What really matters early in your career? The people you work with.
I remember when I got my first job offer. It was a Friday afternoon. My first boss called.
“How’d you like to start your career in journalism?” she asked.
Start? It seemed like a funny way to phrase it. This was my first post-college job, but it didn’t feel like a starting place.
How little I knew.
That was on my mind when I read Why Your First Job Out of College Is the Most Important of All. Allie Gray Freeland’s right about many things. That first job is a big milestone. It’s the first benchmark by which you measure the real world.
But I’d argue something else: The first job out of college doesn’t matter at all.
Here’s what really matters early in your career
At my first job out of college, I updated a TV station’s website. A big chunk of my job was done at 5:30 each morning, from my own bed. I wish I could tell you that the job itself was hugely important to my career, but it wasn’t.
But your first set of coworkers—the first team you actually get to work with and learn from—now that matters a great deal.
I didn’t love my first job out of college. And yet that first set of coworkers left a huge impression on me. I had fantastic coworkers, and you’ll want a team just as amazing. They’re going to inspire you, mold you and show you how to do work in the adult world.
Four coworkers from that first job stand out to me:
1. The Teammate
She ran our news desk, and she had a great BS detector, which really mattered in a newsroom. She never ended up on air, but nothing went on air without her involvement. She made that newsroom go.
From the Teammate, I learned a new way to lead: through effort. I discovered that it’s easy to want to work with someone who works really hard.
2. The Conflict Guy
He worked overnight shifts for us, and he was a great reporter. But he also didn’t see me as an ally. He saw me as another person trying to add work to his job.
We bickered every day. It wasn’t fun.
And then I started to realize a basic truth about the Conflict Guy: he just wanted respect. He’d earned it, and I wasn’t giving him his due.
So I started really listening to him. That’s the easiest way to show respect: through your attention. He noticed. Soon, we stopped fighting, and we started doing good work together.
From the Conflict Guy, I learned about the difficulty of professional relationships—and a way to move them forward.
3. The Grouch
He was the crankiest guy in the newsroom. But when he needed to do his work, he always put the attitude away. He had this switch that he could turn on, and when it was on, he was all about the work.
In the real world, nobody cares if you’re having a bad day. From the Grouch, I learned how to find my game face, and how to use it when the work really needed to get done.
4. The Doers
I answered to a trio in the newsroom: the Doers. It wasn’t until after I had left that first job that I understood how they always got things done.
They specialized in selling: ideas, innovations, products, whatever. They went in front of skeptical rooms and sold people on “why.” Once people understood why they should do something, selling “what” and “how” and “when” got much easier.
I had always done the reverse, trying to sell people on “how” we’d do something instead of giving them the vision, the big picture.
From the Doers, I learned how to take on big projects—and how to get others to say “yes” to them. I still use their techniques each and every day.
How that first team will affect you down the road
None of this, it turns out, had much to do with my first job. But thanks to that job, I had a front row seat—or, I suppose, a front cubicle—to see it all.
Without the lessons from those relationships, I don’t think I’d ever get the business I have now (Stry.us, a news organization specializing in long-form journalism) off the ground.
I think back to what my first boss said when she hired me: “How’d you like to start your career in journalism?” She was right. I had plenty of experience in the field already, but it was that first office where I actually started to learn the skills I’d need to have a career in this industry.
Whatever field you choose, find a team you’ll love working with from the get-go. That first job won’t really matter, but those coworkers absolutely will.