7 career lessons I wished I learned earlier
My first job(s) sucked. I hated every single day. I dreaded getting out of bed early in order to sit at a desk from 9-5. Not only did I feel like my knowledge and effort wasn’t appreciated, I felt like I had no control over my work environment. It wasn’t until years later, I realized why I was unhappy. I really wish I had learned these 7 things before I started working!
Why your first job sucks
The first 22-24 years of our life is pretty simple: primary school, middle/high school, college, and then graduation! We all know what is expected of us, namely get good grades, pass the tests and move on to the next grade until you’re finished. Once you get the hang of this system, it kind of becomes easy.
Once you graduate, you step into the real adult world: getting a job. And here’s the tricky part. We’ve been lead to believe that school prepares us for doing the job. Although school teaches us basic human life skills, like socializing, speaking in public and taking responsibility, most of what we do is focused on education and theory. Even though this knowledge gives you a head start in your career, it’s not enough to make you successful in your job. We’re not taught how to think, act, behave and feel in our new job environment.
The new kid, the recent graduate, the rookie
After years of build up – from preschooler to master student – you feel on top of the world. Graduating university, at least for me, was euphoric. You feel accomplished and ready to take on the world! Then all of a sudden you’re back at the bottom of the ladder, where you started in preschool, at your new job. You’re the new kid, the recent graduate, the rookie. And it’s precisely that feeling that crashes your big hopes and dreams.
That is why your first job sucks.
Now, let me save you years of your time by giving you 7 lessons I learned in my first years so that you can excel to the top a lot quicker than I did!
Lesson 1: Nothing in business is life or death
Unless you work as a healthcare professional, nothing in business is life or death. No one dies if you send that email a day later than expected. No one dies if you didn’t quite make the deadline. No one dies if you make a spelling mistake in that super important pitch.
So. fucking. what.
Colleagues and bosses tend to create pressure bubbles. Everything needs to be done today before 5. Everything is important. To me, this is a BIG red flag. RUN.
Listen, if you’ve worked with me, you know I love a good deadline. I thrive in high performance offices. But what I don’t appreciate is stress, anxiety and perfectionism. At the end of the day, we’re all still human. We make mistakes. Your job is to own those mistakes. Honestly admit you didn’t make the deadline because you had trouble managing your time. Admit you forgot to spell check your presentation.
Your employers’ job is to create a safe work environment so that you can make these mistakes without feeling like a complete failure and like it’s your fault the company is not succeeding. You can hold them accountable for that.
Lesson 2: You are definitely going to fuck up
Yeah, there’s no easy way to tell you, but there comes a time you are going to totally, utterly fuck up. Big time. Unlike the little mistakes in the lesson above, this mistake actually costs the company damage.
And it’s totally OK.
I’d lie if I said I didn’t have sleepless nights over my fuck up. I accidentally erased a huge database days before a deadline. A database that me and my colleagues had worked on for days. I cried in my boss’ office. I felt SO guilty. There was no way to reverse it, but to do the work all over again.
There really is no way around this fuck up. It’s going to happen at one point in your career. You might as wel be prepared for it to happen. Again, you need to own up to the mistake. Take responsibility. Whatever you do: don’t blame others and don’t hide. Be an adult! Your boss needs to acknowledge that you meant no harm. He/she needs to take the necessary measurements to help you fix the situation and defend you from people that are higher up.
Lesson 3: Treat your salary like an objective number
If you don’t make as much money as your friends, you’re not less of a person. If you make more than you’re friends, you’re not better than them either. Your salary doesn’t determine the value you bring to the work space, and it also doesn’t define your worth. Salary is highly dependent on the industry, country, company (size), field and position you work in. You could be doing the exact same job at a small firm that you would at a large corporate, and still be paid half, even though you work twice as hard.
Question is: how do you value yourself?
If you’re working 40+ hours a week, answering phone calls in the weekend and taking on more responsibility for minimum wage – then that’s totally ok. As long as you’re ok with it!
Just know that your time and energy = money. How much money is your time and energy worth to YOU? This highly differs per person. If you earn minimum wage but are extremely happy in your job, there isn’t an issue. But if you feel drained, sad, unmotivated, unable to reach your personal goals (like buying a house in this economy) or like you’re giving more than you receive, it’s time to reevaluate your situation.
How do you get a raise? By working on yourself and showing your managers that you are WORTH the money. Take on more responsibility, take ownership, brush up skills/knowledge, be proactive and track your process. Once you have the proof, you can step to your manager confidently and ask them for more money. Don’t ask, prove!
Lesson 4: Boundaries are a blessing, learn how to play the corporate game
In the beginning of your career, you’re driven. You want to prove to anyone and everyone that you can do the job. This often results in staying late, saying yes to all projects, answering emails at night and showing up to every office party. This is fun until you reach the point of no return. All of a sudden, every responsibility is on your plate. People start to see you as the rookie who’s always willing and able to do the work, so they leave it all to you.
What you don’t see, is that people in a corporate office usually play a subconscious political office game. I call it corporate chess because it’s a strategic game. This is what it comes down to: people only care about the things they are being held accountable for, which is their job description. How well they perform the tasks in their job description is what determines their assessment interview at the end of the year. It also determines their success and salary. The people who play this game are very aware of the tasks that are in scope. Everything outside of that – even if it technically should be their responsibility – is not interesting to them. Why? Because it doesn’t contribute to a positive performance review.
So this is how it works: these people are great at what they do because the solely focus on their core tasks. All the other activities that are not their main priorities are left on the table. Only for you to pick them up willingly in order to impress your boss in hopes of a raise.
This is why it works against you: you take on too much responsibility, are unable to deliver maximum results, are stressed out and feel like your colleagues are not supportive. The lesson here? Stop biting off more than you can chew. Stop enabling your colleagues to slack. Do what you are hired to do, and do it well.
Lesson 5: Manage expectations at all times
The best business advice I’ve ever gotten was from a previous manager. He would always say “business is just managing expectations”. This was at my third job. I had no idea what he meant at the time. But boy, did these words make an impact on my career, my wellbeing and life in general.
Next to setting up your boundaries, you have to let others know what they can expect from you. This eliminates 90% of your work stress – guaranteed!! Be very clear. Say: “Hey Jim, I know you asked me to get the numbers to you by Friday. However, it’s Wednesday and I’m noticing it’s taking me longer to complete this task successfully. I can get the statistics you asked for by Tuesday at the latest. Is that okay with you?”
Bam. Crisis averted. Now the ball is in Jim’s court. If he really needs them by Friday, he either needs to find more people to help you or change the timeline on the project. You’re showing him you’re working hard, willing to cooperate and want the best results for all team members. It’s that simple.
I’ve talked about managing expectations countless of times. You can listen to more examples on how to do it here.
Lesson 6: Not everyone is your new work BFF
Unfortunately, you’re not going to have a J.D. and Turk type of work relationship with all of your colleagues. I know that’s what Netflix series have shown you, but more often than not, your colleagues are not going to become your best friends.
In order for a team to function properly, it’s important to get along, respect each other and have fun every now and again. However, treating all of your co-workers as your new BFFs with whom you share crucial information, like who you hooked up with last weekend, might not be wise. It’ll come back to haunt you.
It’s super healthy to have 1 or 2 work besties that help you get through the day (and life). We all need those! Just make sure these are people you can trust with your TMI stories.
Lesson 7: You are more than your resume!
Last, very important lesson, you are more than your accomplishments! Don’t forget that. It’s easy to get caught up in a rat race. Showing off all of the projects you’ve completed, the clients you’ve helped, the money you’ve made. You are not just your career. Sure, your job plays a big part in your day-to-day life, but you’re also still a beautiful human soul!
Invest in all aspects of your life: your relationships, hobbies, sports, spirituality, health, travel, dreams — whatever it is that makes you uniquely you. It’s super cliché, but we’re human beings not human doings, and therefore not defined by the things we do, but who we are. Strive to be a healthy, abundant, content, compassionate human being.