Your First Job Doesn't (Really) Matter

Posted on Jan 25, 2012 02:56 PM |

Are you just finished uni and just starting your first job?  Or still struggling to find one?  In this guest post, Jodi Glickman - founder of communication training firm Great on the Job - says don't worry too much about it.  Instead, she offers three more important things to focus on.  Thanks Jodi!

I recently polled a trailblazing group of women leaders — Northwestern University’s Council of 100 — about their careers. How many of us were in the same job or even on the same career path today as we were when we graduated from uni? The answer was three: three out of one hundred women. Then I asked how many were in the same industry. The number went up to about twenty.

So, at twenty-one years old, 20% of us knew the field we wanted to be in (and would ultimately succeed in) and 3% of us got both the job and the industry right out of the starting gate.

Gen Y’s, don’t worry: this isn’t a cautionary tale; it’s a reprieve. Don’t worry so much about your first job — you’re probably not going to get it right anyway, and that’s okay.

What’s more, there are better things for you to worry about that will ensure that, no matter what job you choose today, you build skills and create options for the long-term.

Instead, worry now about learning, earning, and contributing. Those three areas will get you much farther than nights of stress worrying about what interviews you’ll get and which networking opportunities to approach.

Learn

When I graduated from uni, I headed off to the Peace Corps in Latin America to travel and change the world. Travel I did. I’m no so sure about changing the world. And I didn’t end up in the international aid field either.

But what I did do is learn a whole lot about myself, about relating to others, about adjusting expectations and managing difficult workplace environments. The Peace Corps demanded that I think outside the box, overcome challenges, problem solve in non-traditional environments, and push my self beyond my comfort zone (and then some). Beyond using those skills in my day-to-day work, I often use examples from that time period when I need to highlight my abilities.

Whatever first job you land after uni, there is learning to be had. Be an observer of people and your environment. What is the team dynamic like? Why do people love (or hate) the boss? Who can you emulate or model yourself against as you move through the ranks? Why do the jerks who bring in the most accounts still get ahead? Who wields power and influence and who is relegated to the sidelines? How do people who always solve problems do it?

Earn

Doing what you love and making money doing it don’t always coincide. But making money often helps you ultimately do what you love. There is no shame in honest work. If you can’t land a job at Google or Groupon, don’t despair. Go get a job waiting tables, working at a call center, or freelance for a small business. Moonlight as an artist and build out your social media profile and skills. Blog on the side and work retail during the day. Just do something to make some cash, be able to support yourself, and hopefully start building a nest egg. I had multiple periods of “not having a real job” during my twenties. I temped, waitressed, barista’d, babysat, worked multiple jobs — I did everything I could to make ends meet between jobs and while searching for my next “real” thing.

That focus on earnings gave me flexibility and created choices. I was able to fly to Washington (on my own nickel) for a long-shot interview (I got the job). I was able to take a GMAT class when, out of the blue, I decided to go to b-school. And years later, I was able to launch my own business as an entrepreneur after socking away my Wall Street salary post MBA. I’ve never had to forego a twist or turn in the road because I couldn’t support myself doing something new — continually being able to pay my bills (no matter how humble the job) has provided me with a sense of pride and a sense of empowerment.

Contribute

What Gen-Y’s (and in truth, everyone) most want is fulfillment and a sense of purpose. If you’re not utilizing your “highest and best” value in the marketplace, take that energy and enthusiasm and apply it elsewhere as a force for positive good. Do charity work on the side or join a non-profit board. Get involved with a cause or an organization you care about. Take the skills you’re hoping to build a career on and apply them to a local organization that needs your help. You’ll demonstrate your passion and conviction to future employers, and you might just make important connections that will lead to your next big thing. Crazier things have happened than landing your dream job because of volunteer work.

Even though it’s hard to imagine right now, the economy will turn around. Things will get better; they always do. As you wait out this downturn, don’t think that your degree is worthless: it’s not. Your lifetime earning potential is higher, your chances of unemployment are lower, and the benefits of the network you’ve built are incomparable and long lasting. And, as first generation digital natives, your tech savvy skills are invaluable.

Whatever you’re doing today or trying to do, keep in mind the learn, earn, contribute trifecta. If you can check off one or two at a time, you’ll ultimately end up with all three along the way — and find that career path or job or circuitous round-about path to happiness and prosperity somewhere in between.

Jodi Glickman's book Great on the Job is out now; follow her on Twitter at @greatonthejob. This post first appeared on the HBR Blog Network.