What to look for in your first job, from someone who knows.

I remember back to my university graduation – it was a sunny day in the middle of May and I was standing at the podium in front of a sea of faces. I’d been chosen to deliver the commencement speech on behalf of my graduating class. By chosenI mean, I may have begged. Whatever. Anyone who knows me, knows that I don’t often pass up an opportunity to speak in public. My Australian accent had been turned up to a ‘9’ for good measure.

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Was meant to iron robe, didn’t.

Despite how comfortable I may appear above, I was petrified. Not because I was standing in front of thousands of people I didn’t know, not because I wasn’t prepared. But because, as soon as my speech was over, I was out on my own. No longer protected by my still studying status that had sheltered me from being an adult a little while longer. I was ten minutes away from being unemployed.

It’s not that I didn’t think I’d find a job, I was just petrified that I wouldn’t find the right job. The perfect job. I wanted my first job to be challenging, rewarding, and exciting in equal parts. I wanted to make truckloads of money and for others to gasp when I told them what I did everyday. I wanted it all. The reality is that perfect jobs don’t exist for new graduates (in fact, hardly any jobs exist). They don’t. And don’t pretend you have one. You’re lying.

Part of the problem for people my age is that we want it all – right now. Regardless of whatever metrics we choose to measure our own happiness, we’ll never get them all in the same room. And this can be a little stressful. We’re perfectionists, wired to recognize what we don’t have before acknowledging what we do. For the most part, I’d say we’re pretty happy as we are. That’s never enough though, we always want more.

Though this applies to all aspects of our lives – family, social, relational, etc. – it’s our work lives where we’re constantly reminded of what we don’t have. So to help out all the new graduates stuck somewhere between picking a new LinkedIn profile picture and googling ‘how to find a work’, I’ve created the perfect shortlist of characteristics to look for in a first job:

  1. Learning – you’re fresh out of college, so shutup, you don’t know anything (and if you think you do…). The best way to improve at work is to learn from people who have already mastered whatever skill you’re hoping to develop. Surround yourself with a team of people who are smarter and more experienced that you. Look for a manager who will include you in high level discussions, trust you with meaningful tasks, and give you license to learn through trial and error. I’d guess that this one doesn’t really change as you advance through your career.
  2. Mentorship – this may be a sub-category of learning, but it’s important and needs special mention. Identify someone who you respect in your industry, and mold yourself on them. Pay particular attention to the way they treat colleagues, the way they address issues and how they empower those around them. No mentor will be perfect, so focus on a couple very specific traits that you respect, and mimic them. They don’t have to work with you, but make it someone you can access easily. You can also learn a lot from someone who is a horrible role model. Find someone who has very little respect for those around them, is incompetent and volatile at work, and do the opposite. I call this anti-mentorship.
  3. Financial reward – focussing on making money has this taboo attached to it that makes you appear evil or shortsighted. Forget the haters, making money is important. And if you’ve graduated from an American university recently, your uncomfortably large student loan debt should be a great reason as to why. I didn’t have financial stability at my first job – working for free is about as financially unrewarding as it gets – so I know how important it is. We are a generation of people who are becoming more and more irresponsible around our financial health. Getting paid well should never be the most important part of taking on a new role, but it needs to be more than an afterthought. Set financial goals – to travel, to buy your first home, to pay off student loans – and find a job that can help make these goals achievable.

What should you look for in your second, third and fourth jobs? Unlike our parents who grew up without globalization and the internets, it’s very likely you will have more than one job before you retire. As you develop professionally and personally, be sure to identify what is most important to you at the time, and seek our a career move that fits the mold. Remember, you’ll never get everything you’re looking for, so pick the top few and go from there.

Want to see my graduation speech? Click here, it’s funny


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