Career Launch

Why You Shouldn’t Stress About Your First Job

Isaac Morehouse
January 2020

Doing something is more valuable than thinking about doing the perfect thing.

Most young people are conditioned to think about jobs in terms of titles. “I’m interested in design,” or “I want to work in finance.” 

But this thinking isn’t doing you any good. It’s narrowing your vision to a few ill-defined ideas, none of which you have a lot of real experience in. The best possible way to begin a career is to let go of the idea of a specific field, title, or role altogether—and simply go where you can create value and learn about yourself and the market.

I’ve worked in retail, construction, IT, politics, policy, education, operations, fundraising, and marketing. None of those were the right fit for me, nor were any of them the wrong fit for me. They were all necessary and valuable parts of my career and life journey. I enjoyed all of them, got good at them, and grew into something different and often unexpected in each case.

With that in mind, here are seven reasons why you shouldn’t stress about your first job.

1. You probably don’t know what you want yet

I love sales. I never (never!) would’ve gone near anything called sales when I started my career. I had negative connotations with the word—I thought I knew what it was and that I didn’t want it. I mostly just wanted a job that paid decently well and that I didn’t hate. Never in a million years would I have guessed where the simple desire to make decent money and be interested in my work would take me.

You don’t know what you want yet. The journey begins with figuring out what kind of stuff you enjoy, and much more importantly, what you hate.

The only way to do that is to try things.

As you try new stuff, you can add to your list of things you know you don’t want. Everything else is fair game. Over time, the field will narrow, and you’ll find yourself drawn into something really unique to you.

But you can’t figure that out by thinking about it or by looking at job titles, starting salaries, or market trends.  You have to jump in and try some stuff. If you don’t hate it, keep at it. If you find out you do hate it, try something else.  

Simply go where you can create value and learn about yourself and the market.

Defining yourself and discovering what makes you come alive will require some leaps into the unknown. Don’t let a job title scare you away.

2. The company is more important than the role

Here’s the thing. Companies don’t actually need a [insert job title]. What they need is value creation. They can feel areas where it seems more talent would help, but slapping a description on it is an imperfect art. When you see [job title] you should read value creator, because that’s what they need at the end of the day. Can you do that?

If you like the company—the people, the style of work, the energy (not the industry, that doesn’t matter)—jump into any role they’ll let you fill—an entry-level job is a great place to start. If you can create value as a customer service representative, or in sales development, then you’re helping build the vision. Once you’re in and meeting the immediate needs, you can identify and grow into infinite other opportunities.

The most successful employees care about the company, not the role. Wherever you start, as long as you’re creating value, you can finish anywhere.

Find a company that gets you excited, and do anything you can to get started there. And remember: even the most boring-sounding products can be incredibly exciting to build, market, sell, and service, especially when you learn how it improves the lives of customers.

3. You’re more than the job title or tasks

I used to work at a nonprofit running outreach programs. The president would remind every researcher, IT whiz, designer, and accountant that they were a fundraiser. When donors support the work, every person in every department is also a fundraiser. Every event, phone call, email, or newspaper story was a representation of the organization, and as such, those things had an impact on fundraising.

In the for-profit world, it’s the same. Whatever else you do, you also do sales. And customer service. And marketing. And product development. You are a part of a team with a vision to build and do something for customers. Whatever your specialty at the time, you’re first and foremost a carrier of that vision.

Your title or department is just a temporary convenience because LinkedIn has a blank space. You’re not laying bricks, you’re building a cathedral and changing the aesthetic of an entire city.

4. You’re not learning how to succeed at X, but how to succeed

“But I don’t want to learn sales.”

“That’s okay,” I said. “You won’t be learning sales. You’ll be learning how to master something. You’ll be learning how to succeed.”

This conversation with a young person looking at a cool company whose only open offer was for a sales role is pretty common. When you really think about how learning happens, the subject matter is not nearly as important as people assume.

If you spend sixty days practicing French for an hour a day or three months writing and self-publishing a book, what you’ll learn is not primarily French or writing. You’ll learn how to get better at something, how to stick with something, how to deliver a result, how to form habits and discipline. You’ll learn how to learn. Those are infinitely transferable skills, even if French and publishing aren’t.

So if you take a job in X and master doing X, what you’ve learned is how to master something. That’s transferable to Y, Z, and anything else.

What most young people lack most is not a specific skill; it’s the ability to pick up a skill. Until you’ve gotten good at something, you won’t be good at anything.

5. You can’t get behind if you’re moving ahead

What really matters in your career and life is progress. Someone who started at the bottom and continued to improve at X is going to beat someone who never tried X because they’re waiting until Y becomes available. Getting better at anything beats waiting to find the right thing.

Your life is about momentum and the compounding of wins. Get a tiny win every day—any win—and you’ll be moving in the right direction. Progress doesn’t happen in giant leaps. It only appears to when you see someone hit the exponential part of the growth curve. But they stacked up small wins first.

Don’t worry about getting good at something for a few years and then realizing you want to switch to something else. If you made progress all along, the switch won’t be that hard.

6. What you’ll be doing in twenty years doesn’t exist yet

Why worry about picking the wrong job if the right job hasn’t been created yet? You’re going to have to create it yourself, but right now you don’t know enough about your own skills, abilities, and interests—or enough about the market—to get started.

The journey begins with figuring out what kind of stuff you enjoy, and much more importantly, what you hate. The only way to do that is to try things.

If you jump into something you don’t hate, you’ll keep learning more. And before long, you’ll find yourself slowly crafting a life previously impossible.

What you need now is to engage with the world. That will generate the insight and inspiration to begin to change it.

7. You’re becoming something, not doing something

You are not what you do.

You aren’t a sales associate, or doctor, or photographer. You’ve got a soul and a story and habits and preferences and core motivating beliefs. That’s who you are. What you do at any given time can and will change.

What kind of person do you want to become? Find activities and ideas that move you closer to that. Set about becoming that. You can become a better version of yourself while you do a great number of things—from sweeping floors to making cold calls to crunching numbers.

Stop stressing about that first job or asking it to answer all of your deepest questions. It can’t give you an identity. Nor should it. It can give you an opportunity to learn about yourself and the world and get a little better each day.

The long winding path of your life is full of surprises. But you can’t create them if you’re busy trying to predict them.

This article originally appeared on the Praxis blog.

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