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You’ve written an amazing job application. You’ve aced1 the interview. You’ve been offered the job – now what?
Whether your first job is washing the dishes at a branch of Nando’s or the graduate scheme at KPMG, the first few months can be a very steep learning curve. That’s true even of jobs where the day-to-day work is menial and easy. When you first start, you’ll learn a lot of things very quickly, and some of them will take you by surprise.
You’ll have to master a new type of relationship – the one between a boss and a line manager, which can be a little bit like that of teacher and student but also has some crucial differences. You’ll probably need to go shopping for new outfits2 that are appropriate to your new role. You’ll be managing your own time differently than before, whether that’s because you’re now working 9 to 6 for the first time in your life, or because your job takes up evenings that you used to have for yourself.
In this article, we take a look at all the things you ought to learn from your first job, and how to master them quickly so that you succeed.
1. We all start new jobs knowing much less than we think we do
It makes sense to go into interviews with confidence. You have enthusiasm and fresh ideas; you’ll hit the ground running in this job, you know everything that needs to be done, and you’ve even got a couple of ideas for innovations that you think your new boss should hear about. This is a great attitude to have for the interview and even going into your first day – but try not to believe in it too much, because one of the first things you learn from any new job is how very little you know.
Let’s take the Nando’s dish-washing example. You might think you know how to get leftover3 chicken off plates. But the kitchen will have routines that you don’t know about; the dishwasher exciting quirks4 that you’ll need to learn. You’ll discover that Jeff, the chef on Tuesdays and Thursdays, has different opinions on how much everyone should be chatting in his kitchen than Moira, who does the weekend shift. You’ll have to learn everyone’s names, where everything is kept, what the official hierarchies5 are and how they interact with any unofficial ones that might also existence (for instance, based on who’s been there longest). And that list gets significantly longer as soon as the job requires a degree.
2. Your salary gets swallowed very quickly
Probably the best thing about having a job for the first time is the experience of having money that’s all your own. No longer dependent on the generosity6 of your parents, you’ll have cash that you can spend on whatever you want; it’s all up to you.
The excitement of this is why many people go on a spending spree when they get their first job. But you’ll also learn how quickly you can spend your starting salary. Costs like cinema tickets or new outfits become a lot more real when you can translate them into the number of hours you spent working. Working also brings with it a whole load of additional costs: for lunches, for the cost of commuting7, for after-work socialising with your colleagues (which can be particularly draining on your purse if they mostly earn a lot more than you), and for new clothes so that you can be dressed appropriately for the role. Your first job is often the time when you also first learn how to budget effectively – because spending money on things you don’t need hurts more when it’s your own wages that you’re spending.
3. Good managers know what you’re doing; bad managers know if you’re there
The thing that will make the greatest amount of difference to your working life is how good your manager is. Unfortunately, even if your manager is terrible, they’re still the person who’ll be recommending you for promotion8, or writing your reference for future positions, so you’ll need to impress them all the same.
For a good manager, this is relatively9 easy, because they’ll know what work you’re doing and the results you’re getting; though good managers can also be hands-off enough not to bother finding out the exact methods that you’re using. A bad manager won’t be as on top of what’s going on in terms of activity and results – instead, they’ll monitor your work through the more straightforward10 test of whether you’re there or not. They’ll care whether you’re in the office before them in the morning and still there when they leave in the evening; they’ll care whether you seem to be spending time on your mobile phone or browsing11 social media instead of working. And beware, of course, that you will be beholden not only to your own manager, but also their own manager’s thoughts on how well they’re managing you.
4. 90% of what you learned in education will be useless
It’s a sad fact that the vast majority of what you learned at school and university will be no use to you whatsoever12 in your first job, or quite possibly later jobs. The client that made your French language skills so appealing at interview might choose another supplier, so you won’t speak anything but English for your entire time at the job. A whizzy new piece of software might make your Maths skills redundant13. Your knowledge of history or geography is likely to be of use primarily for impressing your colleagues when you form a work quiz team. And you may discover that by far the most useful thing you ever did was take an evening calligraphy14 course, so that your hand-written Christmas cards to key clients are in great demand.
The caveat15 to all of this is that you don’t know which 90% is going to be useless. It might be that you’re the only person in your department who knows what ‘syntax’ means, so your studies in English Language prove invaluable16. Or they’re all great writers, but none of them are capable of analysing statistics. Or that French client decides to put in a valuable and fiddly order, and you’re the only one who can liaise with them. You’ll find yourself frustrated17 that you spent so much time learning things that are of no help to you now – right up until the point when they become unexpectedly invaluable.
5. Success is making your manager’s life easier
You’ll know you’re doing a great job at the point when your manager requests that you do something, and you’ve anticipated the need and done it already. At some point in your career, you’ll get to the stage when you’re making big decisions and achieving significant wins in your own right, but at entry level, most of what you’re doing will simply be making your manager’s life easier; concentrating on minutiae18 and getting menial tasks done so that they can focus on more important things.
Most of this is based around good planning and problem-solving. Do they always ask you for a particular set of figures on a Tuesday? Try getting the figures to them before they ask. Make sure that anything you write for them has already been adequately proofread19, so they know they can send it out without needing to check over it again themselves. And if you have a question, do your utmost to figure out the answer yourself rather than asking them wherever you possibly can.
6. Attention to detail matters
When you’re at the top of an organisation20, you’re expected to think about the bigger picture. You make the big decisions, set long-term goals, work out strategy and inspire the organisation to see it all through. Your diary will be updated by someone else, the finer details of the budget worked through by another team, and if your spelling leaves something to be desired, you can always get someone to proofread for you.
But if this is your first job and you’re at entry level in the organisation, that person updating the diary, checking the most trivial items of the budget add up and checking that the newsletter doesn’t confuse its principals with its principles may well be you. You’re no longer in a position where your lecturer will forgive a couple of typos. If you’re not doing anything really important – and you’re unlikely to have the chance at the beginning – how well you deal with the small stuff will be noticed.
7. You can make yourself indispensable at any level
Even at entry level, you can find something that will make you indispensable. Perhaps you can volunteer to pick up the phone to mollify that one really difficult client, and then you’ll become the person who deals with them forever after. Maybe you’ll figure out how to deal with annoying quirks of the franking machine, and you can become Chief Franking Machine Whisperer. Or it could be that with your well-honed attention to detail (see above), you can spot the typo in the brochure that’s already gone through three rounds of edits and that no one had noticed any problems with except you, so you become the office proofreader for the full extent of your time working there.
Whatever it is that you find, making yourself indispensable is a good way to ensure that you keep your job, especially if you’re on a temporary contract and would like it to be renewed or made permanent. But remember that one aspect of growing and developing in your job is to make yourself dispensable again. Being the one person who knows how to do a mail-merge is good in the short term; but in the long term, being the person who taught the whole office how to mail-merge is even better.
8. You will work with people you don’t like
At school, you can sit with your friends and avoid the people you dislike except on the rare occasions when you might not get to choose who you do group work with. At university, the same is true but the people you don’t get on with are even easier to avoid. But in the workplace, you don’t have any choice in the matter. You’re being paid to work with your colleagues, after all; whether you find them pleasant to spend time with is irrelevant21.
This means that one of the key skills you develop in your first job is figuring out how to get along with people who you would never freely choose to spend time with, let alone the eight hours a day (or more!) that you might be spending with your work colleagues. The temptation may be to do the absolute minimum with the people you don’t get on with, but in general it’s better to try and keep a positive attitude. You may well find that people you would never have any desire to socialise with can nonetheless be good to work with.
9. It’s OK to move on from a bad job – or a great one
The final thing you’ll learn from your first job is when it’s the right time to leave. It might be that your first job is very far from being your dream job, and you find yourself wanting to leave as soon as you’ve got a decent alternative lined up. Or it might be that you love your first job, and it’s a wrench22 to move on even if you know that progressing in your career requires it.
Figuring out when to move on can be tricky23. You don’t want to move so soon that your CV gives the impression that you can’t commit (or that they gave you the dignified24 option of jumping before you were pushed). You also want to give yourself time to build up your skills. But it’s equally important to move on if your first job is making you unhappy, or if you feel you’ve run out of room to develop in the role. Then you get to discover all of the things that people learn from their second job: like how strange some of the practices in your first job were that everyone took for granted and treated as normal, and how the learning curve is just as steep the second time.