comes to transitioning jobs you have a clear idea of what to look for and what to avoid. Maybe you find corporate life isn’t for you but have a passion for nonprofit work. Maybe you discover you need more movement in your day to day and that a desk job doesn’t cut it. Whatever it is, wherever it is – find a place that fits you. Don’t settle for a place that stifles your qualities. Strive to find the place that provides stability and happiness.

8. Don’t become someone you’re not.
You’ve heard the phrase: Fake it until you make it. While faking a little self-assurance isn’t harmful, faking to the point of losing sight of yourself is. Your first job shouldn’t be a replay of high school where you feel forced to conform. If you don’t feel like saying hello to everyone you see in the hall on Monday – don’t. If you’re not totally sold on your boss’ plan – speak up. If brown-nosers turn your stomach – don’t be tempted to become one. No one likes a faker. You may think you’re the best at it but people will catch on. Be true to yourself and honest with others. Which leads me to…

9. Know when it’s time to get out.
A square peg doesn’t fit into a round hole. Sometimes it just doesn’t work. You could be doing everything in your power – taking the initiative, nailing your deadlines and going the extra mile – but sometimes it just isn’t meant to be. And that’s when you have to…

10. Accept that it’s not your “forever” job.
Seventy-one percent of recent college grads leave their first job within a year. Why? They refuse to settle for something they’re not passionate about and know their misery shows in their professional and personal life. Believe it or not it’s possible to like, even love, your job. If you’re unhappy, find something else. Your career is just beginning. You’re never truly stuck until you tell yourself you’re stuck.

What advice do you have for college grads starting their careers? Tell us on Twitter.

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Abby Downs

Abby Downs is a St. Louis native and professional writer. If she doesn’t have a pen in her hand, it’s a camera. When she’s not busy combining these two loves, she can be found binge-watching 90s sitcoms, trying new cheeses and planning her next big adventure.