6 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started Working

Work work work work work and other tips!

07.11.16
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Looking for more career advice? We’ve got tips on how to ask for a raise, how to quit without burning bridges and how to make it in fashion

I entered the full time, salaried, snack-roomed workforce almost five years ago. My first day at a job that offered me health insurance was July 19, 2011. And since then, I’ve crossed the valley of What-The-Hell-Am-I-Doing, traversed the forest of Why-Am-I-Sitting-At-A-Desk-So-Much and journeyed across the How-Do-People-Spend-Their-Whole-Lives-Working mountains.

I’ve cried over critical feedback. I’ve quit. I’ve been fired!!! I’ve been hired. I’ve been promoted. I’ve been criticized. I’ve been praised. I’ve been advised and then advised others. I’ve been trained and then trained others. I’ve felt depleted and then fulfilled and then depressed and then excited.

Work is a batshit crazy world of its own and it sometimes has different rules than the one outside its walls. Here are six things I wish I’d known when I started.

1. To-do list items should always be bite-sized.

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If an item on your to-do list takes more than an hour, it’s not broken down enough.

A more detailed list that tracks steps and progress will help you stay focused and feeling productive. For example, putting “Write research report” on your to-do list might make you feel daunted (also, what are you, a scientist?). Instead, try: “Spend 30 minutes brainstorming the structure of research report.”

2. Fast learners ask lots of questions.

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The more questions you ask during the learning process, the better. The “I’ll figure it out later” mindset often slows you down later. Get your questions out early. Even the dumb ones. No one will remember you asked.

3. Taking notes never hurt anybody.

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Take notes especially when you think you don’t need to. Everyone forgets everything always. WRITE IT DOWN. You’ll feel super competent later when you have notes to refer to. Keep your notes organized and type them up so you can command-F that shit.

4. Feedback is not yours to disagree with.

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Do not defend yourself when someone provides you with feedback. Everyone has a reason for why they acted a certain way, which is precisely the reason it does not matter. Perception is reality. Take in the feedback. Ask them for it! Thank them for it! Sit with it. Consider how it might be true. Take the parts of it that feel helpful, leave or further examine the ones that don’t. Then keep moving.

5. Asking for help is a sign of maturity.

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You know when shit is hitting the fan and you feel super panicky and you think that overcoming the panic and coming out on top is going to make you look super good? Asking for help actually might make you look better. It depends on your work environment, but laying out your stress points in a thoughtful way and asking for insight on how to manage them will help you evolve faster than trudging through will.

6. No one is thinking about you as much as you are.

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This is the most important one. Everyone is thinking about themselves and how things are making them look. Repeat repeat repeat!

Illustrations by Emily Zirimis.

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  • This was great! But I would love to hear more about those How-Do-People-Spend-Their-Whole-Lives-Working mountains. I think I need more than a good pair of boots.

    • Yvonne Dunlevie

      So true, Aleda. We will note for a follow-up post!!!

    • Kirsty

      I’m with you. I quit my job in February to start looking for the elusive I-love-my-job job, and 7 months on, I’ve never felt so naïve. The vast majority of writing jobs have been boring as heck, and for the few I think I could have actually loved, there’s always someone who slips in ahead of me (more experience, better networks, etc.). Have I been chasing the grail? Is it so much to ask? While my dad assures me that wanting to *like* what you do is a very modern phenomena, if this is true, I can’t see the point! With work taking up so much of our waking life (and, actually, often sleeping life), how do people keep getting up in the morning knowing the day ahead will leave them indifferent at best? Is there an alternative? Halp, and please god don’t direct me to Eat Pray Love.

      • I recommend listening to the Longform podcast. It’s super in depth interviews with writers (and some editors) about how they built their careers. I think our generation is appalled by the idea of having to make coffee for a living, but it seems like every successful/famous person has had to do that some point.

        I quit my first job out of college and it took me 1.5 years to get hired long-term again. I still wonder if I regret quitting that job, but it was truly the most awful work experience I ever had. For perspective’s sake, it was a 10-employee office and 12 people quit in two years. But now that I’m 27 I’ve mellowed out and no longer expect my job to be the sole source of fulfillment.

        Unemployment was simultaneously humbling and maddening. I spent all of my high school and college years studying and working without ever partying like my peers. I had to come to terms with the fact that at the end of the day, I have to prove how I will help a company make money, not prove how deserving and brilliant I am.

        My best piece of advice is to create personal projects and tracking your hours on a spreadsheet. Do the work you want to paid for. I work as a photo retoucher for an e-commerce company, but did not have (much) work experience or education remotely related to the position – but I had a portfolio.

        • Sarah

          I agree with this. I think you have to pay your dues before you can get a position you love. I have always been given the advice “your first job won’t be your perfect job” by several successful people who I greatly respect.

      • Mariana

        I am haunted by the same questions. Some people say that I think too much, that I am naive about my work expectations and “even though you should like what you do, a job is just a job and after that you still have an x amount of free time to do the other things that you love”, I believe it is a major part of our lives.
        “How do people keep getting up in the morning knowing the day ahead will leave them indifferent at best?” I believe the majority of people just keep going (because of the daily life, family responsabilities…) and numb themselves and put that questions in a mind-shelf that they can’t access but if you ever find the answer tell me :).

      • Jolie

        I’m having the exact same problem (I’ve even been looking since February, too!) and am getting so weary about it. The job offers I’ve gotten were either unpaid internships (even with years of full-time work experience) or jobs that weren’t my “I-love-my-job job,” as you put it. I’ve applied to over 300 dream jobs and have received so many rejections, all claiming that my cover letter/resume were great but they need someone with more experience in the field. Where is this elusive experience coming from? I’ve started to accept the fact that I’m not getting one of those dream jobs unless I “know” someone, so have been trying to network, which is pointless and embarrassing in and of itself.

        I do think it’s possible to have a job that you’re more than indifferent about. But I think to get there, you either have to work insanely hard (which you sound like you’re doing) or be privileged enough to have some kind of connection or be able to afford to work for less money.

      • Bethany Alexa May Peterson

        I like my job because I do the things I loved in college and am in an environment that works for me. Work is not my reason for getting up in the am or going to change the world, but the rest of my life is fulfilling. I don’t think most people will LOVE their jobs. It is a myth, and liking your job on most days or weeks is a fine way to live if you have a passion outside the office.

    • montcalm0

      so i worked for 10 years and have now been job-free for 2. it IS possible and it’s a million percent worth it.

      i think many of us were sold this idea that working for a wage full time is the only way to get by. but it is not!

      you have to figure out how to get by given your unique situation. what will someone pay you for? often that’s not obvious at all until you start trying to get people to pay you for things. also, it seems like you pretty much always have to develop some form of public persona – even if the field you’re in is very narrow.

      it is a change in mindset to go from “make yourself hireable” to “what do i do that someone might want to pay for”. you will likely have to create a market for the thing you do. that’s where the public persona thing comes in.

      typically you have no idea what kinds of things will make you money, so you have to try lots of things and keep working on whatever your thing is. it’s ok if you change your thing. make your progress part of your public persona. you’re just an intrepid adventurer – now you’re painting, now you’re programming, now you’re traveling! eventually someone will want to pay for something you produce (hopefully). you just gotta try lots of things, make friends with people who share your integrity and respect you, manufacture friends if you can’t find anyone (teach your friends to do what you do, etc.), share all of your work (it’s easier for a community to get known for a thing and increases the chances that the powers that be will notice it), and SAVE MONEY so that you can spend time developing your thing.

  • This was great, and all of it true! I especially like the note about the size of to-do lists and you thinking about you more than others are.

  • #6 Totally had to learned this at my first long-term job. Numerous friends and I just assumed that our bosses should notice we were unhappy. The unfair pay, workload, or colleague has consumed our thoughts so much that it’s large enough for others to see, right? In reality our managers were focused on their own problems with their own managers and workload.

  • Harling Ross

    #6!!!!!!!!! Why do I always forget that.

  • Leandra Medine

    The one about the to-do list…pretty sure my life is changed

  • Lovey Fleming
  • Anna Kennedy

    The illustration for #1 is perfect. Loved this post

  • Hanne

    the illustrations are AMAZING!

  • thebluntartist

    nice!

  • If you’re not taking notes, you’re not taking note.
    [BOOM goes the dynamite]

  • Yesss to the questions one. I started working about 6 years ago and wish I had the confidence to ask more questions then. It’s important to remember when starting out that no one expects you to know everything. Working a job is a give and take, you give your work and take the knowledge. If you’re surrounded by experts and not picking their brain you are wasting a whole lot of time and another free education. I had to write this all out as a reminder because I still find myself holding back. GAH. and #6 is something I should tattoo on the inside of my arm. Gr8 list.

  • Shruthi Gowda

    This is a good list 🙂
    Shruthi
    http://nyambura.co

  • ooh I just broke #4 the other day, even though it seems so obvious when it’s someone else giving the excuses, when it happens to you you *totally* have a reasonable explanation that will automatically shift the guilt off your shoulders and convince everyone that you’re not an idiot…*not* you WILL be an idiot if you respond to (constructive) negative feedback with anything other than a “right/ok/got it/thank you” *foreheadslap*

  • Rachel K.

    Agree with all six, but work will never not be: same shit, different day.

  • Command-F is my one true love. Loving your advice in #3 so I can take our relationship to the next level!

  • Elva Lexa

    I love this community because of stuff like this. I needed this today. You ladies are my best friends. xoxo

  • On #4 and #5 – trying to get better at both of these things. I in non-work life I am always open to feedback / critiques and not afraid to ask for help. But sometimes my boss makes me feel like I need to defend my work and like I should be smarter. Sometimes it’s difficult to knock yourself down a few notches – openly take the criticism and ask for help when you feel like you are stuck trying to prove your worth. Anyone else feel this?

  • Sarah Lonsdale

    “What are you, a scientist?” Actually, yeah I am haha.
    Good article though- particularly agree with taking notes and a bite-sized to-do list!

  • Christel Michelle

    4 and 5 are so important to remember!!! I love this