A Beginner's Guide
How To Survive Your First Job
Your first day at work and you’re nervous, naturally. You decide, for the sake of catharsis, to quickly recap the journey that led you to the computer screen into which you now resolutely stare, a journey that many INOMICS readers will know all too well.
You got the degree. At great emotional and crippling financial cost, you got it. Three years of hard(ish) graft, done. Never to be repeated, either; your liver feels permanently weakened. You then finished the internship. Long, unpaid and comprising of little, it was probably worth it: everyone seemed insistent you did it, and you did. It served one important purpose at least. Brought up-to-date, with the font size adjusted to 24, your CV finally ran to a full side of A4. Emboldened, you began the job hunt. 14 months later, self-esteem long gone, your persistence paid off, the long-awaited interview, vindication. Nerves swallowed, you fought off fierce competition over four rounds of interrogation, your future line-manager swayed by your willingness to work weekends. Contract signed, you now sit at the computer, nervously, waiting for adulthood to begin.
Now, don’t get fired!
And the nerves are there for a reason. Work is no walk in the park. Indeed, resting on your laurels now would be unwise. The 9-to-5 can be a cruel master, ruling with an iron fist, and is particularly prone to nepotism. To survive its tumult and built-in bias, one must be smart, savvy and alert - things they don't teach at uni, yet things you’ll need asap. Complacency on any of these fronts and, well, expect punishment. But let’s remain positive, you can prepare. There exist pointers that, if abided, will minimise the chances of your being fired, while maximising your chances of success. Together, they make up the INOMICS guide to surviving your first job.
An appreciation of office culture will be critical to your longevity. As a general rule it should be respected (unless, of course, it’s toxic), particularly at the start. That includes the parts that seem silly, too. For inevitably - and this is fine - there will be aspects of it you don't like. Wearing a tie in 35 degree heat, for instance, is gross, there’s nothing professional about sweaty, red faces. But as a newbie, save the protest and keep your neck below the parapet. Try to gauge the work culture before you go about trying to dismantle it. It developed in your absence and will reflect both the history and values of the company, which, unsurprisingly, many will hold dear. Don’t go about offending on day one.
And not offending should be easy, you’re a considerate person after all. But presumably you’ll have loftier aspirations, you’ll want to impress. One of the best ways to do so - besides routinely leaving biscuits in the staff kitchen, which can be expensive - is to ask questions. Not to just anyone, though. Find a sympathetic colleague, someone a rung above in the food chain, and get the office low down. Uncover the office mores. Only by observing the unspoken, long-held traditions will true acceptance be found. Do people leave as the clock strikes 5? Does the boss have any unusual quirks you may need to tip-toe around? And how formal is office etiquette? Not only will getting a grip of these practices help you settle, it will move you out of the firing line. And yes, if you have the money, leave biscuits. Bribery works.
Signpost your humility and willingness to learn
It may sound desperately obvious, but you’d be surprised how many people get unstuck for not showing enough eagerness to learn. Don’t be one of them. Learn from your mistakes quickly, ideally while remaining dignified. And be open about what you don’t yet understand. Asking for instruction when unsure on something is preferable to charging ahead, effectively blind, and hoping for the best. The results of the wrecking-ball approach are time-consuming, discomfiting and potentially even job-losing. Avoid it. Bosses admire humility in their employees. Its practice facilitates honest, efficient communication, and demonstrates both maturity and confidence. Remember, you’re only entry-level. No one is expecting perfection, so there’s no need to pretend you offer it. Be cool with what you do know. It did, after all, get you hired.
Now to the signposting. A practical way of doing this is establishing an open dialogue with your superiors. Not all companies will automatically schedule performance reviews, and oftentimes when they do, they’re sporadic. Not so helpful for a newb. If this is your experience, be proactive (signposting in action) and request one. It needn't be a super formal affair, just a way of getting a sense of your performance as seen from above and knowing exactly where you should improve. Also, a bit of one-on-one time with your seniors is always handy for making - or hopefully consolidating - a good first impression. Be sensible, though: sycophancy is an unattractive trait. Any brown nosing should be moderated, tailored specifically to the ego of your boss.
Over stretching is bad
And easily done. The temptation to promise everything to everyone is only natural, especially in the first few weeks when nerves may still be jangling. We all know the desperate desire to impress, to be seen as competent, independent, and unfazed. Abstractly these inclinations are positive, they show you to be a well-intentioned person, willing to pull your weight, and more. So on that front, well done. However, you must have them under control. Unfettered enthusiasm can get you into all kinds of trouble. Promising far more than you are capable of delivering will leave people aggrieved; people with power over you; people who could get you fired. Ward against this. It’s fine to say no to doing yet another ‘favor’, and sometimes necessary. As the famous saying goes: it’s better to do one thing well than three things catastrophically. Don’t undersell yourself, just be realistic with what you can manage. Be judged on your own terms. You’ll fare far better.
Take it. While keeping the above in mind, you should take the initiative. And if possible, try and take it when people - the more senior the better - are watching: make it visible. This will make you to look accomplished, show leadership, and when promotions are in the offing, help you stand out. It can be achieved in a number of ways. The most obvious is doing more than is expected of you. Starting out, your brief will be well demarcated and at its least demanding, so only where possible go above and beyond (sensibly, mind), while ensuring you do not overstretch (please see above). This does not mean taking out the bins, although that’s a nice gesture and a chore many avoid. It means being engaged and contributing ideas in areas you find interesting or have an expertise in, even when they haven’t been asked of you. Modern institutions know well the need to innovate to stay relevant. Try to become part of this innovation. For if you do, you’ll find your position secure, safe from the next round of cuts.
Okay, back to you, sat there at your computer, tense. You can take a breath, we’ve covered the basics. It’s now for you to remember them. Print them out, recite them if you need to, just make sure you follow them. The imposter syndrome will subside if you do; and what a feeling that would be. Seriously though, things, in all likelihood, will be fine. With a good attitude and the ability you (surely) have, it won't be long before you gain the confidence to look out beyond your darkened computer screen to the room and colleagues around you. In that beautiful moment you’ll realise you deserve the position you’re in. You’ve worked hard, and in reality, you can do the job well. You may also allow yourself to recognise that actually most of your work is pretty well received, you’re a bit less stressed, and you’re even getting invited to after work drinks now and again. Ah bliss... Now ask for a pay rise.
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