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Joel Peterson Headshot

10 Tips for Making Your First Real Job Count

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If you're a young person about to enter the job market, you've already got plenty going for you. You've spent much of your life cultivating disciplines and developing up-to-the-minute practical skills that should form a terrific foundation for lifelong professional development -- if you make the right first moves.

Establishing yourself as someone who goes the extra mile on every assignment, relishes hard work and is a deliberate, thoughtful team player will help you create relationships early on that could end up defining your career. These qualities will also help you make up for a lack of experience as you find your footing in your first job. I'm a firm believer in the idea that "it's not what you know, but how you do things" that matters most.

It can take a while to begin deliberately charting a career path, so if you're still figuring out the industry and type of position that interests you, you're not alone. As important as it is to find work that you love, I also encourage you to be practical. Try to seek out jobs in industries that are growing and have sustainable profit margins. These two features -- above all others -- will lay a solid foundation for promotions, pay and early-stage responsibility. And don't worry: most industries have plenty of room for creativity and innovation.

When you walk into your first interview or step through the doors of your new office for the first time, come armed with a strong work ethic and a set of principles that you're ready to continue developing. These suggestions can help you focus on making a first impression that serves you well:

  1. Be a heat-seeking missile for problems. If you can become obsessive about identifying and preemptively solving problems, you'll soon find yourself being picked for key assignments. Your trouble-shooting can run the gamut from meticulously proofreading a boss's PowerPoint slides, to keeping an eye on competitors' moves, to dealing with unhappy customers. The ability to anticipate and solve problems is rare and will invariably lead to opportunity.
  2. Seek out feedback constantly. Most skills you're missing on your first day of work can be learned and then improved upon with practice. But your rate of learning will depend on feedback -- so, ask for it. The more specific, the better. If you find people willing to coach you, be open to hearing what they have to say. Don't punish them for providing negative feedback even if you think they missed the mark. (And don't be too quick to dismiss the feedback.)
  3. Remember that you were hired to make others look good. In the early stages of your career, the most important person to let shine is your boss - she didn't hire you to steal her thunder. So, figure out ways to help her succeed -- and work to make up for her limitations. But be sure to give credit to other team members, too. If you hog the limelight, you'll alienate the people who were there before you. This may be a slower route to influence than the one your hotshot peers are taking, but sharing power and building trust will pay off far more in the long run.
  4. Remember that failure isn't final. The only failures from which you may not recover are ones of character and effort. So don't be afraid to try new things. If you fail to achieve a hoped-for result, you'll have lots of great company. And if you're lucky enough that something works out, have the grace to remember the many people that helped you get there. Then, give encouragement to the people around you who may need it.
  5. Don't be afraid of unglamorous tasks. My very first post-school job was in Paris, France, where my employer was in daily communication with the United States via Telex (the fax's predecessor). No one was interested in reading the Telex manual to learn to use it, so I volunteered. As it turned out, being "the Telex expert" was a valuable service for the company and had a surprise payoff for me: I was able to see every incoming and outgoing communication, putting me at the heart of all business matters. Later, I volunteered to be the note-taker in meetings -- an equally unglamorous job consisting of accurately recording what was discussed. Not only did this give me a chance to develop relationships with otherwise-inaccessible executives, but it also gave me subtle ways to shape the agenda.
  6. Become an expert. To get ahead, you need to be really good at something. So pick an area you like and develop what we sometimes call "domain expertise." Consider Peter Drucker's advice, "Build on your strengths and make your weaknesses irrelevant." This means honing skills that play to your strengths. If you do, you'll once again find that opportunities aren't far behind. If possible, try to develop a metric to measure your skill: New accounts won? Words written? Telexes sent? Even if you never show your calculations to another person, your confidence will soar if you know you're helping improve the bottom line.
  7. Don't gossip and don't be a diva. You'll see others get ahead, garner attention and maybe even receive special treatment by issuing demands, engaging in hardball politicking and otherwise acting deviously. But prima donnas wear thin, and most people want teammates who are trustworthy and authentic. I'll never forget how my father shut down those who'd come to him to undermine a co-worker, by simply preempting any incoming comments by saying, "He always speaks so highly of you."
  8. Don't stay too long (or short). Jobs are not indentured servitude, although some may feel like it. My biggest career mistake was staying after I should have moved on. The moment you realize your time is up, work with your firm to provide a smooth transition, making special efforts to maintaining relationships for the long run.
  9. Stay balanced even when the going gets tough. Careers are important. Your career trajectory will impact your life and your sense of well-being. It's worthy of a prominent spot in your priorities, and at times, it will deserve primacy. But careers -- unlike families -- don't love you back. If you're looking for lifelong well-being, you're unlikely to get it from your career alone. No matter how successful you are at work, it'll never compensate for emptiness in other areas of your life. Your career is just one piece of your life's puzzle -- so don't let it crowd out family, friends and community.
  10. Front-load your career. This may sound like it contradicts the previous piece of advice, but the truth is that working more when you're younger will give you more family time later. Just as every building rests on a foundation you can't see, most careers are built on the solid footing of early sacrifice. Those who do find the work-life holy grail, are generally those who deferred seeking it. Just as those who become great musicians started out playing scales, the masters of work-life started by nailing work.

Develop these habits and attitudes as your "work and self-talk hygiene" -- and doors will open. Practice them until they're instinctive, so the way you operate becomes what Aristotle called the "stable equilibrium of the soul." When your work flows naturally from your values and your habits, a more satisfying life and career will follow.