5 uncomfortable truths I learned when I started my first real job

Since graduation from college, I’ve been a freelance writer. I’ve worked from home, often in my pajamas, and never had to deal with commutes, 6 a.m. alarms, or co-workers venting to you on your lunch hour. It was a blissful, lonesome, small little world with its good parts and bad, but when I finally made the plunge to a better job, I had to adjust to working in an office for the first time since some college internships, and I found that it’s a different beast altogether.

Working in an office came packaged with so many problems and challenges I’d never faced before as a freelance writer, so here are some of the things I faced, and how I dealt with them—one water cooler chat at a time.

Your happiness at work may depend heavily on your “office culture”

One thing I never had to worry about as a freelance writer was getting to know a bunch of strangers. When you’re working by yourself, the only person you need to get along with is you, and chances are you’re excellent company. But working in an office means you’re constantly surrounded by a couple dozen personalities, not to mention having to remember everyone’s names at the end of the first week. The social aspect of an office job ends up being as important (if not even more important!) than the job itself.

At my first “real” job, I met a couple of people who I got along with right away, and it’s with those people that I commiserate, rant, celebrate, and obviously, sit with in the cafeteria. But on the other hand, when drama inevitably happens, you end up feeling like you’re right back in high school, trying to get the mean girls to stop making up rumors about you.

It can definitely affect your mood and your happiness, but the trick is learning how to deal with it. And hopefully finding a work wife to share your chocolate pudding with.

Making new friends is a lot harder than it was in sixth grade (and it was pretty hard then, too!)

I’m such a shy person at first. Like a lot of people, it takes a while for me to open up, at which point I quickly become the chattiest person in the room. But generally speaking, learning how to make friends when you’re naturally quiet and private is a challenge. People sometimes think I’m mean at first (I blame my RBF, which I secretly like), or they think I’m stuck-up, or a wet blanket. None of those things are true. It’s tough to be the newbie trying to fit in, but if 12-year-old me could do it, I thought, then so could 20-something me.

Try contributing to conversations at lunch even if you feel awkward, or asking people about their weekend plans. Even better is organizing a happy hour and inviting some of your new co-workers, so that you can be thought of as the fun one, the one who wants to get to know everyone! And most importantly, give it time.

In-office romances are tricky, tricky, tricky

Tricky as in, rarely a good idea, unless your name is Pam and you like a floppy-haired boy named Jim. Maybe if you’ve been at your job for a long time and feel confident in your work, an in-office romance is no big deal. But aside from the fact that it may be forbidden altogether, flirting when you’re the new kid at the office probably isn’t the best way to make new friends.

Aside from the fact that these fun flirtations can distract you from killing it at your new job and impressing everyone you work with, there’s also that possibility that things could end badly, and then there goes your happiness at work! There are exceptions to every rule, and you can make it work. but if you can, look outside the office for dating options.

Unwanted attention is also hella difficult to navigate

It’s one thing if you’re the one crushing, but when you’re the subject of some unwanted attention, things can get awkward real fast. You don’t want to be rude but you also don’t want to indulge it and give false hope. It can also be sort of a bummer when you’re automatically treated like fair game by your new male co-workers. It makes me want to say, “I’m not here to be hit on or even to date anyone. I’m just here to do my job and be able to afford food and stuff, so please and thank you, let me be.”

Confidence is everything. Confidence, and a notebook. 

I always felt super uncomfortable being the new girl anywhere, but especially at a new job. Whether it was a freelance position or working as a waitress, starting a new job means being thrown into a new atmosphere where you’re not exactly sure what you’ll be doing, who you’ll be working with, and whether you’re going to do well. I always tended to underestimate myself and think, “I’ll never get the hang of this.” Until I realized that I was selling myself short, and that telling myself negative things just made me believe them.

I learned to speak up in meetings, to trust my instincts, and to propose projects that I thought would be useful. I learned to trust my abilities and my experience, and also, to not be afraid to ask questions. But probably the single best thing I ever did was have a notebook and pen handy every day, and write down everything I needed to remember, from computer passwords and the vacation policy to exactly what your new role entails and what your daily schedule will be. Jumping in and adding value to your company right off the bat is the goal for every new hire, so I learned to keep that pen and notebook handy to make sure I was doing my job right.