4 Things I Wish I’d Known When I Started My Career

No one told me that working life would be like this.
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No one told me that working life would be like this.

There is a culture that comes with working life, certain unspoken rules and nuanced approaches to common issues. You've done internships, sure, but when you really cross that threshold into the big leagues of office life, you need certain prerequisite knowledge to proceed with confidence. When I first started out, I was clueless. 

I had no idea what I could or couldn’t say to bosses and colleagues. I didn’t know what it meant to have people depending on me. I spoke my mind unfiltered, blamed my job for being unfulfilling, and no doubt disappointed well-meaning colleagues who simply had a stressful day and needed some friendly banter. 

A decade and a half ago, I decided school had taught me everything I needed to know. But that attitude in the workplace lead to bouts of frustration, depression and burnout before realizing I was going about things the wrong way.

Take it from someone who messed up a lot. Your first few years on the job won’t determine where you end up (thankfully), but they’ll provide many opportunities to discover what’s right for you. You’ll experience moments that make you question what you thought you knew about life, about people, and about the work you do. But you might find these challenges easier to bear if you know what to expect.

01. Your schedule and outlook on life will change a lot.

Working a full-time job means, more or less, adhering to a routine. You start work roughly at 9 in the morning, finish at 5 or 6 in the evening. You get into a ritual with it and spend the rest of your time figuring out how to keep that going (aka not getting fired). 

After spending my university years as a staunch night owl, sometimes skipping sleep altogether, the work life hours were a rude awakening—literally! I had to say goodbye to nocturnal activities I enjoyed—long sessions with a good book, midnight chats with friends who lived overseas, and writing into the wee hours of the morning. The struggle is real, but it’s not all bad news. 

Laura Vanderkam, expert on time management, says that the average American actually has more time the he or she thinks. The trick to maximizing your schedule, she says, is to ask yourself: "What do I want to do more of with my nonworking time?" 

The upside of this more restricted schedule is a newfound appreciation for your personal time, and the kind of insight into your priorities that you can only get from having limitations. Eventually, you develop habits (e.g., catching up on sleep and learning when to say no) that allow you to balance your personal life with work commitments, so you start making choices that reflect your core values. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the experience gives you ample practice at deciding what’s important to you—and that's a skill that stays with you even if your job doesn’t.

02. Your career progression is up to you.

After spending most of my life in school, I was convinced the working world would behave in the same way. I’d get a job, "do my time," then progress up the ladder—much like advancing through the academic system.

In reality, my professional future was in my hands—a scary thought for an entry-level nobody with little life experience. Sitting back and waiting for a promotion or praise for a job well done won’t cut it. You have to earn rewards, then ask for them.  

In the lionized Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg describes a career as less like a ladder and more like a jungle gym. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today,” she says. 

The good news is not being locked into a pre-determined path leaves you free to take your career by the reins. Last year, I quit a well-paying career in web design to chase my dreams of becoming a writer. You don’t have to wait years for an opportunity, you may just have to work that much harder and go it on your own. 

At worst, you’re temporarily working your butt off, but still picking up valuable knowledge and skills you can use elsewhere. At best, it’s open season on job prospects and an opportunity to switch to a new career if you decide it’s time to leave your job.

03. Your hobbies matter.

In my early years applying for work, my education level only got me past the initial screening. The jobs I ended up being hired for found value in the extra skills I had gained from pursuing my hobbies (writing, for instance). 

Sharing common ground with your colleagues matters even more once you’ve got the job. You may mention your academic credentials in passing, but what you'll connect on daily are the things you pursue now. 

When work gets busy and stressful, it’s often tempting to disengage, unwind and become a passenger in your own life independent of others. Sure, it’s vital to switch off every now and then. But equally important is making time for your passions, and not feeling bad about it. Engaging in hobbies you love is not only a form of self-care necessary for your mental health, it’s also a great way to learn, grow and offer others a positive influence—all while doing something you genuinely enjoy.

04. How you treat others determines your success.

It’s true. Even with expert knowledge and an impressive resume, without the ability to interact with managers and teammates in a healthy and collaborative way, your professional life can end up more unpleasant than it needs to be. You have less energy to invest in your goals if you’re spending most of it dealing with unnecessary conflicts.

Friction with coworkers isn’t fun. Studies show that the stress can follow you home, wreaking havoc on your personal life. I once had an argument with my manager, which turned nasty. I spent the next few days isolated in my hurt and anger. When I later confronted my manager, he was upset that what he thought was an off-hand remark had actually struck me so deeply.

In school, you get to pick your friends. But in the office, everyone you encounter will have different needs, values, communication styles, and perhaps even professional goals that butt heads with yours. 

But being friendly, if not friends, with your colleagues is healthy and good for you. A job study in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology found that “the risk of mortality was significantly lower for those reporting high levels of peer social support.” And whether or not camaraderie in the workplace plays out, your interpersonal skills will count among your most valuable assets as you mature into your career.

When I look back over my nearly fifteen years as a working adult, I see so many ways I could have gone differently on my career path. Maybe I would have found my passion for writing sooner if I’d simply left the jobs that eventually burned me out. Or maybe my old career in web design would have been more fulfilling if I had been more confident and proactive in steering its progression. While the twists and turns of my path have led me to a life and career I’m happy with today, I have no doubt that appreciating these lessons sooner would have smoothed out so many rough edges in my work, my relationships, and my peace of mind.

Photo Credit: Buff Strickland