We’re at the tail end of graduation season, and tens of thousands of young people across the country are settling into post-college life, waking up early and commuting to their first jobs as graduates. Your first job can be an emotional experience. On the one hand, there’s the excitement of having the chance to learn and prove yourself in a challenging setting with high expectations. But there’s also pressure to perform, the risk of impostor syndrome, and the challenging lifestyle adjustment of transitioning from college to a phase of life with greater independence and responsibilities.
CEOs are proud when people choose their companies for their first job out of college. Recent grads bring fresh energy, willingness to learn, and new perspectives to old problems that amaze even seasoned veterans of their fields. For those who are just beginning their job hunt, here’s some advice on getting your career off to a great start in your first job.
Don’t “fake it ‘til you make it”
This is a fun and empowering phrase, and you’ve probably heard if from musicians or entertainers who have followed this advice and ultimately found success. But when you’re interviewing for a position in a company or startup, it’s essential to be honest about your skill set and career goals. Most managers don’t fill entry-level positions expecting a perfect experience fit, but rather coachability, culture fit, and work ethic. Besides, given the technology and data skills required for many corporate jobs, you won’t be able to fake it for long. Be honest and sell yourself on your enthusiasm, eagerness to become an expert, and your ability to bring value to any task.
Be a part of the culture
If your company hosts after work events or in-office activities, it usually means leadership values culture, team building, and employee engagement. Showing up to these events is an easy way to demonstrate that you’re happy to be a part of the team. They also create opportunities to network with colleagues from other departments, and maybe spark casual conversations that turn into solutions for the company. Since 40% of employees either don’t attend due to conflicts or just because they don’t want to, there’s an opportunity to stand out and build a reputation as an engaged team member who cares about your colleagues, company mission, and shared goals.
Demonstrate your ambition through performance
In my career as a CEO, I’ve seen a few recent grads who are both talented and ambitious but are too hungry for career advancements that they haven’t yet earned. This can be frustrating for employers who struggle to keep their culture positive, and disappointing for the workers themselves, who feel they are held back in menial jobs when they are ready for new responsibilities. My advice is to make sure you and your management are aligned about your career goals, and then let your performance speak for you. Seek out a mentor and compassionate feedback. Don’t posture yourself as an expert, but rather as someone who is always open to learning something new.
Opportunities for promotions don’t always open overnight, but if you are a star performer and innovating in your role, you should have no problem advancing when one is available. And if one doesn’t present itself in a timeline that works for you, ask for what you want and how you can get there. If you still don’t find what you want, make the decision to move on gracefully. “Boomerangs” (employees who leave and then come back) are very real, so don’t burn bridges by earning a reputation as a hothead.
Unhappy? Figure out why
You may not love your first job, and there’s a chance that you may be downright miserable. If this is the case, step back and analyze why. If it’s the activities of your job that are making you unhappy, then this may not be the functional area for you. If it’s the company mission doesn’t excite you, then you may be able to find a similar role in a different field. Making significant career changes without understanding the cause of your unhappiness may just put you back in the same spot, and frequent job hopping won’t help with your future goals.
A recent study found that unhappy workers ranked “compensation” as the most important factor in their happiness. Happy workers, however, said “doing meaningful work” was the most important factor. Remember this key statistic as you begin your career. There are thousands of employers in every city, and many of them have amazing cultures with opportunities for growth. But: if the work doesn’t resonate and isn’t meaningful to you, your disinterest will likely spill over into your performance.
Take an improv class
Succeeding in an unpredictable world requires opening your mind to the power of saying “yes, and.” This phrase is a ground rule in improv, and it allows you to build upon an imperfect idea rather than shutting it down and replacing it with your own. In the workplace, “yes, and” can mean the difference between closing the door on an innovative solution to a problem and taking the first step toward solving it through testing and iteration. As an entry level employee, you won’t like every task you’re given, but you do have the power to improve upon them in ways that are unexpected to your management. First, you have to say “yes” to the challenge, and what happens after the “and” might just define your budding career.
Starting your career is exciting, and there are a lot of opportunities to learn skills and learn about yourself. If you find a job you love right away, remember to build upon that enthusiasm by taking advantage of every opportunity to learn. If you don’t find a job you love right out of the gate, remember that there are still valuable lessons you can learn while you explore for better options. The best advice I can give is to enjoy the ride and do work you’re proud of every day. You may not be at the same company or in the same field in a few years, but you if you plant the seeds for lifelong learning and a drive for excellence, you can reap those fruits for your entire career.