I never expected my social circle, at age 22, to use the phrase "I feel so old" so much. We know we still have our whole lives ahead of us, but making the transition from college to career can really make you feel like you've aged 20 years. For example, unlike in my college years, convincing myself to go out on a Friday night these days takes almost as much work as getting out of bed on a Monday morning. And I never thought I would be spending my beloved lazy Sundays running whatever errands I didn't get done during the week. Even four internships, including one with my current full-time employer, the Kiplinger Washington Editors, hadn't fully prepared me for this whole professional-life thing.
To help you make the adjustment and overcome common obstacles you might face when you're just starting out, here are some lessons I learned in the first few months of my first job. I hope these tips will help you feel as young as you are.
1. Make a work syllabus.
Some days at the office I found myself frustrated by the lack of structure. "College sets up expectations you didn't realize you had," says Elwood Holton, author of How to Succeed in Your First Job: Tips for College Graduates. Think about it: On your first day of class, you're handed a syllabus, told exactly how you will be graded, and given most of your assignments for the semester. The workplace just doesn't work like that.
But you can create some structure on your own. Rather than thinking about all the different things I can be doing, I try to focus on one or two projects each day. Make "to do" lists and set due dates for tasks that don't come with deadlines.
Just don't expect to leave work every day with something big checked off your list. Some days, I leave the office feeling like I've accomplished something great -- that same sense of relief I felt after finishing a big paper in college. Other days, I just have to tell myself to leave the office and come back to a project the next day.
And always keep your long-term career goals in mind. As a way to stay on track, Liz Ryan, Kiplinger's "On the Job" columnist, recommends writing out a plan for yourself while you're still in the "honeymoon" phase of your first job. Include goals that will not only help you succeed in your current position, but ones that will ultimately help you advance professionally.
2. Get progress reports.
You're bound to have doubts and insecurities in your first job, but if you never address them, they will start interfering with your work. My position as a social media specialist, for example, is fairly new here at Kiplinger, so I don't really have a set of expectations to live up to -- which is both a blessing and a curse. I am grateful to have so much responsibility and excited to be able to try new things, but it's also scary never knowing for sure whether I'm on the right track.
So that I don't feel like I'm going it alone, I need to maintain constant communication with my editors. And if I'm really unsure about something or I want to share an idea with someone else, I don't hesitate to turn to my colleagues for advice. Particularly in the first few months, you need to know whether you're doing a good job. Unlike in college, where you automatically know how you did on a project based on a grade, in the workplace, you generally have to ask for that feedback.
As a way to track your progress, Emily Bennington, author of Effective Immediately: How to Fit In, Stand Out, and Move Up at Your First Real Job, highly recommends sending a quick, bulleted "Friday memo" each week to your boss, listing your accomplishments for the week, the areas where you're awaiting input, and your goals for the week ahead. If you make this memo part of your weekly routine, it will become a part of your boss's routine, too.
3. Understand your company and know your role.
For those of us who just discovered our independence in college, it may be tempting to dive into a new job wanting to shake things up and expecting to lead the company in new directions right away. But if you want to become a leader, your colleagues have to respect you first. "You might make your mark down the road by being a renegade, but it's not how you start," says Holton.
Part of my job, for example, is to encourage longtime employees not only to hop on board the social media train, but to understand and appreciate its value. But, how do I, a 22-year-old in her first job, tell my superiors they need to do something new when they have been doing just fine without it?
The key is how you do it, says Holton. Steer away from making judgments. Rather than saying, "we shouldn't be doing it this way," make sure your suggestions add value to what the person or company is doing already. And simply showing your colleagues that you're sensitive to what they do will lead them to appreciate you.
Personally, I try never to get frustrated with staff members who are uninterested in or unsure about social media. I provide the necessary tools, I lead by example, and I nudge people in the right direction, but I do not make anyone do something they don't want to do. I figure if I respect their style of work, they will, in turn, come to respect mine. And I've already had some success with this strategy: By letting my colleagues warm up to social media at their own pace, I have seen a few people I never thought would join Twitter start to tweet. Once your co-workers see you as a valuable and integral part of the team, you can start making strides in your own direction.
4. Get to know your co-workers as real people.
I honestly think joining Kiplinger's softball team was one of the best things I've done for my career. Interacting with some of my colleagues outside of the workplace gave me a chance to show them a different side of myself and to get to know them on a more human level. Establishing those outside relationships has strengthened the rapport I have with them when we're on the job, which in turn has helped me feel more relaxed at work, and in some ways, more confident.
So if your co-workers ask you to join them for lunch or happy hour, go! Better yet, ask them out for a bite to eat or a quick drink.
5. Embrace your superficial side.
First impressions are absolutely critical (perhaps more so than they should be). You should always pay attention to your appearance at work, says Bennington. You want to look professional and within dress code standards when you're new and trying to create a name for yourself, even if your more-seasoned colleagues roll in dressed more casually. Try these 5 Budget-Friendly Essentials for Your Work Wardrobe to get started.
Also be aware of your communication skills. You have to speak and carry yourself with confidence, even if that's not how you're feeling on the inside. When I hosted my first company-wide meeting, I was a nervous wreck. But instead of letting it show, I told myself to pretend like I wasn't the youngest person in the room and instead acted like I had been leading these meetings for years. Judging by the reaction of my editors and co-workers, I think it worked.
Also, particularly in the first few months, take the time to go to a colleague's office and talk to them in person, rather than by phone or e-mail. More face time helped my colleagues get to know me better as "Amanda," rather than "that new girl they hired to do social media stuff," and the more comfortable and confident I began to feel.
Holton and Ryan recommend interviewing several people in the organization, asking them questions like "What does it take to be successful?" or "What qualities do you like to see in a co-worker?" "Just asking the question creates a great first impression," Holton says.
6. Be ready for full time.
I was surprised to find how exhausted I am after an eight-hour workday, let alone an entire workweek. Sure, in college you might have spent several eight-hour stretches in the library, but eight-hour workdays, every day, take some getting used to. "The exhaustion you feel is actually a good thing," says Ryan. "Remember, you're building a muscle."
Time-management has become even more important in the "real world" than it was during school. I have to prioritize things I used to take for granted, such as meeting friends for dinner or going to the gym. It takes time to find a balance between work and play, relationships and alone time, and the things you want to do versus the things you need to do, but over time, you will find your groove.
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