I’ve been poring over my resume in order to update it with my new (almost completed) degree, as well as recent projects, experiences and high hopes for the future – Oh wait, that last bit just goes in my diary. So I’ve been considering lessons and career advice I wish I’d known during my first job… but that I’ve learned along the way since then.
After a series of eclectic high school and summer jobs (orthodontist assistant, library page, soccer referee, camp counselor..) I finally got my first real job – as in only 40 hours a week, with a liveable salary – as a twenty-two year old. The salary was enough to move into my first real apartment, which I wrote about on Connect Shore last year.
But, as most of us know, first jobs are well… first jobs and the learning curve is steep, and includes more than just the basics of mastering the job description. Eventually you move on, leaving behind a trail of mistakes, growth, and new references for your resume.
Here are the top 5 pieces of career advice I wish I’d known on my first day of work.
1. Write down what you learn and what you want to learn. The first two weeks on the job I was an eager beaver writing down all the important things I could – like where the emergency kits were, what my employee ID number was, and how to create the best daily schedule. But over time I stopped making an effort to write down details. Since then, I’ve become a lot more conscious of holding onto lessons learned.
At the beginning of each semester I take the time to write down a couple goals that range from details: answer ALL the emails within 6 hours to content: Read at least one supplementary reading the teacher mentions and use it in an assignment.
At the end of the semester I write down what I learned: personally: don’t take three classes at once! and scholastically: I now know about Michael Porter’s Shared Value theory and the importance of reviewing key learnings in training programs. You could also choose to write down professional learnings, emotional learnings, or simply various observations.
Taking the time to keep a learning journal will help you remember and practice the lessons you’ve learned.
I also try and write down what else I want to learn in the future about the topics I just started exploring through a class: for example I want to learn more about concrete ways businesses are able to integrate sustainability practices into their strategy and bottom line. This applies equally well to jobs – there are always more things to learn. This can help you make the most of even an entry level job.
2. Office politics matter. People, and the way they work together, are incredibly important. Some people have even disagreed with the venerable Abraham Maslow to say that social needs may be as important as physical needs – at least on the job. It’s worth the effort to learn the strengths and weaknesses of your coworkers, to learn how to manage your boss (as the Harvard Business Review calls it) and your coworkers, along with learning how to manage yourself. It’s also worth it to know when to get involved in a conflict, when to walk away, and when to ask for help from your boss in a conflict. Yeah, that’s a story for another time.
3. Track how you work and what is involved with big projects. I have a bad habit of wanting to do half of my week-long to-do list on Monday morning. Then, when 1pm comes around, I’m disheartened that I couldn’t tackle those first 16 hours of work in 4 hours. Be realistic and know how long answering emails, writing reports, and travel time can take. Writing a paper is a project – but there’s a lot more to it than simply “writing” (see my last post). There are “sweet spots” for working on different types of work, and figure out when and how the pieces of the puzzle (projects and time available) fit together.
4. Reach out to like-minded people AND/OR join a professional group. I got disheartened after two years of working in my first job because of a dearth of connections. I liked my coworkers enormously, and office drinks were fun… but other people didn’t seem to view what the work the same way I did. Some were putting in hours to get paid, others were focused on daily tasks and I wanted to talk the high level view. I got so frustrated, in fact, that I first began my quest to re-assess my skills, desires, and interests in order to find another field to work in.
Perhaps if I had known to find a professional group, a mentor, or reached out to others in a group for career advice, I might have found a way to use my skills in that field. Talk about work from a step-back every now and then with other professionals in order to get a fresh look, don’t just whine, moan, and complain about the daily grind. Reach out to mentors!
5. When the right time to move on is. I wish I’d known the answer to this one then, and I still haven’t had enough experience to be able to answer the questions now – but I really wish I knew! Some experts say that when you’ve stopped learning anything new, that’s the time. Other say, when you’ve mastered the core responsibilities of the job. I don’t think these take into account the fact that people aren’t just career-bots and may also need to accommodate rest-of-life circumstances when they consider moving to a new job. However, if you’re feeling burned out, it’s probably time to move on now!
How about you? What career advice would you have given yourself when you started working?