Last week, I turned in my notice to take a leap of faith and start my own podcast documenting the history and individual stories of other young professionals “trying to figure it all out.”
In the meantime, I’m winding down my last few days at my job — my first job — and have become incredibly sentimental about my experiences over the last 12 months. This past year out of college and gaining professional skills has been anything but easy. However, I have the mindset that as long as you learn something (whether it’s what you value in a workplace environment to shortcuts on Excel), it’s another step in your professional development. For all of the recent grads starting their first job, or are still looking, these are the 10 lessons I’ve learned at my first job.
1. Learning doesn’t end after college
Chances are, even if you majored in something that has a direct job correlation, like accounting, you’re not going to know everything on your first day (or even year, potentially) at your new job. A sign of a healthy work environment is different learning opportunities. This not only allows you to gain relevant experience and ease the pressure to know everything, but it can also work in your favor during review and promotion seasons. Actively seek out new opportunities to learn on the job. Whether that’s constantly asking questions (when appropriate), offering to host a brief training on something you think your coworkers would benefit from, or looking into your employee benefits to see if your employer covers professional development classes or going back to school, make sure you’re not leaving money on the table!
2. Professional Lingo
I’ll never forget my first week on the job and the general sense of confusion in between orientation meetings and picking health insurance plans. Sometimes there were entire meetings where I barely understood half of what people were talking about.
Bandwidth. Boil the Ocean. Scope. Hard Stop.
I didn’t realize I needed to take business as a second language! Each industry has their own never-ending dictionary of terms and phrases. If someone says something you don’t know, then ask during a time that feels appropriate during the conversation or meeting. Sometimes, though, the timing doesn’t always work out (or you’re too embarrassed), so I recommend making a list — either in a notebook or somewhere on your phone — so that you don’t forget and can look it up later.
3. How to meaningfully contribute
It can be hard to find your voice at a new office, especially if it’s your first job. While you should never feel like you aren’t allowed to talk at a job, I do think there’s a difference between endless ramblings and short, concise input. Whenever I’m in a meeting, I make sure to always ask myself a few questions:
- Will this help clarify or expand on one of the key objectives of this meeting?
- Is this something important enough to discuss if it’s not on the agenda?
- How does this move the conversation or meeting along?
See how others in your position assert themselves in meetings and learn when it is and isn’t okay to speak up. An internal team meeting? Sure. Shadowing your boss during an important pitch meeting with a client? Maybe hold back.
4. Working with Others
Group projects in school semi-prepare you for it, but navigating the dynamics of working with others you see constantly is a totally different minefield. If you’re lucky, working with your coworkers is an effortless, professional process. However, I’ve heard horror stories of manipulative bosses, over-demanding clients, and other types of petty drama shared over the water cooler from friends over many a happy hour. Depending on what your industry is, and how many projects or teams you’re on, navigating these workplace dynamics can be multiplied to the nth degree!
When you find yourself in a less than pleasant work environment, start by figuring out what’s wrong with the workplace relationship and if there’s a way you can mediate the problem internally. If this isn’t something you feel comfortable with, brush up on your HR policy about workplace disputes. In the rare (and unfortunate) situations where HR — or lack thereof — is part of the problem, it may be time to start looking for a new job.
A few months ago, I was feeling particularly stressed at work. I found myself working 55, 60, even close to 70 hours a week. I was literally drowning but didn’t know when or if it was appropriate to say something. You better believe that I did not want to become a whiny millennial stereotype. But there came a point, after burning the midnight oil three days in a row, when I finally needed to talk to one of my managers. I made sure to clearly outline my concerns, all while expressing my enthusiasm for the project and potential steps to correct the problem. To my surprise, they were not only sympathetic, but admired that I had the courage to advocate for myself and agreed with my recommendations. If you don’t communicate, people won’t know what’s going on!
6. Workplace Relationships
This can get tricky, because you don’t want to become too comfortable with your boss (to the point that getting drunk and announcing you’re looking for another job becomes something you need to worry about not doing) but you also don’t want to come off as closed off. Remember that coworkers are coworkers first, and that the potential to find a friend and mentors is only a nice bonus. Err to the side of caution during team happy hours or becoming too overly comfortable about details in your personal life, but if natural friendships develop during your tenure, don’t freak out. Friends at work only become a problem if they’re used to justify unethical or questionable behavior.
7. Developing a professional wardrobe
My first job was definitely business casual (and sometimes, on Fridays, just casual), but it quickly became clear that I would need to either buy new clothes or figure out how to tastefully repurpose old clothing. There are ways you can attempt to keep our personal style, but depending on the dress code, you may have to make the necessary adjustments. For me, that meant pairing a few simple cotton tees with structured blazers or cardigans and incorporating more neutral colors. Creating a new wardrobe doesn’t have to mean breaking the bank, though. Thrift stores, sidewalk sales, and your parent’s closet are all great ways to find new (to you!) outfits.
8. Impostor syndrome is real, but you can overcome it
For those of you who just ooze self-confidence and aren’t sure what impostor syndrome is, it’s a feeling that you’re not quite good enough or know what you’re doing, even if you’re more than qualified or capable of doing it. It sucks. Luckily, though, I quickly discovered that no one honestly knows what they’re doing half the time, and that anyone from the company president to the administrative assistant is constantly learning on the job and figuring things out. Remember to be kind to yourself and recognize that everyone feels a bit lost during their first few weeks or months at a new job.
If the feeling lasts more than a couple months, though, it may be time to make a trip to your friendly neighborhood therapist. Finding a therapist that not only understood my situation but also empathized because she came from an intense background in banking was incredibly helpful in making me realize that my feelings were heard and that I could work through them.
9. The Power of Networking
I was fortunate enough to work somewhere that not only had a formal mentor/mentee program but also strongly encouraged informal coffees and chats. Finding a trusted coworker to help navigate your boss’ personality, or the idiosyncrasies of the workplace culture, is super helpful. My assigned peer mentor not only helped me with figuring out my professional growth but was also a champion and advocate for me when I quit my job to go part-time.
If possible, try to also develop a professional relationship with a coworker a few levels above you. It not only provides you with meaningful relationships within the company but can also help expose you to others within their network. When I finally broke the news of my departure to one of my coworkers, they were both happy that I was making a move that was best for me, professionally and personally, and also offered to connect me with others in the media industry.
10. When you know, you know (to quit your job)
I was about six months into my first job when I realized that while I liked the subject matter, consulting wasn’t the best method of execution. It took another several months to pinpoint how I could serve others more meaningfully, but ultimately, quitting my job was the best decision. Quitting a job shouldn’t be taken lightly, but the lessons and experiences I’ve learned over the last year weren’t wasted. I learned what I value in a workplace and where my professional priorities are. If you’re on the fence (which, if you’re already even thinking about being on the fence, that’s a sign), I recommend asking yourself a few questions to help with the decision:
- How does the job align with my career goals and larger interests?
- What is the potential trajectory within the company? If I made a leap now, would do I have enough experience for a promotion?
- Does the company culture align with my personal beliefs or goals?
- [If you don’t have a job when you quit] Am I financially stable enough to absorb the associated financial costs that come with quitting?
I’ll admit it, I’m more than a little terrified about my decision, but as someone who is typically always anxious about everything, this type of fear of the unknown feels different. I may spectacularly fail, but there won’t be any doubts about whether I fully committed myself to something. This past year has been such a steep learning curve, but I leave my job in two weeks with the knowledge that this isn’t a departure from my dreams — simply a stepping-stone.
When she’s not searching for the best matcha lattes in Brooklyn, Kayla is helping other young professionals conquer their quarter-life crisis and travel through her blog, Honey Butter Delights.
Image via Unsplash