Everybody Hates Their First Job

This summer, hundreds of thousands of young adults will graduate and enter the full-time work force for the first time, many in professional roles. It’s a tough labor market for new graduates, so it’s with all sincerity that I say congratulations on your first job. Unfortunately, prepare to hate it. Everyone hates their first job, to the point where it’s a rite of passage. It will be a painful reconciling between your expectations, self-awareness, and reality, like a professional adolescence. But if you go into it with the right attitude, you’ll learn a lot about what you want out of life that will guide the rest of your career. To help you through it, here are some observations and advice that will make the transition a little less rocky.

You’re moving from the top of the heap to the bottom

Early in my career, I had the opportunity to lead a major strategic project with high levels of executive visibility. At one point, we needed to do three pages of data entry in order to get a presentation ready for the senior leadership team. “I’m not doing data entry,” I told my manager, indignantly. I had a master’s degree, and I was an expert in the project. “Who else do you think is going to do it?” she shot back. And she was right – I was at the bottom rung of the ladder. If it wasn’t me, it wasn’t getting done.

When you start your first job, you transition from the top of a small heap – the university – to the bottom of the biggest one – the economy. And it’s compounded by the fact that at a company, the most important stakeholder is its customers, and at a university, that customer was you. So you’ve gone from running things at an organization that was fanatically devoted to you, to the menial work at one that cares about someone else. At university, you had leadership roles where you could make things happen and professors that were dedicated to helping you learn. In your first job, you’re going to have menial tasks that need to get done, and you’re going to have to be the guy to do them. Make sure you do a great job of it.

You don’t know what a job is supposed to look like

During the recruiting process, my first job regaled me with stories about their advanced technology. Once I showed up, I learned that behind the demo was something akin to an abacus held together with duct tape. I’ve since learned that enterprise technology is actually really hard, and that even the most cutting edge workplaces struggle with deploying large systems or incorporating the latest features. But in my first job, I didn’t have that perspective. And I didn’t have the experience to know which problems were “this place,” and which problems were “all places.” Was the grass actually greener someplace else, or had I just never seen any other grass?

At the same time you’ve moved from the top to the bottom, you’re going to learn that your expectations about the workplace are entirely out of whack. Fueled by paeans in management books, rosy case studies in magazines, and the half-truths recruiters have told you to get you in the door, you’re entering the workforce expecting a magical place where decisions are made rationally, managers are servant leaders devoted to your success, and jobs are the place where you fulfill your passions. As with anything in life, some of these things are true, some will become more true as you progress in your career, and many of them are bold faced lies. But in your first job, when you lack perspective about any of them, you’re constantly faced with disappointment. Paraphrasing the Serenity Prayer, work to change the things you can, accept the things you can’t, and learn to tell the difference.

You don’t know enough about yourself to know what you can do, or what you want to

One of my favorite courses as an undergrad involved doing deep research into the archives of the United States Foreign Service. Ironically, it was only in writing this article that I realized how often I use those same skills in my work: developing hypotheses, gathering qualitative or documentary evidence, constructing a narrative based on incomplete information, and drawing lessons for decision makers. But at the time, I had no idea that was even what I enjoyed, or that there were jobs where I could do that. Universities are organized around subject matter, and this was a history class, but the professional world is more often organized around the type of work you do. That leaves students graduating thinking they need to find a job in their area of interest rather than doing the work they enjoy.

Many of the skills that make you successful at school, like memorizing facts or long form writing, have few analogs in the professional world. And it’s hard to connect which of the activities you enjoy in school would apply in the professional world. Most employers can teach you the subject matter – it’s what they do every day. They want you to come prepared with the intangibles. Act professionally, think proactively, be responsive, work hard, and be open to feedback. As you get more experience, you’ll fall into a groove doing the work you truly enjoy.

Figuring out your dream job is a process of trial and error, not deliberation and decision.

If this all sounds defeatist, don’t worry – you’re not expected to love your first job. Think of it as the first step in a journey where you learn more about where you are in the world, what it looks like, and what you have to offer. Because even if you hate it, your first job will also be one of the most important experiences you have. Not because it’s such an important decision (really, quit worrying about whether it’s the right job – unlike colleges, you’re going to go to lots of jobs), but because of what you’ll learn. So go forth, commiserate with your friends about your terrible day at work, and after a year or two, look for something new. But before then, be willing to do the dirty work, manage your own expectations, work hard, and be open to feedback. If you’re doing it right, you’ll gradually hone in on the job that’s perfect for you. And if it’s any solace, this is tough on your boss too.

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