Things I Wish I'd Known At The Start Of My Career

Starting out in the world of (office) work? Wondering how to play the game? Here are a few things I've learned that will help you along the way.


I’ve finally accepted it. I am no longer part of the young, 20-something section of the workforce. It’s only a few years since greying CEOs were panicking over the mysterious wants of millennials. Now it’s the fresh-faced kids from Gen Z that are the subject of zeitgeisty conversations among marketers and trend pundits.


Frankly, it’s a bit of a relief to be approaching middle age in my working life. Not feeling like the youngest, least experienced person in the room.

Frankly, it’s a bit of a relief to be approaching middle age in my working life. Not feeling like the youngest, least experienced person in the room. Being able to say things like “in my experience […wise sentence]” without feeling like a fraud. Realising that most people are making things up as they go along, and that most of us consider that to be a legitimate way of working.


But enough about my experience of the ageing process. I’ve been on an extended break from work and was thinking about what I would write about if I was going to write about work stuff. I have also been thinking about what we womxn* can do to give each other a leg up in our careers, because God knows that gender pay gap ain’t shrinking very fast. So, I got thinking about the beliefs I had when I started work, and how these beliefs have changed over time as I have learned and grown.


1. You do not need to know everything to do a job well


I’ve come to realise that an enormous amount of the work I do consists of finding stuff out and working out different ways of doing things. This probably doesn’t apply to medicine, say, but most graduate-level jobs I’ve done involved being given a brief by a more senior manager (more on briefing in point 5) and asked to go away and come back with some ideas or recommendations for them. I probably thought that they already knew the answer and were testing me, piling the pressure on myself to ‘get it right.’


This may well have been the case, sometimes. But, most of the time the people I have worked with are so busy, they rely on less senior staff to go off and find things out for them. Often you can produce better quality ideas because when you’re starting out you tend a) to be less tired and b) to have more time to think in depth about what it is you’re working on.


The key thing to impress your manager in those early days is to take disparate information, put it in a semblance of order, present it to them clearly and slowly, and keep it as simple as you can manage. Even better, make recommendations in threes. Everyone loves threes.


The main point of this is, generalists are very useful people to know because they can turn their hand to all sorts. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise, as I was, by the snooty planners, surveyors and architects in my first government graduate job.


2. Don’t think of yourself as ‘fixed’ but as ‘growing’


This is a biggy. A very wise colleague of mine introduced me to the concept of a fixed versus a growth mindset a few years ago, an idea developed by Carol Dweck. Our conversation took place over a coffee just after I had returned to work after a short time recuperating from stress.


Somewhere along the way, many of us develop the idea that we are good at some things and not others, or that there is a limit to our abilities. A common misconception is that some people are creative and others are not, when creativity is something pretty much all of us regularly use as humans, using our ideas to make or do something new. This is known as a fixed mindset.


Someone with a growth mindset, however, rather than seeing a work challenge they have little idea how to solve as something to be feared, trust that they have a huge capacity to find things out and to acquire new knowledge. Furthermore, if we approach new challenges at work as an opportunity to learn something new, rather than the potential to fail spectacularly, it takes away a huge amount of pressure and performance anxiety.


It’s important to note that managers are crucial in enabling people to try out a growth mindset. It’s very hard to do this if you have a manager that doubts your abilities or expects unrealistic results. In that case, try and get a new manager and failing that, a new job.

Always carry a notepad!

3. Make small talk and make the tea


Ok, one exception here. Don’t rush to make the tea if you are a woman in a room where you are outnumbered by men. Or start tidying up at the end. Until a man does it, that is. That is a point of principle. If you do that stuff people will think that making the tea is your job, and you won’t have time to chat to people and make interesting connections and find things out.


That aside…In the UK in particular, people will LOVE you if you make them a cuppa. They’ll love you even more if you ask them their brewing strength and milk quantity preferences. Boiling the kettle is an opportunity to meet new people and find stuff out. In organisations connections and knowledge are power. You will be seen as a thoughtful person who makes time for others.


Same with small talk. I’ve been in so many excruciating kitchen situations where people are studiously ignoring each other while doing the awkward dance as people open fridge and cupboard doors, forced to lean into each others armpits as they grasp the milk. Don’t do this. Say hi, ask them what their job is, how their weekend was, how the milk has gone off, whatever. Again, you will get to know people, and you may help interrupt whatever dark, deadline-related anxiety may be going through yours or their head.


An office with no small talk is like a morgue. While many of dislike it, it opens the door to more meaningful conversations down the line. Also, if there is a hotty you have noticed, you get to talk to them — while getting paid!


4. Be good to interns (and temps)


I’ll rephrase this. If you are an intern, you deserve to be treated well. And if something doesn’t seem right, or like something you should not be expected to do, don’t do it. You’re not being paid for it and you probably don’t have a contract.


Internships are a fantastic way to learn and get your foot on the ladder. Unfortunately, many of us have to slog through unpaid internships before landing a paid job. Worse still, many people aren’t even getting work experience in many sectors because they aren’t blessed with parents living near a major city they can live with for free, or given an allowance by someone else with money.


Often though, I have noticed, is that the paid members of staff tend to ignore them or, worse, refer to them as ‘the intern.’ I hate that! Just because you are working for free does not mean you are not an intelligent person with a lot to offer and a meaningful life. Also I am well aware that such interns may be in a position to decide whether to hire me one day, and I want to be on the right side of history.


The same thing goes with temps. Temporary workers are often treated as expendable labour and, because they don’t always stick around long, they are sometimes treated as if they aren’t a full human–I've been one. This is not on.



Don't sweat it hon

5. You will probably need to manage your manager


Managers are fundamental to your experience of a job. Yet a lot of people end up becoming managers because they have spent a certain amount of time in a job, not necessarily because they have great people skills that would suit them to management. Managers are often busy and rushed, a bit stressed out, and coping with some challenging personal issues from time to time.


Often I have found myself ‘managing upwards’ — that is, organising meetings with my manager, proposing what we talk about, actively keeping them abreast of what I’m working on, before waiting for them to ask. For most managers, this is a relief.


I once did a 6 week work placement at an NGO as part of my masters programme, and suggested we have a weekly 45 minute check in, so I could tell her how I was getting on with my project for the organisation. I didn’t know this at the time, but this is not something she did with her staff. However, at the end of my placement she told me how effective it had been and that she was planning to implement it with everyone she managed.


Further to my point above on getting briefs from managers. Most people can’t write a decent brief to save their life. I.e. what it is you they would like you to do, and within what parameters. If you are confused about what you’re meant to be doing, you probably haven’t yet been properly briefed. That’s not your fault, but the onus is on you to go back to the person giving the work and asking plenty of questions until it becomes clear enough to get going. You may not know where you’re going to end up, but you should at least be able to see the next step or two forward.


If you’re really stuck, ask the person what they would do next. It can be excruciating and scary to admit you don’t know what to do, but it’s better than sweating it at your desk frantically googling for help. I’ve been there.


All of these things will earn you kudos with more senior colleagues. You are on the ball, you’re not scared of approaching senior people and you’re saving your manager time. Job done.


I’m going to end it here at five suggestions, because it’s a nice prime number and I’ve run out of ideas. I would love to know what other people wish they’d known early in their career. And, if you are reading this and think it’s useful, please share it with an intern or a someone more junior that you work with.


*If you’re not familiar with the term womxn, it’s an alternative term for the English language word women which has been regularly in use since 2015 to explicitly include transgender women and women of color.