Advice for Starting My First Professional Job

by Bryn Watkins

Dear Three Years Ago Me,

So if I did the math right, you should be opening this letter on the day before you head into work for the first time ever. Did the USPS get it right? Tomorrow is your first day of professional life! Congratulations.

I’m not sure this makes me generous with my time or just self-interested but I thought I might offer you some basic advice before you take off. Heed it or don’t; in a few years’ time you won’t be that much wiser anyway. I’m still trying to figure things out.

First, I think you should know that real-life employment is so different from anything else that has tried to prepare you for it. Everything that raised you and built your body and mind up to where they are today–school, church, all your crazy extracurricular activities–they’ve all provided you tools with which to deal with professional work, but none of them have simulated the real thing. Life moves faster and much more harshly when you leave the tributaries and enter the river, so brace yourself for that shift in current.

One of the thoughts that will help you adjust to that change is that your identity is a powerful tool you should use to your advantage and not one you need to hide. I don’t think you’ll hide yourself intentionally, but hide yourself you will (I think in an effort at servility). You need to understand from day one: You can’t please everybody. Some people won’t like you, and their distaste for you and your work should not actually re-calibrate the way you approach it. In fact, the more impervious you can be to the way your co-workers respond to the experiential gap between them and you, the more quickly you’ll be able to close that gap and feel comfortable in the workspace. In may seem counter-intuitive, but you shouldn’t worry at all about gaining validation from your peers–they aren’t the ones signing your paycheck. Look only to do the job assigned by your boss. Put all of yourself into doing it well. The rest will follow.

That being said, one of your main priorities should be learning all you can from those who have been around longer. Keep your eyes and ears wide open. You’ll be able to discern whose behavior and approach to emulate and whose to spurn, so trust your inner compass. Aim ardently to develop productive habits that will make you more like those whose years and experience actually legitimize their wisdom. It will take a while till you’ll be able to join those ranks; in the mean time, take notes and constantly work to improve. And don’t feel sheepish about asking questions! If you are vigilant in choosing the right time and finding the right person, asking questions will actually increase your intelligence in the eyes of your colleagues, not diminish it (…not that we need their validation anyway though, right?). It will help your progress and your personal well-being if you endeavor to measure that learning as well, so set goals and notice when you meet them. I can cite all sorts of articles about how goals improve improvement, but you’ve read those articles by this point anyway. Just don’t forget them. Keep recentering yourself on that measurement of your growth when you feel overwhelmed by everything you haven’t figured out yet.

Another thought which, admittedly, I think you’ll understand pretty instinctively anyway: Be nice to people. For you I don’t think that will ever have to be a conscious effort with your peers, but I think it’s imperative that you work that into your interactions with the people above you. You shouldn’t be afraid to be generous with your spirit even when talking to people who intimidate you. Not only will that serve to integrate you into your work circle sooner, but it will also make networking more comfortable when you’re looking for new career opportunities and need some solid friends in your phonebook. Be open in your admiration and appreciation of others’ work and give everybody the benefit of the doubt. It’ll be hard, but try to step out of conversations that gossip negatively about others (gossip positively all you want!–you’ll find it’s actually quite a fulfilling hobby to notice your colleagues’ strengths and successes out loud). Critical discussion may seem righteous and justifiable, but you must always understand that speaking poorly about anybody is never your place. It doesn’t help you, them, or the work you’re all trying to accomplish collectively, so do your best with your duties and assume that everybody around you is doing likewise. Granted, that’s a mentality you’ll still be trying to weave into your thought patterns years from now, but it’s an effort worth tackling early. Maybe we can weed out the negativity while you’re still a newbie.

I think you should head into work tomorrow with a heap of confidence too, but I have to say that’s advice I’m still learning to navigate, and I’ve been working on it for a few years now. It will probably take time for us to earn the amount of experience that will make confidence comfortable, but you know what they say: Fake it till ya make it! You’d do well to walk into that building tomorrow with your head up. Plus, from this side of things, I can tell you your first day goes just fine, so if that doesn’t give you confidence I don’t know what will. In fact–spoiler alert!–you don’t even have to stress about that job too much at all. In a year and a half you’ll take another one anyway–somewhere in the South Pacific.

But I’ve said too much–don’t want to give too much away. You’ll just have to wait and see for yourself how everything pans out. Until then, good luck! I’ll be thinking of you in that weird Back-to-the-Future kind of way.

Oh, and don’t forget to bring your lunch tomorrow–buying out all the time can get expensive.


Your Future Self

4 Comments on “Advice for Starting My First Professional Job

  1. Wonderful advice! Could have used it myself 25 years ago. But nonetheless applicable to me today, so thank you!

  2. Grateful for this! Applies to the newbie and the oldie, and I plan on reviewing this advice often as I embark on a new stage of life as an almost 40 year-old, recent graduate, former SHM heading back into the work place.

  3. My darling Bryn, you continue to amaze me and increase my admiration of you. So blessed to know you are my granddaughter–gaining wisdom and knowledge faster than an express train as you move upward and onward in your beautiful life. Always know how much we miss you! Grandma and Grandpa

  4. Great advice! I wish I could turn back time and tell myself to be more confident. And use good judgment.

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