3 things I didn’t know I didn’t know when I started my first job

Pam Beasley, fictional character on NBC Universal's "The Office" played by Jenna Fischer, spends many days at work unhappy.
NBC Universal

Going from college to the real world was like being thrown off of a cruise ship into deep water and told to swim to shore.

For four blissful years at one of the top liberal arts schools in America, I was challenged and encouraged. Inside and out of the classroom, I met bright, curious people who helped me grow as a person. I learned, as the cliche goes, how to think.

But I did not learn how to earn money, choose the right job or, even in any rudimentary way, get by in the real world.

After graduating, I stumbled through two jobs and a bout of unemployment before I finally made any real progress in my career. And though none of that is the fault of my college, my failures were not unrelated to my educational experiences.

I had been led to believe the workplace would be something like my campus, where, for the most part, students and teachers alike treated each other with a baseline respect, engaged in thoughtful dialogue and, when they fought, fought fair. It was not.

Instead of requiring that I pass a swimming test, it would have been far more useful if my school, before giving me my diploma, had insisted that I sit down and watch the 1992 David Mamet film about stressed-out salesmen who are forced to sink or swim, "Glengarry Glen Ross."

Alec Baldwin as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross
Image source: New Line Cinema

So that you new grads can learn, in advance, from my experiences, here are three of the main things that I didn't know I didn't know when I started my first job.

1. Your bosses aren't necessarily good at their jobs

Probably because I was lucky enough to have intelligent, capable parents and smart, accomplished professors, it never really occurred to me that, when I got to the working world, I would so often answer to people who had no idea what they were doing.

My first boss was naturally timid and compensated by yelling and cursing. A lot. And he was a prince compared to his boss, who, directly before hanging up, once screamed into the phone loud enough for our whole section of the office to hear, "No, Mom, f--- you!"

Since that initial position, I've had a rogue's gallery of unstable or inept managers, including one who, in a matter of a few short months, ran a buzzy, promising start-up into the ground. Though I've also worked for inspiring and impressive managers — indeed, thank goodness, I am working for one right now — I've learned never to take competence for granted.

2. HR doesn't work for you — it works for the company

One common misconception among entry-level employees is that Human Resources will be on their side, regardless. While HR departments can certainly be helpful, they don't exist to serve you; their primary purpose is to protect the company. That's why workers who approach HR to complain often find the results frustrating, a 20-year HR veteran explains in an article for Vox.

As that vet puts it, "How do you help organizations attract and retain great talent while also doing your job and protecting the company from lawsuits when something goes horribly wrong? The answer is that you can't."

Understand at the outset what HR can and cannot do for you, Lifehacker suggests, noting that "you shouldn't expect HR to keep anything confidential even if you ask."

Some HR departments are better skilled than others at advocating for employees. In one of my first jobs, HR didn't take me seriously until I had documented a year's worth of infractions. So take a tip from Uber whistle-blower Susan J. Fowler and former FBI director James Comey: Write everything down.

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3. Make yourself indispensable

If you want to stand out at your workplace, if you want to get noticed and get ahead, you have to be assertive. Don't assume it's enough to simply accomplish your assigned tasks. Even if you've done a good job, you can't wait to, or assume you will, be recognized. A good job is the bare minimum. A good job is what you're paid to do. If you want more, you have to show that you deserve it.

Hustle. Follow up on phone calls. Crash meetings. Pay attention to what your boss does, what she needs, what parts of the job frustrate her, and then use all of that data to figure out how else you could be useful. Is there something you could take off her plate?

Show that you're reliable. That can mean getting in early and staying late, or being visible on Slack, or volunteering to work when others don't want to, like on certain holidays. Then, once you've established yourself as trustworthy and important to the team, you can ask for more responsibilities — as well as for more flexibility, a larger salary, or whatever else would make your life as an employee better.

Once you've first proven your value, you're more likely to get what you need.

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