Career Launch

How to Choose Your First Job (and Why You’re Not Stuck with Where You Start)

Mitchell Earl
January 2020

Choosing your “first real job” can suck.

Let’s be real. Most of our lives, the world has programmed us to think about our entire life as one linear event. We think we need to pick one path, and once we pick it, we have to stay in it. But we don’t think of our life as the sporadic, dynamic process of self-discovery that it really is.

Which means (and here’s the secret): you’ve got a whole world of options when it comes to picking your first job.

Where we start isn’t where we have to stay forever

In reality, where we start is not where we have to stay forever. In fact, we have more options than any generation before us. In a large part, that’s thanks to the supercomputer in your pocket and other amazing technological innovations.

So, in the grand scheme of things, where you start matters far less than it seems. What’s far more important is what you do once you gain some experience.

But let’s touch on both.

Your career really boils down to a couple of things:

  1. The opportunities you can convince someone to give you a shot at
  2. Your ability to deliver on commitments you make

Executing both of these is fundamental to developing a good professional relationship. People want to hire, work with, and open doors for people who deliver.

So starting strong is important. But where you start is a matter of what you know about yourself today.

Don’t worry about specific industries or roles (unless you already have those in mind,). Instead, ask yourself, “Where could I gain the most leverage?”

Your first job is a way to gain access to your second job

What I mean by that: think about your first job as a way to gain access to your second job. And your first and second jobs as ways to access to your third, and so on…

This reframing is important for several reasons:

  • First, you most likely won’t have a ton of valuable experience leading up to your first job. So, think about it in terms of where you could gain the most value to help you get off to a strong start.
  • Second, you most likely won’t stay at your first job forever. So, look for a company that’s doing something really interesting to you. Or where a role model works that you’d be excited to work with/learn from. Or somewhere with a high likelihood for quick promotions.
  • Third, this question makes you narrow down your options by eliminating a lot of things that may sound good or fun but don’t offer a ton of return for the time you’ll put in.

In every job, there is leverage

There’s also another way to think about this. Instead, of where, ask yourself, “How could I leverage this as much as possible?”

This opens up the whole realm of all jobs to you. Instead of getting hung up on a particular job, just get one. Any job. And figure out how to be the absolute best employee in that role.

Even if it’s flipping burgers. Or pushing a broom.

No, those may not sound like ideal starting points. But they’re better than not having a job.

And (here’s a big point): working hourly or low-paying jobs is nothing to frown on if you give an A+ effort (especially when you’re young). This adds to the career narrative you can tell:

“Hey, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so instead of committing to one to two years in a career job, I started by getting some real work experience. I had to pay the bills and was willing to do whatever it took to get by while I figured it out.”

That’s a really powerful story to tell later on once you’ve narrowed down what career path you want to take.

Taking the pressure off starting

Both of these are just mental models. But they’re really powerful if you give them their due. Both take the pressure off choosing specific jobs or career paths.

The first question—”Where could I gain the most leverage?”—is maybe most useful for choosing among a list of options you’ve already found. (Here are some guides to get you started in figuring out where you can gain leverage.)

The second—”How could I leverage this as much as possible?”—helps you focus on what makes you more marketable as an employee while you figure out what you really want to do.

There’s a ton of advice out there—but what’s important is focusing on discovery. Try to experiment as much as you can early on. Quit jobs you hate. And when you find something you really like, double down.

Your career isn’t a fixed path based on where you start.

P.S. If you need a good place to start that discovery, check out this fun quiz that’ll give you some good, practical paths based on who you are.

This post originally appeared as an answer on Quora.

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