Six Mistakes You Might Make At Your First Post-College Job

Originally published as a Linkedin post.

Imagine stepping into your first job after college. Armed with a new wardrobe, hours of advice from relatives and ubiquitous encouragement, you feel prepared. Still, your preparation meets fear. Butterflies line your stomach. You’re new. You’ve heard horror stories about incompetence at first jobs and unforgiving bosses. There is so much that can go wrong. How are you expected to be wary of everything?

Here’s the good news: You aren’t. Nobody is. Mistakes are expected. They remind us that we are flesh and bone and provide us a chance for reflection, improvement, and relationship building in the future. Most executives and partners you ask will admit with little hesitation that they have made mistakes early in their career that have taught them a significant lesson.

Even Irish novelist James Joyce once said, “Mistakes are the portals to discovery.”

One way to mitigate the chance of big picture mistakes is by sharing our own experiences and learning from each other to be more prepared and conscientious. In the spirit of giving, here are mistakes I’ve seen in my first few months here at IBM and subsequent takeaways:

  • Setting Fuzzy Expectations: There is nothing more uncomfortable than the feeling that you’re under-achieving or that your manager is suppressing disappointment. Before you start the job, sit down with your manager or supervisor and have the “talk” regarding your objectives and expectations. Be transparent. Even after the first week, reach out to your manager regularly and ask what they expect of you. Write your objectives down and verify them as they change and evolve. This will also help your manager as they will know exactly what ruler they are measuring you on when it comes time for evaluations or promotions.
  • Using Confidence to Hide Faulty Logic: We’ve all been taught that confidence is a key to succeeding anywhere. Confidence enables us to talk to people without reservation, establish our brand, and paint our work with trust and credibility. There’s a big difference, however, between being confident because you are correct and confident hoping that nobody will check that you are correct. Most experienced people in your company will be able to smell rubbish from a mile away. It’s better to admit you don’t fully know and admit your lack of certainty with confidence than to use confidence to hide faulty logic.
  • Lack of Knowledge On Your Role: Depending on how big your company is, you’ll meet many people that might have no idea who you are. Knowing your role isn’t as simple as two or three words or one line on a business card. Know your function within the big picture of the organization, know exactly who you’re working with, and recognize your value-add to the team; for extra measure, come up with a quick pitch that will give people the idea right away.
  • Holding Back On Your Story: You may be a recent graduate or young professional with minimal work experience but don’t sleep on what you bring to the table both as a professional and a person. Be open about your story. Even if it’s something as trivial as your obsessive compulsive need to color coordinate Power point presentations or your unhealthy love for dogs, you never know when a unique need for you might arise. Even if you may not get something from your direct work stream, you could be given small responsibilities that help build a reliable and more vibrant reputation.
  • Assuming Knowledge and Understanding: At times, it might seem hard to ask a higher-up to explain something. You want to create the perception that you are intelligent, can pick things up quickly and don’t need extra instruction. There’s a quote I really like by Confucius, “He who asks a question is a fool for a minute; he who does not remains a fool forever.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen pride hold people back from asking dumb questions. Never assume that you know something if there is still an ostensible lack of clarity. Every time you see something even remotely unfamiliar, write it down. Make a list of questions. Even if it’s as small as a clarification, it’s always better to ask.
  • Having No Personal Vision: It’s often hard when we’re working for someone else to worry about our own vision or career trajectories without feeling guilty. The reality: We are humans, not machines. We have aspirations, dreams, and goals to grow in our jobs, careers, and personal lives. Be wary of what you want for yourself and make a list of a few new things you want to learn over the course of your first job. Tap into your personal network at work and see if anyone can help or mentor you. It should not take precedent over your primary responsibilities but it should also not be left out in the cold.

It’s never too late to turn our mistakes into opportunities. Make them. Share them. Embrace how you’ve changed with them. It’s not so bad when you realize that, despite what we perceive from the highlight reels of social media, we all have small and large realizations of our vulnerability.



Life Lessons from Calvin and Hobbes

Anyone who has been fortunate enough to read the Calvin and Hobbes comics can all remember seeing the world through Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 12.41.52 AMthe eyes of Calvin. Whether it was our experience in a monotonous education system, our grapple with existential thoughts that had no easy answers, or simply our fantasy adventures through the airline of imagination, we all empathized with Calvin’s opinions and antics. Calvin and Hobbes not only provided a profound and relatable commentary on life, but taught us the power of friendship, non-conformity, and self-realization. Not bad for a comedian whose end goal was just to make people laugh! Here are some of the best life lessons we can learn from Calvin and his furry friend:

1. Life isn’t Fair

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To quote Mortimer Alder, “Love consists in giving without getting in return; in giving what is not owed, what is not due the other.” Sometimes we can give, give, give and not receive in return. Life is a confusing place and we just have to deal with it. Whether you get ripped off, rejected, or frustrated, know that you’re not the only one. Facing our obstacles can prepare us to achieve our successes with even greater strength and vigor. Whether you’re Lebron James or a Homeless Guy living on the steps of the capital, just keep swimming.

2. Don’t Ignore Simplicity

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Through the journey of Calvin and Hobbes, we rarely see Calvin spend a dime. There is a rare replacement to playing outside as a kid but as we grow, we seem to throw it away altogether. Sometimes, an immersion into nature can be refreshing. It gives you time for introspection, healthy exercise and gives your mind much needed serenity. There’s few things more beautiful than seeing a sunset or an array of gleaming stars. As the old proverb goes “The Best Things In Life Don’t Come in a $350 smartphone box”.

3. Welcome Criticism 

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Our pride makes us somewhat mechanical; We are naturally triggered to accept any advice or opinion that favors us and resent that which makes us unhappy. Sometimes a “swift kick in the butt” can be the perfect elixir to move us into a right direction or simply a different direction. Don’t be afraid to criticize others either; the more you spoil friends and colleagues with they want to hear, the less you are actually helping them. Tell Jake in your accounting group he needs to man up and start coming to meetings on time; he’ll get the lashing from his boss in the future eventually.

4. Set Reasonable Expectations

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Often, when we are upset or disappointed in ourselves, it is because of the perceptions and expectations that we place on our own actions. If we expect ourselves to excel in every aspect of life, we will be faced with cruel realities severely and frequently. Make sure that you don’t undermine your own abilities, yet keep your expectations realistic. We will tend to be more optimistic if we are cognizant of ourselves. Maybe you can’t do 100 pull-ups. Start with 20. or 1. or 1/2. Whatever fulfills you! We go through life with everyone telling us to “reach for the stars”. There’s no harm in trying; there is harm in wasting precious time on something that doesn’t fulfill you.

5. Learn and Embrace What Excites You

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School and work has a tendency for many to offer a confined set of subjects that one should understand and learn. Satiating our intellectual curiosity requires making the extra effort to read books, internet blogs, connect with people in our field of interest, and just absorb new and relevant knowledge from life. If we restrict ourselves to what we learn in school, we run the risk of losing out on a wholesome education. To quote Mark Twain, “I Never Let My Schooling Interfere With My Education”. Your experiences will give you as much value than your degree, if not more.

Embracing Uncertainty

I recently watched a very inspiring speech by Conan O’ Brien delivered at the Dartmouth Commencement back in 2011. After some typical Conan ridicule and playful stabs at Dartmouth and its history, he began to reflect on the lessons he learned as a comedian. He explained the quintessential “dream” of every comedian: to host the Tonight Show. He invested much of his adult life into defining his success by this dream, only to be removed by the Show in 2009 and regret it in later on.

No specific job or career goal defines me and it should not define you,” concluded Conan, bluntly adding, “There is no greater cliché in a commencement address than “follow your dream.”  Well I am here to tell you that whatever you think your dream is now, it will probably change.


There are, of course, people for whom this is not an exception: people who have committed themselves to a dream, stopped at nothing to achieve it, and are reaping the benefits. True to Conan’s words however, many individuals are filled with uncertainty. According to an NY Times Article, over 80% of students at Penn State are uncertain about their major, with 61% changing their major before they graduate. Conan’s speech made me think of my own college experience so far and how much my major, insights, and goals have changed since my arrival as a clueless freshman. There were often times where an initially exciting experience transformed into something meaningless. I thought of “follow your dream”, a statement that’s been stapled onto our foreheads since preschool, tenderly drilled into our very being. Society has withheld one small caveat from children: that it’s very possible that we may lose passion and sight for what we thought we once loved.  What if an actor had one dream to be an actor but disliked the lifestyle after his first stint? Where would he go from there? It’s unfortunate, but it is very much a reality.

The point is this: The hardest part is to take a step back and admit to ourselves that what we have been doing will not contribute to our happiness. We are scared to remove ourselves from our dreams because we don’t want to admit we were wrong. In the end, the world is infinite. Pursuing one thing in life leaves many years of our life closed to the other opportunities. If you go to a Mexican restaurant seven days a week and get a burrito each time, you may slowly get tired of the burrito. Eventually, you may have exhausted all your topping options and worse, you might never realize how much you love the quesadilla.

A goal gives us a benchmark to attain, but should not stop us from diversifying our career goals and experiences. Keeping our goals open to change and expansion isn’t a bad thing. My long, tantalizing journey for self-fulfillment has led me to places I never thought I’d be. For me, it’s only been three years. Wherever we are in life, it’s never to late to learn some new skills, try some new activities, and gain some clarity in the face of any future disappointment or closure. Learn some cutting-edge technology. Write a blog. Pick up the game of Tennis or the art of Yoga. Embrace the possibility of change. Embrace Uncertainty.

If you have a free 20 minutes, check out Conan’s fantastic (and hilarious) address: