It’s graduation season. That magic time of the year when you and your family celebrate all your myriad collegiate accomplishments that have led to receiving your diploma and your degree. Hopefully you have a job lined up—that was the goal of these last 4 (or 5!) years—to become gainfully employed and not be a liability on your parent’s balance sheet anymore. If you don’t have a paying job, that’s ok. You still have time. But let me be the one to break it to you—no fancy degree can prepare you for what lies ahead as you transition into the real world. Furthermore, your first job is going to suck. Here’s how to make the most out of it …
Flashback to summer of 2000 (I know. I’m old. It’s hard to believe I can still remember my first job.). It’s Washington, DC. Hot, humid and I’m about to start my first job as a Staff Assistant at the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Capitol Hill. After earning a 4-year degree in political science, I was excited to enter the workforce and earn a whopping $22,000/year. OMG! That’s so much money. Haha!
Working for the House Energy and Commerce Committee is actually no joke. About 50% of all legislation that moves onto the House Floor for a vote passes through the Committee including energy, consumer issues, health, telecommunications and the internet. You get to meet a lot of very important people. And conversely, if you screw up, you’ve messed things up for a lot of very important people. Yikes!
My vast responsibilities included answering the phone, making copies of all the materials needed for hearings and committee communication (which was mountains each week), setting up for hearings, and pretty much anything that anyone needed. Coffee anyone?
This brings us to the first way to get the most out of your first job: become indispensable.
The key to surviving your first job is to become indispensable. Here’s another truth, your boss probably didn’t want to hire you. You don’t have any experience. You’re a risk. And to complicate matters even more, you don’t know what you don’t know.
But that’s ok. All you have to do is prove that you aren’t just valuable to the organization—you’re totally indispensable. Show your boss that without you, the place would fall apart. Become known for being exemplary at something. How do you do this? Simple. Learn how to fix the copier.
Back to my number 1 duty as a Staff Assistant: making copies. The Committee had 4 copiers. And those copiers literally filled the size of a room. They had so many parts that when a paper jam happened, it could take as long as 30 minutes to clear. Each copier was a beast and could handle tens of thousands of copies on a daily basis. And despite the sophistication, they broke down ALL THE TIME. Like multiple times a day. We had a maintenance plan, but it would take the guy a few hours to get to the office to fix any problems and sometimes information for committee hearings had to be out immediately. We were on tight deadlines. Occasionally you could just switch to one of the other 4 copiers to finish the job, but there were times when all 4 were down. F**k!
Being the enterprising young Staff Assistant that I was, I learned pretty quickly that becoming the hero and fixing any copier problems was the key to success in my current position. Nobody of any importance at the Committee wanted to deal with the complexity of clearing those damned paper jams.
What happens when you prove that you’re capable and indispensable? People want to work with you and ask you to do more important tasks. Once you’ve proven you can be trusted and are a valuable part of the organization, it’s your job not to disappoint. Your next mission is to learn to go above and beyond anyone’s expectations.
Go Above and Beyond
You’re young and full of energy and have aspirations to make the world a better place, so going above and beyond shouldn’t be too hard. Your goal here is to “wow” your colleagues and anyone that comes into the office each and every day. How do you do that? Simple. Do the right thing.
Back to my Staff Assistant days … since the Committee dealt with a vast array of issues, we had a lot of important people coming in and out of our offices for meetings and hearings. Some of the more notable included, Dave Thomas, founder of Wendy’s, some important people from the White House Administration, and Jacques Nasser, former President and CEO of Ford Motor Company.
See, back in 2000, there was this thing called the Ford-Firestone Tire Controversy. Firestone tires placed on Ford vehicles including Ford Explorers, were exploding at high heat and at high speeds while being driven on the highway. Over 200 people died and another 800 suffered injuries from these accidents and the Committee held hearings to determine who was at fault to protect public safety.
As a Staff Assistant who had proven herself capable of making copies and thus worthy of other more important duties, I had been given the task of showing Mr. Nasser into the holding room before his testimony in the hearing. He wanted to see the hearing room, so I brought him in, showed him where he’d be sitting as well as where all the other Congressmen and Congresswomen would be as well.
He wanted some water and reached for a pitcher we Staff Assistants were also tasked with keeping full for hearings. Like a tiger trying to keep its young cubs from certain death, I shouted “No!” and blocked him from touching the pitcher. He looked at me like I was crazy. Until I explained that we never, and I mean never, clean those pitchers. Who knew what kind of flesh-eating bacteria was lurking in that porous plastic. I would get him a bottle of water—much safer. He seemed relieved to have avoided what could have been uncertain death and later told my boss how great I was.
I could have been complacent and let him drink that water. He wouldn’t have known the truth about how gross those pitchers were. I mean, they seemed fine to the naked eye. But that simple step of going above and beyond was the right thing to do and it got me some praise furthering my worth to the office. But surviving your first job isn’t always about pleasing your boss and your colleagues. You have to know where you’re going and have a career vision.
Know Your Career Vision
I once had a boss that said, “You should always know what your next job is before you even accept your current job.” It was hard for me to understand the point he was trying to make because he would often get so angry at the office and yell at everyone that his nose would bleed. (I have since developed a slightly different management style—yelling without a bleeding nose. Less messy. Just kidding.) But after I stopped working for him, I actually realized what he was saying. You have to know your end point and make sure that every decision leads you in the direction of that final vision.
When you take your first job, you probably don’t know that end point. You’re just excited to be working and out in the world solo. That’s ok. But after you master all the mundane tasks you are responsible for, you probably have some extra time on your hands. Do not use this time to surf the internet, catch up on Instagram or Snap. Seek out more interesting work from your superiors and figure out where you want to go next.
Once I had proven myself indispensable and willing to go above and beyond, I had developed a reputation as being dependable, smart and trustworthy. What did I do with all this new-found respect? I went up to the Committee Press Office to hang out with those guys and learn how to do what they did.
See, I thought the folks in the Press Office had the most fun, so that’s where I wanted to be—transition to a career in press and communications. I asked the Communications Director how I could get a job with them. Turns out I couldn’t, but he was interviewing for another position and wanted to bring me along as his assistant. Brilliant. Now I had my career vision and a way out of answering phones, fixing copiers and not cleaning water pitchers, which leads me to my final piece of advice for surviving your first job and really surviving life in general …
Stay humble. Of course, you’re smarter than the mundane activities your boss is giving you at your first job. You went to college and did a million amazing things. Your resume is impeccable. But that’s not the point. No one is “too good” for any task starting out. You have to earn increased responsibility and show your superiors you’re capable. Earn their trust and you’ll rapidly receive more interesting work.
The world is getting smaller. Social Media increases the likelihood that you’re forever connected to your past and future employers. It’s possible that your future boss already has an opinion of you and you don’t even know it! In business, your reputation is everything and being known as a smart, pleasant, fun, hard-working person is worth a lot. So, stay humble, you never know who you’ll need help from in the future.
It only took me about 6 or 7 months to get my second job and escape the drudgery of the duties of my first. Learning to become indispensable, going above and beyond, knowing my career vision and staying humble all played a role in making the rapid transition from my first job to my second. Keep these things in mind as you enter the workforce and start what will hopefully be a long and distinguished career. Good luck!
Since I’m reaching the final stages of editing and proofreading my book, I’m going to be posting on the blog more. On Thursday, I’ll discuss how to find the time to do big things as well as share all my time management secrets. On Friday, I’ll share a new cosmetic product that I’m using every day—and it’s not from Trish McEvoy. Crazy, I know!
Until then, stay on your toes!