Soon thousands of college students and fresh graduates will head off for their first internships or full-time jobs. If you’re one of them, you’re lucky. Statistics indicate that one in two new college graduates are unemployed or underemployed. And while many of you will have had part-time jobs, this new position can be an incredible learning experience and a stepping stone for your long-term career.
But it’s also a struggle. For some of you, it may be your first experience in a business environment. I remember feeling lost in my first few experiences after college (we all do). Surrounded by so much new information, I constantly felt like I was falling behind my more experienced colleagues. I didn’t know who to look to for advice, and I never felt like I was doing my job well enough.
So as you prepare for your new role — and the challenges you’ll face in that position — I’d offer five pointers I’ve seen work for people along the way.
1. Don’t “fake it until you make it.” Many new workers try to appear more knowledgeable than they really are. They don’t ask questions. They think they need to have answers to be valuable to their organizations, and they can’t admit to a lack of experience or understanding. They compensate for their lack of confidence with overconfidence. But here’s the secret: They’re not fooling anyone! No one expects you to know everything in your first job, and you learn and grow faster when you seek real understanding, ask questions, and petition for help. Rather than faking it, make it by acknowledging the skills and experience of your colleagues at work and using your first job or internship as a learning experience.
2. Never eat lunch alone. One of the best things about a new job is the incredible learning experience it provides. Every single person you’ll work with in your new position — from the receptionist to the CEO — can teach you something valuable, and each of them can be a friend and mentor in your career. Many of the happiest and most successful people I know constantly ask questions and seek guidance from everyone around them, and research even shows that people with stronger social networks live longer. Your office is full of intelligent, thoughtful, and experienced people. Get to know them. Treat them with respect. Ask them questions. Learn from them. And have fun in the process.
3. Set boundaries to prevent burnout. Most jobs are never fully done. In school, your tests, homework assignments, and group projects have defined due dates. Parents and teachers will help you balance your life, and you have frequent, built-in breaks to help you recharge. But a job is different. It will be hard to do perfectly (or even well!). You’ll be anxious to over-perform, and many bosses are all too happy to have their new employees work long hours if they want to. There’s something to be said for putting in extra effort. But you also need to learn, early on, to set personal boundaries that allow you to maintain balance and avoid burnout. Burnout can make you less productive at work, and certainly makes you less happy. And in the absence of a caring community looking out for your well-being, you’ll need to take ownership of your boundaries. Map out your lifestyle goals ahead of time. Build short breaks from work into your schedule, and learn early to seek balance in your work and life.
4. Serve your colleagues and customers. A common view of Millennials is that they are entitled and narcissistic. And a common mistake young people make is to competitively climb their career ladders rather than humbly seeking to serve their colleagues and customers. But if you want to earn the respect of those around you and defy your generation’s stereotypes, the best thing you can do is bring an attitude of service to your job. Proactively seek out ways to help your colleagues. Think ahead for new ways to please customers. Jim Collins has written about how the greatest leaders often combine humility and fierce resolve. And humbly serving — staying focused on others — can be a great way to develop leadership and amass the support of your coworkers.
5. Work hard and show up on time. It’s been well-documented by Malcolm Gladwell and others that hard work can be at least as important as talent to professional success. The 10,000 hour rule, for example, maintains that to truly master a skill, a person must put in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. And nothing signals seriousness to your employer like promptness, perseverance, and dedication. Over the long run, diligence will earn you the respect of your colleagues, and hard work will give you the mastery and self-discipline to succeed in the future. The basics are simple, but easy to forget: Work hard and show up on time.
Following these suggestions will make for a more worthwhile experience for you, while balancing some of the stress and struggles of a brand-new work environment. What are you worried about heading into your first job or internship? What advice would you give to new workers?