Keep Calm and Plug Along: 10 Career Lessons from An Entry-Level Postgrad

I’ve been working since I was 14 years old when I started teaching swimming lessons to the neighborhood kids. I’ve had easily over a dozen jobs in my 11-year “career,” if you can call it that, from selling hardwood floors to representing the United States as a Peace Corps Volunteer, to my current position as a paralegal. It only just occurred to me that work is and has been a very big part of my life, and it’s something I am passionate about, although it’s not necessarily as catchy as weddings or international service or other things I’ve written about. Starting with this post, I’ll be blogging about work and career topics as well.

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We’ve all felt “stuck” at some point in our lives, and there’s no area of life that has ruts as deep and wide as those on the path of your career. I encountered my largest career rut just months ago, after I came home from Albania with nothing but two suitcases and a lack of inspiration. With a bachelor’s degree in humanities under my belt, I contemplated going the predictable History major route and attending law school, but advice from attorneys and law students I knew and articles warning readers about mounting debts and poor job satisfaction made me wary.

I had always had a “plan” before this point in my life, and now I had none. People asked me often, “So, what are you going to do now that you’re home?” and I hated not having a satisfactory answer I could rattle off.

I quickly took a job as a file clerk at a local law firm in December. Two weeks ago, I was promoted straight to paralegal, which I’ve been told is very unusual. Basically, I’ve had a solid career dropped into my lap. My progression might look clean on paper, but my professional life since graduating college has, as many others’ in my generation have been, all over the place. I know I’m not alone in some of the experiences I’ve had, so I wanted to share some things I would’ve liked to read during those moments of uncertainty:

1. Things really do just “happen.” This is probably the last thing you want to hear as an impatient young professional, but it’s clichΓ© precisely because it’s true. Sometimes you are just at the right place at the right time, the task is just getting yourself to that place and that time. It might mean taking a job, any job, the first job you get offered even if the pay isn’t great or you’re overqualified just to get your foot in the door. It might mean swallowing your pride and going a little out of your comfort zone. Keep yourself open to every opportunity, because you can’t fail that way.

2. Don’t underestimate networking. And no, by “networking” I don’t mean sending awkward, contrived e-mails to strangers. I mean talking to people you actually know and letting them know you’re looking for something. Every single job I’ve ever had, except for one, I’ve gotten because I knew somebody with connections or something opened up within the organization I was already with. It’s still worth it to try your luck at online applications, but more often than not I’ve found that all the work I put in to them disappears into a black hole somewhere.

3. Speak out. If you’re unhappy with your current job, don’t just complain about it. Look for ways to fix it, including talking to your supervisors. A couple months ago I confronted my bosses and told them I was bored, and could I start learning how to do some other things around the office? I like to think they were mindful of that initiative when they promoted me, but if I hadn’t said anything and just griped about my monotonous workload behind their backs, they wouldn’t have been aware I was interested in doing other things.

Dammit Dolls. Aren't they cute?! A co-worker of mine has one and I'm obsessed.

Dammit Dolls. Aren’t they cute?! A co-worker of mine has one and I’m obsessed.

4. Earn your living. Don’t stop hustling, no matter how basic and mundane your job gets. You can apply for every other opening in the industry or draft your 2 weeks notice or bash your Dammit Doll as hard as you can when you get home, but when you’re on someone’s payroll, make it count. I’ve had jobs that I’ve gotten bored with and stopped trying, and it’s come back to haunt me when I’ve needed recommendations and references. On the flip side, if you finish strong, you’ll have no regrets and glowing reviews from your bosses.

5. “It’s on your desk.”Β This is the best piece of career advice I’ve ever received, and it’s how I’ve earned every promotion I’ve ever gotten, including the big one a couple weeks ago. When your supervisor asks you: “Where’s that brief for tomorrow?” your answer should always be, “It’s on your desk.” In other words, I know things around here so well that I’ve anticipated what you need, I know what needs to be done, and you don’t have to worry about micro-managing me.

6. Get–and stay–on your co-workers’ good sides. You’d think this one would be obvious, but I am continually amazed by how many people don’t prioritize this. Whenever you work with other people, toes will be stepped on and feelings will be hurt, it’s inevitable. But when you feel like whispering about the receptionist’s judgmental comment or snapping at your office mate over a blunder, it does nothing but hurt you. Keep your opinions to yourself; the more you dwell on personal conflicts, the worse they get.

7. Make time for your un-day job. I could certainly do better at this one, because it’s so important. If you have a long-term goal like I do, of becoming a writer, but it’s not exactly something you can support yourself and/or a family off right off the bat, don’t dismiss it! Carve a little time out of each day or week–lunch breaks or evenings or weekends–to do what makes you happy. (A great book about this can be found here.)

8. Nobody actually cares.Β If you find yourself fretting over your answer to the menacing “So, what’s your plan?” question like I was (and still am), remember that it doesn’t actually matter. Most people who ask this are just gently curious, they don’t expect anything from you, they’re going to go back to their own lives after that conversation. If you’re in between jobs or have no idea what you want to do with your life, be honest. You don’t owe anyone anything.

9. Ask for help. Talk to people you admire about how they got where they are. That’s how I got numbers 1, 5, and 7 on this list.

10. Stay positive! Try, try, TRY not to get frustrated with getting your first job or finding a new job or starting a career. I can’t even express how important this is. Being negative and stressed out is a choice, a choice that many people–including me–make when things don’t go their way. But something WILL fall in to place. There’s a reason it’s called “work,” it doesn’t happen overnight. Don’t give up!

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