If you’re lucky enough to be starting a job—a real, career-building job—after you graduate, you probably aren’t thinking of when it will end.
But the reality is that few people keep their first jobs for long. The average person stays in a job around 4.5 years these days according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but this number is lower for younger people—only 13 percent of 30-34 year olds have been with their current employer for 10 years, the BLS reports. The more common story is that people find other opportunities, travel, go to graduate school and so forth.
So let’s say you’ll stay at that first job for two years. Let’s say you’re also planning on devoting a lot of time to work—maybe 50 hours per week (far more than the average worker puts in). That gives you roughly 2,500 hours per year, or 5,000 work hours over your two-year tenure.
That’s a lot of time, but it’s also a finite amount of time, and easy to let slip through your fingers. A weekly two-hour meeting that you sleepwalk through will eat up 200 of those 5,000 hours, with little to show for it.
So a better approach is to ask yourself what you hope to do with those 5,000 hours. What would you like to learn? Who would you like to meet? What can you do to position yourself well for the next 40 years of your career?
Here’s a checklist of 10 things you might want to take away from those first 5,000 hours, regardless of what your actual job entails:
1. A portfolio
Manage your time so you leave with a few examples of work you’re proud of that you can point to and say “I did that.” In particular, results that can be measured get noticed.
2. Real colleagues
Manage your relationships so that at least a few of your immediate coworkers would like to work with you should your paths meet again (which they probably will, as the corporate world can come to resemble a revolving door).
Outperform expectations so well that at least three people higher up in the hierarchy not only answer your emails, but like you and will vouch for your competence.
A job is a chance to get paid to learn. Try to leave with an in-demand skill or two that you knew little about coming in.
5. A network
Meet at least 10 people outside your company at industry events and keep in touch with them regularly. These people are likely the key to landing your next job.
6. Good karma
A volunteer gig in an industry organization introduces you to people who can see that you’re eager to help—so they’re likely to help you.
7. A career map
Have lunch with people of lots of different tenures so you develop a good sense of your industry and a good sense of the career paths associated with it. This may keep you from earning a degree that doesn’t actually help you reach your goals.
Success requires knowledge of the kinds of projects you do well, the kinds you need to work on and the mistakes you have a tendency to make again and again.
9. Good time management habits
Not many people have the ability to make steady progress toward future deadlines and the discipline to say no to distractions so you can say yes to things you want more. People who do tend to soar.
If your employer offers a retirement account (like a 401k), be sure to set it up and fund it well enough to get any matching funds. If you earn decent returns, any money you stash away now will be worth a mint when you retire. You’ll thank yourself later.
What do you plan to take away from your first 5,000 hours on the job?