What I wish I knew before entering the work force

Starting your first job in the real world is never easy, especially after leaving school. Every day at some my first jobs out of college all I could think to myself was ‘is this what adults do all day?’ But while being at work seems really straightforward, there’s actually a lot to the work force beyond ‘work hard and do a good job.’ Here’s what I know now, and what I wish I knew then:

Early is on time, especially when you’re starting out.

When I first started working I used to think that sliding in the door at exactly the time I was asked to show up was being on time. The truth is, that only kind of works in school, and that’s because the teacher is being paid to be there, not you. No one will ever say this out right, but everyone appreciates it when you’re there early. Beyond that, particularly with new jobs (especially on the first day) you want to be there a little early so you can get your bearings. It sounds silly, but walking in calmly a little bit early and having time to take in your surroundings looks much better than running to your desk desperately trying to make it on time. Plus you’ll have a few minutes before you start your day to grab a coffee and get settled in before the clock starts ticking. That alone will make an early start feel worth it.

You might have to work with people you don’t get along with. But like really.

Unlike other areas of your life where you can walk away or ask for a new partner for a group project, you’re truly stuck with your coworkers. And sometimes that means you might be stuck with someone you seriously don’t get along with. When I say you don’t get along, I don’t mean that like your politics are different or you think the TV shows they like are lame. I mean that their communication style irks you and is radically different than your own, or that they’re mean to you every time they see you. Maybe it will be the direct supervisor who makes you feel like crap every time you talk to them, or the intern who causes more problems then they were sent out to solve.

Either way it’s your responsibility to get through it as professionally and peacefully as you can. I learned the hard way that even if it feels like an impossible partnership, your boss expects you to figure it out. Of course if someone is putting you physical in danger or sexually harassing you, it is important to report them to HR, because that behavior is unacceptable. But in general, what I learned is that most of the time you’ll be expected to work out your differences like adults.

Try to solve your problems before announcing there are problems.

Going in to the work force I thought that honesty was the best policy, and that if I messed up it was my responsibility to tell someone right away. While this is partially true, what I didn’t realize until later is that it serves you much better to do everything in your power to solve the problem before announcing there is a problem. It sounds counterintuitive, but the more you bring problems to people’s attention, the more they think you have a penchant for screwing up. Even though you’re being responsible and transparent, it won’t come across that way.

Early on I had a high stress job where problems where an every day part of the landscape. Every time I saw a problem I’d bring it up to my boss, and then later solve it. What I didn’t realize was that by speaking up whenever I saw a problem, I was actually getting blamed for the problems since no one else was speaking up about them. Eventually I got a reputation for causing problems, and not solving them, and even worse, people started to blame problems on me since I had a habit of announcing them so frequently. Through this work experience I learned that hard way that as an employee your boss expects you to handle problems before bringing them up, and that bringing them up should be the last resort. Announcing them before they’re solved will unfortunately only hurt you in the long run.

Put your phone away.

It goes without saying, but when you’re at work, you’re at work. Even though we now live in a world where it’s easier than ever to space out and end up on the Internet, don’t give in to your devices. Even if you have some down time at work, don’t spend it scrolling through articles on your phone, and don’t obsessively text your friends. It’s okay to shoot off a text or take a quick phone call, as long as you’re able to step away for a few minutes. And even if you’re actually doing work on your phone, if you can do it on a computer, do it there instead. It sounds silly, but researching stuff on your computer looks like work, researching something on your phone looks like you’re goofing off. While people in the younger age brackets might be understanding about phone usage it’s important to remember that nine times out of ten the people who you’re working for didn’t grow up with smartphones. To them, being on your phone looks like being on your phone, regardless of your intentions.

It’s OK to take breaks.

Although it’s easy to think you have to work non-stop to be productive, taking an honest break every once in a while is really good for your mental health and your concentration. If you feel yourself beginning to fade, don’t be afraid to take five. Be sure to get up, walk around, get a snack, or get some fresh air. Anything that gets you away from your desk for a few minutes is great, and then when you’re done you can get back to work. Believe it or not, taking short breaks will improve your productivity in the long run. Trying to work non-stop will only make you fatigued, and then you’ll be more likely to work sluggishly, lose your concentration, or make mistakes.

Don’t let your emotions get the best of you.

This was a hard one for me, because I’m a big believer in not hiding your emotions and feeling what you feel in the moment. However I’ve learned first hand that it’s important to leave your emotions at the door when you go to work. The first two real jobs I had, I spent a lot of time crying at work. And even though I was going through some serious personal problems in both instances, I was still judged for my behavior. What I’m about to say sucks, and I’m feel terrible that we live in a world where this isn’t OK, but it’s important to try not cry in front of your coworkers if you can help it. Even though you’re entitled to a good cry, and sometimes you can’t stop the tears, other people might perceive crying as unprofessional. If you feel like you’re going to cry and you’re talking with someone, excuse yourself from the situation. Go to the bathroom, or outside for a moment, and just take a few moments to cry and let it pass. If you’re by yourself take a few minutes, and then move on.

Careful with how you choose to use your down time.

Something I’ve noticed that drives me crazy to know end is that shy people get discriminated against when it comes to down time at work. This is because we’re more likely to turn to the Internet, a book, or something quiet and personal when we need to take a break for a few minutes. Unfortunately those things look like stereotypical slacking off, so are much more likely to get you in trouble since they’re easier to spot. But know who almost never gets in trouble? The employees who are circulating the room and chatting with people at their desks, since it looks more organic and productive, particularly if the coworkers are people who’d need to talk for work reasons anyway. So if you want to take a few and just not think about work for a bit, you’re much better off chatting with a work friend than checking your Facebook or cracking open a book.

Get to know your coworkers.

Eat lunch with them, get drinks with them, and go to the office holiday party, even if all you want to do at the end of the day is go home. I made the mistake of ditching out on work invites early on because of just general laziness, work fatigue, and shyness. But because of that, I’d find myself in a job for a couple months without having taken the time to get to know my coworkers, which is a very lonely feeling. You’re going to have a much better time at work if you get to know and like the people you’re working with. Especially if you’re the kind of person who is motivated by looking out for people you care about, getting to know your coworkers is only going to help you in the long run. They don’t have to be your best friends, or even your regular friends, but getting to know them and care about them will only make your work experience better.

Don’t let stress get the best of you.

Work is hard. Work can be scary. Sometimes you’ll be responsible for things that you feel are beyond your capabilities. Sometimes things will go so horribly wrong at work you’ll keep wondering over and over again if these things are indeed, really happening. But what I’ve learned from my few years on the work force is that you can’t let work stress seep into your heart. Yes, it’s important to work hard and try your best to kick butt and take names, but when things are tough it’s super important to remember that it’s work. Don’t let the work stress psych you out so much that you have trouble concentrating. Don’t let it hurt your self-esteem. Don’t let it drive you into a panic. What I find helps is taking a few minutes to take a few breathes and remembering the phrase ‘this too shall pass’. Whatever is wrong, you will fix it. If you can’t fix it, you’ll find someone who will. Even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment, it will be okay.

It’s called work for a reason.

On one of my first days on one of my first jobs I was talking to a new coworker who had worked on a Broadway production I really admired. I was totally excited about it, and asked him if every day was totally fun and amazing. He just smiled and told me, ‘No way. It’s called work for a reason.’ That has always stuck with me, because it reminded me that even the coolest, most fulfilling jobs will have tough days. Sometimes you will have to do stuff you don’t like, and sometimes it will be a slog. But that’s okay, because you’re going to work, where there will in fact be work. Not happy-fun-times-all-day-camp. (Although that last one sounds pretty amazing and if anyone knows of such a place, definitely let us know.)

After two years of screw-ups and misadventures, I finally feel like I kind of have a hold on how to behave in the work force. However it was definitely a tough journey, especially since these are lessons that very few people will explicitly tell you. Happy working and good luck out there!

(Image via NBC)