Throughout my entire academic career, I was always told that I was being prepared for “the real world.” But once I entered the working world in earnest, I soon realized school can never fully prepare you for it.
Now, don’t get me wrong — I’m a big believer in education, and I have no doubt that my ability to absorb information, think critically and work well with others has contributed to my success in the professional realm. But still, I couldn’t help but wish that a few more of my professors had shared some their thoughts on what to expect after graduation.
As I made mistakes, learned from them and ultimately grew, I came away from my first job with a handful of important lessons that I wished I had heard, and really internalized, before I ever even stepped foot in the office. Here are a few of my top takeaways — hopefully, they’ll resonate with you and maybe even help you navigate that tricky transition from school to work.
1. To-Do Lists Are Your Best Friend
For most of my life I had a major aversion to planners and to-do lists. Have you ever had a waiter who insisted on memorizing your order rather than writing it down on their notepad? Yeah, it was kind of like that. I’m bright and capable, I thought — I don’t need any piece of paper telling me what to do!
It took about three days in the working world for me to realize that I needed to ditch that attitude. I might have been able to memorize my tasks and assignments when I only had four or five classes a semester — but at work, there are approximately a million things going on at any given time. From writing articles to getting approval to sending emails, I’m working on way too many things to keep track of them solely in my head.
Today, I live and die by my to-do list (I use Evernote in particular). It took me a while to figure out what works best, but I finally arrived at an organizational system I’m pretty comfortable with. I list every major thing I have to do as a separate bullet point in my planner, with smaller subtasks included as sub-bullet points. Anything that I need to work on that day gets bolded, and anything that needs to be finished that day gets an asterisk on top. Then, I organize the different tasks from top to bottom in the order I want to complete them in. It’s fairly simple, but it gets the job done.
You don’t have to use this exact system, but if you’re just entering the workforce, I would highly recommend that you think about the best way to keep yourself organized and on track.
2. Trust Your Instincts & Have Confidence in Your Recommendations
One of the biggest issues facing people early on in their careers is a lack of confidence. Even if you have great ideas and valuable insight, you often feel like you’re too inexperienced or haven’t earned the right to speak up. I know this was one of the biggest mental hurdles I encountered when I first started my career. But one former coworker shared a piece of advice that really helped change my perspective on the matter: “You were hired for a reason — people saw something in you. They want to hear your input.”
In hindsight it’s obvious, but at the time I really felt like I could only weigh in after I had worked somewhere for X months or years. But the thing is, having a fresh perspective is incredibly valuable. When you’re too close to a project or too entrenched in certain processes, you don’t always have the ability to look at things from a high level. New folks, on the other hand, are able to identify blind spots and inefficiencies, and come up with new and creative solutions to them.
It might sound cliche, but it’s true: it’s much easier for others to believe in you once you believe in yourself. If you speak up when you have an insightful comment or idea, you’ll not only make yourself look good — you’ll likely unlock new opportunities for yourself.
3. An Organized Inbox Is a Happy Inbox
While on the one hand, email plays an invaluable role in helping us stay in touch with others, it can also get pretty darn distracting if you let it. When I first entered the workforce, my inbox was largely in a state of anarchy — junk emails would be thrown right in there with important work emails, newsletter subscriptions, calendar invites, etc. I knew I had to organize it, but for the longest time I put it off, thinking “Oh, I can do that anytime — I’ll focus on my day-to-day tasks first.”
With that mindset, though, you’ll arrive at a breaking point sooner or later. When I reached mine, I finally blocked several hours off on my calendar to sort through my email, unsubscribe to irrelevant emails, create folders and more. The best way to organize your inbox will totally depend on what works for you — you may want to filter by different projects, clients, levels of urgency, etc. Since I was working at a communications agency at the time, it made sense for me to create folders for each of my four main clients, one for internal/administrative tasks and one for news updates.
My system has evolved a bit since I’ve changed jobs, but I still make sure to label and create folders as appropriate, and I never close out of an email that requires a response without starring it first. This way, I can prioritize appropriately, refer back to important chains at a moment’s notice and most of all, not be filled with a sense of dread each time I see my inbox.
4. It’s Okay to Ask Questions
If I had a dollar for every question I asked at work, I probably wouldn’t need to work at all anymore (okay, that’s probably a slight exaggeration, but I could at least go on a pretty decent vacation). I used to be very self-conscious of this — anytime I wanted to ask a colleague something, I’d preface it with “Sorry to bug you” or “Hope I’m not being annoying.” Ironically enough, my coworkers were more annoyed by my excessive apologizing than the fact that I was turning to them for questions — something pointed out to me by one of my more straightforward teammates.
Now that I have a few years of work experience under my belt, I realize that no matter how much research you’ve done or how many internships you’ve had, you can never arrive at a new job fully caught up to speed — in fact, if you’re not asking questions, it might signal to your coworkers that you’re too headstrong to admit when you need help. Sure, you don’t want to go completely overboard with it — tapping your manager for help every two minutes throughout the day may be a bit much — but as long as you make sure your questions are thoughtful and posed at the right time, your coworkers will likely be happy to fill you in.
5. Remember: Nobody’s Perfect
Like a lot of young people, the transition from college to the working world was a bit unsettling for me. In the classroom, I felt like I knew exactly what I had to do in order to succeed. Sure, I still sometimes got questions wrong on tests, or got a less-than-stellar grade on an essay every once in a while — but I knew that as long as I paid attention in class, studied a certain amount per week and gave myself enough time to complete assignments, I would do well. So being thrust into a working environment, where success doesn’t always equal X + Y, was a bit jarring.
Compared to school, I found work to be less structured, fast-paced and highly collaborative — I was constantly learning new things, pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and working on my communication skills. It was easy to get down on myself when I felt like I was constantly playing it by ear and learning from my mistakes.
My big aha moment came after chatting with my older sister. After venting to hear about how incompetent I felt at times, she said something that will always stick with me: “Everybody’s winging it to some degree.” It’s easy to look at a confident person who’s further along in their career and think they have it all figured out, but even your seemingly perfect coworkers make mistakes, pivot and push themselves to try unfamiliar things. They may be better at hiding it, but that doesn’t mean they’ve completely mastered their job.
It’s not easy to get over your own self-consciousness or self-doubt, and it certainly won’t happen overnight, but the more you remind yourself that nobody’s perfect (and you don’t have to be, either), the more confident you’ll feel — take it from someone who’s been there before.