I’ve had a lot of first jobs. There was my first job ever, where someone paid me for doing something (read: babysitting); my first job where I had to punch a clock; my first job out of college; my first job after completing my master’s degree; and finally my job managing the first business I ever started.
Each experience taught me an extremely valuable lesson I had never encountered before, which I was then able to bring with me to the next position.
Here’s a summary of the 5 most important things I learned the hard way - so that you don’t have to:
1) You can't just be your regular self in every situation.
Babysitting is a funny gig. You’re usually barely older than the kids you’re watching, yet suddenly you have absolute authority. When you’re babysitting you’re in charge of everyone’s health and well-being. Suddenly I couldn’t look around for an adult to pass the kids off to when they were whining, or God forbid, actually hurt.
Learning to think on my feet and try a few solutions myself before asking someone above me has served me well in every subsequent job I have ever had. I have received performance reviews where supervisors explicitly highlighted my inThe 5 Most Important Things I Learned From My First Job Experiencesclination to work through challenges myself first, or with peers, before asking them for help.
By learning how to do my own job to the best of my ability, they could focus on doing the same, and I could reserve coming to them for actual emergencies.
2) You must earn the freedom to make the rules.
In my first adolescent job with a punch card and a uniform, I learned that as long as I work for someone else, my time is not my own. One day while things were slow, I told my coworker I was going next door where my friend worked to get some fries. By the time I came back, my boss was there, and she was displeased. My coworker looked guiltily at the floor.
Secondary lesson learned: coworkers are not automatically your friends. They will not necessarily cover for you. Now that I own my own business, I determine how my time is spent. I only do things that are in service of my big goals...and if I want fries, I go get them.
3) Not everything can be reframed positively, but a lot more can be than we usually assume.
My first job out of college was working with families whose children were suspected of having developmental delays. I realized quickly that the same information could be presented in different ways. I learned how to be asset-based in my disclosure of information to a family rather than deficit-based.
Being asset-based is not the same as glossing over truly devastating diagnoses. Having an asset-based mindset means framing challenges as opportunities for growth. Families who could see next steps through a lens of possibility had consistently better outcomes for their babies than families who were paralyzed by their fear. The same is true of any workplace. Any challenge, regardless of magnitude, can be seen as either a roadblock or a detour. Only one of those will keep you moving forward.
4) Sometimes you have to start over to move in the direction of your dreams.
By the time I finished my master’s, I had been working steadily in advocacy and education for 6 years. I was finally ready to supervise others!
But it turns out that my experience in the fields of public service didn’t automatically qualify me to be a supervisor of clinical therapists, primarily because I had never been one. Being an advocate, a teacher, and an enterprising graduate student did not mean anything in terms of psychotherapy skills. I had to start at the bottom again.
Initially, I was resistant to “moving backwards.” Finally, I realized that all those people were right. I had no idea how to be a therapist just because I had been in fields adjacent to it, and I definitely had no idea how to supervise those doing therapeutic work. I learned more in my first clinical therapy job than I can put a name to, including mindsets and skills that make me an excellent coach.
5) You must know what your personal mission is.
A few years into therapy, I was burning out. I loved working with my students and their families, but my bosses made me feel like Sisyphus pushing the eternal boulder up a hill.
I sought advice from a professional mentor, baring my anxiety over potentially leaving the school and abandoning its mission. He said to me, “You keep talking about ‘abandoning the mission’ of the school, but what about your personal mission? If you stay in this job, you will burn out of the entire field of social services completely. You keep prioritizing what everyone else needs from you. When will what you need be as important, or more important, than what everyone else needs?”
It was a complete turning point for me, and it forced me to identify my own personal mission statement. I realized that the way I want to show up in the world did not align with the school, and I left to start my own coaching business. I have never been happier, and I know that I am doing the work I was meant to do, the way I was meant to do it.
Learning to trust and prioritize myself was a long road, and I stumbled many times along the way. I still stumble, and every time I do, having a written personal mission statement brings me back to my purpose in life and allows me to recalibrate.
Jenny is the founder of Forward in Heels Executive Coaching, which empowers badass women who want to excel at what they do, stand tall, and own their worth so they can light up the world. As a licensed psychotherapist as well as certified executive leadership coach, Jenny has been helping women make bold, lasting changes in their lives for over a decade.
Fairygodboss is committed to improving the workplace and lives of women.