7 Lessons From My First Job
Updated: May 6
Your first adult job, fresh out of school, gives you an idea of where you want to go – or not go. Although for some it turns out to be a rather vivid and accurate idea, for many, it is one of the many steps we must take to get it right.
I often sit and think about how my first job shaped, branded and most importantly, pruned me. Leaving my first job was by fire and the mental breakdowns were everything words can't truly describe. Years past, tears wiped, broken spirit and, happy to say, new smiles, I am ready to share seven tips for those behind me and those currently in my old shoes.
Here are seven lessons and tips I learned from my first adult job straight out of graduate school. There is something here for everyone in every stage. Old dogs can still learn new tricks, I hope.
#1: Take It Personally
We’ve all been told not to take things personally or to heart. And in some cases, it is medicinal and shows maturity. And for women, it is said to show power and serve a buy-in into the “men’s club”. However, in many situations, it is an opportunity missed or underutilized.
Take to heart the positive comments and improve on them. Yes, positive feedback is not the end of your glory days. It's merely a confirmation that you are doing something right, and you need to keep at it and expand on the admired qualities. Don’t sit on compliments and not improve.
The same goes for the negative and sometimes piercing comments you'll receive. You can't dodge these, and if you are trying not to get any, stop. Allow it to painfully happen. Those negative comments are your pruning knives. And however tart they will be delivered, they will not stop till the pruning process is done.
Such course moments join the assembly line of evolution to get you ready for what comes next. Allow the negative and positive comments to take its effect. Take it personally in the lens of a learner. Thus, allowing the blow to be softer and more impactful each time.
Learners are open minded. They are constantly taking information and adding their own understanding to principal a skill. So, woman-up and get your band aids ready for those cuts.
Tip: Starve your ego and take it personally for both positive and negative compliments. Train your mind to always be in Learner mode.
#2: You Are Very Replaceable. OOPS!
Now, I know your loved ones have told you how irreplaceable and special you are. And it’s true in some categories in life, but in corporate American and in all businesses and companies, you are very replaceable.
You may be a “some-of-that” and not yet an “all-that”. And it is fine. This is not a race. You will get there – time in the working world means growth and maturity by experience but always by years. A twenty something can very well come for your job and in the same light, a forty something may bring a different approach than you. It's anyone's game.
Before you start getting turned off about what I just said, remember I said to take it personally? Take it personally and ask yourself, “if it comes down between you and another colleague, and your supervisors have to choose, who will be chosen and why? What will be at play against you and will be in your favor? A few things? Many things? Everything or nothing that should count but is considered?
Companies and institutions of any caliber have seen many people come and go, and you are part of those numbers. Be comfortable with this fact and know this: it does not mean your worth, talent or skills are less than or valueless.
it does not mean your worth, talent or skills are less than or valueless.
It does mean that if they come to a conclusion that you sing in treble while they need to you be in alto – even if the lyrics are the same or you simply ask one more question than everyone, they are entitled to
1. Let you go
2. Push you out by making it hard for you to do and enjoy your work or
3. Keep you and train you.
And let’s not forget, you have the right to do the same. Working anywhere, for anyone is like a contract between two people. You are free to break it as you see fit.
As Lori Fay, one of my women power houses said to me, “they can fire you just because they do not like the color of your nail polish.” I felt that.
Tip: Beat the system by adding more worth to your personal and professional self. Be present with the intent to understand (again), even if you know it all. And when your time is up, leave with better skills not pills.
#3: Document Everything
If you are in the field in rural African areas like I was, keep electronic copies of all your work-related communications. In fact, pdf them if you can and save them. These are your get out of jail free card, your identity card and your tax returns. They serve as an umbrella for the rainy and hot days coming your way – and they will come.
Perhaps you find yourself in an unplanned official meeting or work-related conversation via phone or text; send a recap of the conversation to all parties involved as soon as possible. And if sending a recap is not possible immediately, talk to the appropriate person(s) about it so that is at least on record.
You don't want to find yourself in a situation where it’s their words against yours and your reputation is on the line, not theirs. Always be ready for the house of cards to come crumbling down, just don’t be under it when it does.
Tip: Use work emails and phones for work only. Redirect all work conversations to working times and days in order to create a clear boundary.
#4: Be Fluid, Firm and Fun
Sometimes there is no time to sit and have a kumbaya conversation. Your work may be fast paced, crunched time, a lot of people to manage and plenty of constantly moving parts.
Your reputation and approach to your staff and clients are important thus being firm and alert are important. But you can have fun, be fluid and firm simultaneously.
Give a flexible structure that allows people to bend it within reason – while getting the job done in an enjoyable and respectful atmosphere. This method for me was a win-win. I found myself in situations which a White man would never be questioned about. I had to learn to bend the rules while retaining respect from my team, delivery excellent client service and enjoying myself. It was one of the toughest mental games I ever went through but I did.
Tip: Find a balance between these three traits. Don’t pay attention to those who will pollute the harmony when you find one.
#5: Watch That Kool Aid
Growing up in Ghana, Kool Aid was a privilege to have in the 90s. It sent a status message to your friends that you were cool. Unfortunately, this is the same in adult working world.
The Kool Aid I am referring to here is commonly known as the organizational culture of a workplace – how people act towards each other; how the higher ups and supervisors treat and talk to employees vs donors or clients at any level; how emails are sent etc. In short, the Kool Aid is the vibe and vernacular of the company.
If you find yourself starting to change to fit in, altering your individuality and voice to get social and administrative approval, then it’s time to put the cup down and switch to water!
Getting a sugar high on the organization's Kool Aid promotes unhealthy nesting, exclusivity of new ideas and people. It is a parallel way of thinking which tends to dismiss anyone outside of the nest.
Of course, it is essential your views align with that of the company's. However, it is not a good idea to lose your natural voice because you want to fit it and be part of the “cool” group. Embrace that uncommon quality and own that space and narrative.
Tip: Keep your individuality fed and hydrated. Resist the nesting. Show team spirit without losing your spirit.
#6: Everyone Is A Customer
People like to be thought of, acknowledged, given choices and autonomy – or the illusions of it. Teach yourself to see everyone as customers and every assignment as a temporary contract.
Your customers are your supervisors, your supervisees, the cleaners, the receptionist, your colleagues and the clients. Some customers are pleasant and so wonderful. Others are vindictive and spiteful, while some are reasonable and will meet you halfway. This is the adult working reality. But you can dance happily through it.
Give people the service you want to receive. Do not get comfortable with casual conversations and forget you are always on the job; whether in the office, in the field or at a social gathering with work colleagues. Be sure to keep away from that slippery slope and keep it succinct.
Tip: Servitude does not mean weakness. If anything is a trait worth paying for.
#7: You Are The Ink
There are times when you will feel like a gewgaw to your community and company. You will work and still feel a throbbing gap inside. You will do everything stated above and it will just not equal a harmonious work-life relationship.
In such moments remember this: You are the ink.
You are not the pen, a tool. You are the ink, the permanent stain on your own career and life.
And as the ink and the writer, you should not allow the instrument in the disguises of a job, a salary, benefit package, a supervisor, an evaluation, a coworker, a company or a place to manipulate the flow of your ink ( your career or life for that matter).
Tip: Find your worth and add tax. And if it means quitting your job, let me tell you from experience: it is worth your mental health. You will find a far better job eventually. Don't trade your inner peace for paper.
What are some of the lessons you've learned thus far? Comment below and share your thoughts with me.