A few days ago I became aware of a project TheLadders is running where they are reaching out to writers and asking them what advice they would give for new graduates attempting to break into the field (TheLadders are a career resource for professionals across all vocations and at at any stage of their careers).
…Okay. So advice for 22 year olds just starting out their professional careers. I can do that (I think). Here goes… but keep in mind that this is mostly practical advice geared towards how to obtain maximum career success based on my own individual (and often meandering) experience and anecdotes:
1. Don’t worry too much about your first salary – instead, focus on the type of work you’re going to be doing.
Unless you got your degree in an in demand STEM field or are starting with a top-paying employer (e.g. Google, GE, BCG etc.), chances are your first salary isn’t going to be very high. And even if you fall into one of those buckets (or are an unusually good negotiator and/or fortunate), what qualifies as a “high” salary to you now is likely negligible in the grand scheme of things. As a new college grad you should regularly be seeing big (in some cases double digit) percentage increases in salary annually early in your career if you are getting frequent advancement opportunities. Pay flattens out as you get deeper into your 30s, but as a 22 year-old don’t worry about the difference between making, say, $38k and $52k out of the gate. That difference will turn out to be negligible latter in your career (even factoring in time value of money) if you land jobs that teach you rare and valuable skills. Incomes well in excess of six figures are in your grasp as you enter your 30s (and earlier, for some), but you have to develop a scarce skill set that adds a lot of value. And you probably aren’t going to learn (most of) this skill set in school. You will learn it on the job. So when taking that first job ask yourself “How does this make me better?” not “How much does this pay me?” Taking the former approach will pay off over time.
2. Get lots of different experiences. Don’t stay in any one role for too long (which is not necessarily the same as not staying with one company).
Don’t stay in any one role for two long. This doesn’t mean that you need to constantly jump employers… but if you aren’t getting regular opportunities to advance into bigger (or at least different) job assignments during your first 4-5 years in the workforce then you need to move on. One of the worst spaces to be in early in your career is to look up and see that you are 28 and have been in the same transactional Customer Service role that you were in when you were a 21-22 college graduate. Don’t be that guy/gal. Get new experiences as much as you can when you’re young.
3. The greatest predictor of what you will accomplish in the future is how you spend your time now. So use it wisely.
…So you graduated college. You get to relax on the weekends from now on, right? Wrong! College is where you learn how to learn, but your post-grad career is where you learn how to apply that skill towards your career and continued education. If you aren’t continually finding ways to advance your skill set during your off time – e.g. in the form of research briefs, MOOCs, trade associations, networking, professional designations/certificates etc. – then you are doing things wrong. You create separation from your peers by how you spend your time when you’re not at work. Everyone puts in a minimum of 35-40 hours during the week… that’s table stakes in today’s employment marketplace. What are you doing when you’re off the clock, though? You always need to keep getting better, which means that you should never stop learning or looking for an edge.
Do as I say, not as I do…
…But seriously, sleep. The improved level of performance you will have on 7-9 hours sleep (how much you need varies by person) compared against what you can produce on less makes getting a good night’s rest common sense.
5. Early in your career, try not to quit your job if you don’t have something else lined up first.
This is one of the worst mistakes I see 20 somethings make. They decide that their job isn’t challenging them enough / their skill set is underutilized / whatever and so they quit their jobs without something else lined up. But doing this (i) wrecks your resume, (ii) kills your negotiating leverage when you get your next role because you lose walk-away power, (iii) undermines your employability with the very real percentage of employers that don’t consider unemployed people and (iv) is a bad habit to get into when the going gets tough. If your job sucks then just suck it up and slog through every day until you find a new (better) gig that you can transition into.
6. If you are in your 20s and the first 5+ years of your career you’re only seeing 3-4% year over year pay increases then it is time for a change.
I said in point #1 that you shouldn’t worry about comp for your first job – and you shouldn’t… but that’s because as a 20 something you should be seeing regular healthy pay increases if you are (i) with a company where you are getting regular advancement opportunities and (ii) learning rare and valuable skills. To be fair, most employers aren’t equipped to give top performing employees the sorts of wage increases they could find on the open market externally simply because comp structures haven’t caught up to the changed world of work yet… but that shouldn’t be true for you if you’re a 25 year-old that is just hitting your stride. If you are consistently a top performer in your 20s and all you’re seeing are 3-4% increases year over year then it’s time to move on.
7. Deliver on the work that you say you will deliver on.
When you are first figuring out how to work it can be hard to do this well because it is easy to over-promise due to unrealistic expectations, but over the long run the best way to grow your professional brand internally is by consistently delivering on the work you’re expected (and volunteer) to do at a high level.
8. Treat everyone in your workplace with respect.
No one likes to work with a jerk, so don’t be one. In fact, go a step further and treat everyone as well as you can all the time. This doesn’t mean being a wet blanket (more on that below) but it does mean being kind. This will pay dividends over time.
9. Don’t be afraid to speak up and stand your ground. You have to hold people accountable.
20 somethings often struggle with holding people accountable and standing up to co-workers/customers/bosses/whoever that are abusive or otherwise don’t respect their boundaries. Don’t be afraid to have an opinion, though, and if someone is treating you unfairly or otherwise walking over you don’t be afraid to push back. People will respect you more when you can do this, and furthermore being able to stand your ground and push back are table stakes skills of being a good people manager (which is often a typical step up on many career ladders).
I said this already. I know. But I am saying it again. It’s that important. Get your 7-9 hours.
…With that said, don’t just take my career advice. There are lots of other things beyond those mentioned above to consider if you want a fulfilling career. For example, if you want advice on work-life and all that jazz, check out these awesome posts from other former-college grads turned professionals providing advice on how to make the best of the start of your career.
As always, let me know what I got wrong (and right) in the comments section below.