The Perfect First “Real” Job?

Author J. Mike Smith is a executive, career, and leadership team coach, helping individuals, start-ups, teams and groups perform significantly better.

Is there a perfect first “real” job?

Probably not. But there are some real stinkers to avoid if you have the choice.

And I’m not talking about summer jobs, volunteer work, and or that paid – or unpaid internship – that might be out there. All of them, IMHO, are important.

But for serious importance it’s hard to match that first fulltime real job.

So here’s why it’s important, and the sorts of things to duck  as well as look for in that first real job as you build a career track you’ll dub successful.

If you believe the data and the stuff that writers or researchers like Daniel CoyleAngela DuckworthAnders Ericsson and Angela Dweck put out – and I do – strong foundations count. A lot.

Build up the myelin that wires your brain and the corresponding temperament and skills on a solid, sturdy platform: good things are more likely to happen than not.

Here, in no particular order, are some thoughts:

  • Avoid jobs where the role too well defined. That ideal job should some rough edges – some slop that helps you grow as you struggle to figure things out. Bigger jobs, in fact life as a whole, is filled often with lots of ambiguity. Get a running start dealing with it by having that first job have just that characteristic.
  • While everyone would loves a great boss, it won’t hurt you (probably) if you start out with a boss that’s not so hot. While I wouldn’t wish anyone the sort of bad boss exec played by Meryl Streep in The Devil Wears Prada, research by Warren Bennis has shown that you learn more from a bad boss than a really good one. The lessons? What not to do; as Daniel Kahneman’s research has shown human’s are hardwired to take more away from the negative than the positive.
  • Avoid roles that are over too soon and fast track rotations that move your through too fast; it helps to learn how to spot patterns (think of car drivers have a knack for spotting traffic slowdowns before anyone else because they’ve got the flow of their regular commute wired) and you get that experience by witnessing first hand a few cycles of whatever business you’re in. In many cases this means 3 or 4 years rather than 1 or 2 years.
  • It also helps to have roles where you leave fingerprints; the curse of most junior (and senior) consultants is that they never really see if their advice works because they’ve moved on. Later in life, when they end up in a real operating role, they usually discover that the rules of the game are far different than what they’d ever experienced. Many struggle; more than just a few fail.
  • If you have a choice between a role that’s under-resourced and one that’s amply resourced, choose the former. Ball juggling, scrappiness, and ingenuity are skills that will serve you throughout your life. You develop them faster if you have to make way with less, not more.
  • And doing more than your fair share of “scut” work is not such a bad thing. It helps teach you humility as well as admiration for the so-called little people in organizations – the folks that generally really make things happen and can help you in all the subtle and small ways that are important to your success.
  • While it’s always nice to work in roles that stress your development, I’d rather have 5 days of great experience than 5 days of great training; doing things for real has a way of sticking with you better than things that you know are make believe.
  • Avoid jobs where it’s just you and you alone; working with teams learning collaboration and teaming skills will serve you forever. While learning how to be on point and be solely responsible is important, working well with others is the sort of stuff that will have people want to hire you and work for you when it comes time for you to hire others.
  • Last, as painful as it might be, avoid jobs where you can’t make mistakes, even bigger ones. I’ve lost count of the rising execs I’ve known whose first big mistake was later in their career – when it derailed them permanently – rather than earlier when they had lots of time for recovery.

As Dustin Hoffman’s character said in Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, “Your life (and work) is an occasion. Rise to it.”

Good first real jobs should have the same quality; you feel stretched, like you’ve grown, and that you’ve accomplished something special.

Image Courtesy: Dirk Ercken / Shutterstock

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