I talked and dined with a Harvard student, a new friend, last week about her career interests and job search after graduating this May. Among the numerous barriers that she has to overcome to secure a job interview in the U.S., due to her foreign student status, she has unwittingly compounded her competitive disadvantage by imposing a high bar for accepting a job.
"I need a job that's constantly challenging me in a highly stimulating environment." Rose enthused over her passion for learning.
"What about that job offer by a TV station in Asia you told me about. It's an on-air news position right?" I queried.
In my mind, that was a wonderful opportunity for someone who has never held a full time paid job in the workplace.
"Yeah...but it's really not a challenging position. I want to be learning a lot all the time, and I really want to be in New York." She went on to cite an internship experience where the work involved struck her as repetitive and mundane.
I admire her idealism - which is important. But I think pragmatism is paramount when one is leaving campus life trying to land a job in a highly competitive metropolis. I wanted to prepare Rose for what to expect.
"First jobs in the real world are rarely perfect - especially in New York where everything is so expensive. My first job with a local TV news station didn't pay much; I needed a second job as a reporter in Chinatown to make ends meet. I also moved from apartment to apartment because the rent kept going higher and faster than my salary!"
While my remarks elicited some nods and smiles from my friend, I found myself thinking about other young job seekers like her, who have shared with me their high hopes, big dreams and nagging anxieties.
I remember what it was like for me back then. I harbored self-doubts like any other 20 something, but I also focused on what I could do and should be.
I was hungry for work, eager to learn about the workplace, willing to work long hours, sleep little, and do anything go anywhere to show I was ready to work.
I realize that kind of work attitude may characterize Gen X more so than Gen Y. But many in my generation have moved into positions to hire as managers and supervisors - self included. And as employers, we carry not only deep-seated work ethics but also new expectations from the next generation of young workers.
Employers want to know - are you ready for work?
First Jobs are stress tests.
It is a test of your attitude towards work, a test of your idea about your place in the world, a test of your ability to bend but not break.
As a mentor once told me - not everything on your first job will make sense or appeal to you. I can't agree with her more. The question you should consider is - are you learning and growing as a person and a professional?
How do you learn?
First learn to accept that you have graduated from school, and you are entering the workplace to deliver results on demand, on time and on budget.
Develop a professional attitude and peripheral vision that revolves around the company's mission and people.
Understand the nature of the organization's business, purpose and agenda.
Imagine you're a Sponge.
Absorb everything you see and hear around you as the norm and culture of your workplace. Observe everyone around and above you as your team. Turn your team into your friends and allies.
Employers want to see new workers can blend in, solve problems, and work well with others to produce results.
How are you tested?
Imagine you are a Server.
Aptitude is important, but attitude is more important when you're starting out and have yet to earn a reputation in the workplace.
Employers want to see if you are ready to roll up your sleeves, willing to take on tasks that may appear odious but necessary to get the job done.
How do you know when to quit?
Being a sponge or a server will not feel right to you all the time. But staying on your first job for at least one year if not two or even three will allow you to show future employers your ability to hold onto a job through its ups and downs. That's important to employers looking for adaptability, loyalty, maturity, and team spirit.
However, the question of how do you know when to quit also depends a lot on these key factors:
- how big is your company
- how much room do you have to grow within the organization
- how much do you love its mission, its people, product or services
- how much do you feel valued, respected, fulfilled as a person and professional.
You will know you're working for the wrong company or wrong boss if your talent and hard work is not appreciated.
How often are you praised or promoted? How often are you ignored?
How much do you feel you're compromising your sense of right and wrong in the course of performing a service or producing a product?
How much are you sacrificing your personal or family life because of the long hours on the job?
Remember that ultimately - you decide how you want to live your life.
Artist & Architect
Work is a big part of your life, but you can shape it like an artist and build it like an architect. Envision how each job as a patch of a big quilt; each job is a building block or a stepping stone.
You can assign meaning to the work that you do - especially if you need to support yourself or your family.
Value the foundation you are laying for your career, and cultivate a cohesive sense of purpose.
Your sense of a higher purpose and meaning will lead you to a right place.