Stories Told

Three things I wish someone had told me when I started my career

I felt like a fish out of water when, fresh out of college, I got the first job of my career. I’d had jobs before, the kind anybody could do – ushering at a theater, working the counter at a Dairy Queen, driving for a courier service, that sort of thing. But my new job as a technical writer for a software company involved a specialized skill, it created real value for the company, and it had a future. It felt like the big time, the real thing – and it sent my anxiety off the charts. I didn’t know how to behave!

I hired a summer intern to test my company’s software product, a bright engineering student from Purdue. He started a couple of weeks ago, and was he ever nervous. He had a hard time looking anybody in the eye and when he spoke, his voice always trailed off. His body language was shouting, “What the heck am I doing here? I have no idea what I’m doing!” So I took him aside and gave him some advice – three key tips I figured out on my own over the years, but that I wish someone had told me back when.

  1. Act like you belong here. Have you seen the film Catch Me If You Can, based on the true story of master forger Frank Abagnale? In it, he forged and faked his way into jobs as an airline pilot, a chief resident pediatrician in a hospital, and as an attorney. He was not trained for these jobs, but he skated by because he behaved confidently, as if he had earned his right to be there just like his colleagues who actually did. Stop short of breaking the law, of course – but anywhere you go, take this one play from Abagnale’s book. And you have an advantage over Abagnale: We know you legitimately have what it takes to do the job. You made the cut, and we want you here. Stand confidently on that.
  2. Know who to call. I turned 22 shortly after starting my first job after college and someone threw a small party in the office. When I revealed my age, all the middle-aged guys just shook their heads and wouldn’t say a word. I’ve been through that a few times now that I’m their age – they realized that they had been working longer than I’d been alive. It makes a man feel old. But that age does bring some wisdom, and those guys showed me the ropes. Lots of people helped me get better at what I do over the years, and I still reach out to some of them for advice. Everybody knows you don’t know anything, so relax and ask all the dumb questions you want. Even after you leave here, don’t lose track of the people who were the most helpful. They might stay helpful to you – and it will surprise you one day when you find yourself able to help them.
  3. If nobody is leading, you do it. There is no shortage of people who will simply wait to be told what to do. If you want to distinguish yourself, be someone who figures out what to do and does it. Don’t be afraid to do that when working directly with others, either; it’s startling how often people in a group will stare at each other hoping someone else will take the lead. But be sure to ask what your team’s and your company’s goals are, and make choices that help achieve them. You are bound to make some wrong decisions, but you will learn and grow from them.

The fellow seems to have taken my words to heart; at least he seems a lot less uncomfortable around the office.

What advice do you wish someone had given you at the beginning of your career?

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9 thoughts on “Three things I wish someone had told me when I started my career

  1. N.S. Palmer says:

    Great ideas! I suppose that the most important advice someone could have given me was “Respect other people and SHOW IT.” I learned that eventually but it took a long time, and it cost me in the interim.

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  2. No. 2 is key. Can’t wait for our whiskey soon.

    For me, I think I’ve learned most how important it is to find a work environment where you can succeed. In some ways, I feel like I’m still kind of crawling out of the hole I learned to hide in under my first boss out of college. But now I know what I need out of a boss/manager to really thrive, and since I’ve been at Pivot, I’ve not been afraid to ask for that. I think that would be my no. 4–don’t be afraid to ask your boss to be what you need to succeed.

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    • So looking forward to a little sipping. Maybe you can tell me some stories about type.

      I agree — it is so important to help your boss help you succeed. But also, if you have a boss that can’t or won’t do that, get the hell out. Don’t let yourself be driven into a hole ever again.

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  3. Carole says:

    Great info, Jim. I’ve printed it out for my young part-timer. Yes, most of us could have benefited from this info when we started out.
    Just a thought…a future magazine article?

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  4. Jennifer S says:

    I remember my first mentor at an NPR station who told me, “Some people will think you’re a star, but some people just won’t see you. You’ll have to find ways to show them you’re there.” Boy, was that true! I’ve always remembered that advice, and it stays useful. Interesting post!

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    • That’s great advice. One thing I remember from my time in radio is that showing people that you’re there could sometimes threaten them, especially if you’re younger/better looking and show good command of your talents. That’s sooooooo much less a problem in software development, where frankly it matters not at all how young and pretty you are.

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