Thriving in Your First Job

Every week I meet people who are less-than-satisfied in their jobs. They feel that they deserve better, that they should be further along in their careers. Many report feeling lost or “stuck.” They’re disengaged, disillusioned, disgruntled. An alarming number are recent grads in their first job.

What’s going on here? How could the bright-eyed optimism at graduation devolve to this so quickly?

On the one hand, many employers fail to challenge their people and fully utilize their talents. Lack of growth opportunity can certainly be a demotivator.

On the other hand, employee expectations also play a role. Many new grads enter the workforce with high hopes about salary, about job prospects, about rapid career advancement—which often go unmet.

In my experience, colleges are in part to blame for these inflated expectations. They oversell students on the value of a degree and understate the challenges in today’s job market. So instead of going in excited, graduates start their first job feeling like they settled after a long and tiring search. Any remaining optimism fades as they encounter bureaucracy, office politics, and cutthroat competition.

If you’re a young professional, how can you recalibrate your expectations and thrive in your job? Start with this:

Understand why you accept an offer.
I mean, fully understand it. Evaluate your needs and priorities. Consider the tradeoffs and alternatives. Many people simply take the first offer they get—which is not necessarily a bad decision, but it’s careless and often desperate. Instead, ask yourself:

Is this the work you want to do? If so, is there growth potential? If not, does it get you a foot in the door? Discern what opportunities the job will set you up for. Will it open doors or pigeon-hole you?

How much of it is about the money? Be honest with yourself here. Though a career move solely for cash may not be socially applauded or satisfy you long-term, money is a necessity. All else being equal, it’s a rational decision to take a higher-paying job. At the other end of the spectrum, sometimes you just need to make ends meet.

What about the benefits? One feature (some would say bug) of the U.S. labor market is employer-sponsored health insurance. Many individuals take jobs for the security of medical coverage.

Perhaps it’s the location. The company may be in a city suited to your lifestyle. Or it’s a short commute from home. These factors can make or break an opportunity. After all, there’s more to life than work.

In short, what do you hope to gain from the position? By identifying what matters to you—most likely, it’s a combination of factors—you can make informed decisions and set your own expectations.

One final note: Your first job is unlikely to be your forever job. Don’t care so much about comparison—about being “ahead” or “behind” your peers—that you overlook good opportunities. No honest job is without dignity, and no position is a wrong one, as long as you know why you take it. Part of thriving is the autonomy to chart your course. So understand where you’re going, tune out the noise, and thrive.