Big Picture

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.