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Make Your Own Meaning: How to Thrive in Your First Job After College, Even if It’s Not Your Dream Job

You did it. You studied hard, passed your last finals, and graduated degree-in-hand. Now the real work begins: finding, surviving, and even thriving in your first post-grad employment.

If you’re among the 95 percent of us who didn’t end up landing that amazing dream job right out of the gate, there’s no need to panic. Maybe you won’t be presenting in the boardroom within your first month, or single-handedly solving world hunger by the end of the year. No matter how grand or how humble, your entry-level role is a big opportunity waiting to happen. And it’s calling you to take charge.


Find Meaning in Work That’s More REAL Than IDEAL

Do You Know What You're Worth?

It goes without saying that any job worth doing is worth doing well. This is even more true for your first job out of college, even if it isn’t your dream job. You owe it to your employer, and your reputation depends on it, right? Right. But beyond working hard to benefit your employer, what can you do for yourself?


  1. Make friends at work. You are 100 percent in control of how excited people are to work with you, so project an attitude that makes it a pleasure (if not downright fun) to be around you. Enjoy the people you work with, and they will enjoy you. Are you extroverted? Then it’s easy cheesy, as long as you don’t overwhelm the introverts around you. Are you introverted? Then make an effort to build one or two stronger relationships at a time in order to find the colleagues you genuinely enjoy.
  2. Look for clues. You will spend the rest of your professional life awash in everyday clues. Clues about the activities you’re really good at, or pretty lousy at. Clues about the responsibilities you love to take on, and those you dread. Clues about the topics that energize you, versus those that bore, frustrate, or drain you. Start paying attention to those endless clues now. Write them down. Yes, really, write them down. Those clues are essential to charting your professional path – whether forward progress means tweaking your current role, asking for extra projects in areas where you can grow and shine, targeting a job that’s a better fit, or having the confidence to know when to seize that unexpected opportunity. Even if you ultimately want to be a social entrepreneur but you’re “stuck” in a desk job to pay rent, you can make progress toward your goal if you’re on the lookout for clues that inform how you uniquely excel at making things happen.
  3. Learn from others. If you’ve ever done an informational interview, you know it’s true that people honestly like talking about themselves. So make the most of human nature and learn from your colleagues … especially those with more life experience. Take a moment at the copy machine or in the elevator. Invite a colleague to coffee or lunch. Start a casual cubical or hallway conversation. Ask your co-workers about their experiences, their points of view. The only ingredient required is your authentic curiosity. Some of what you learn will surprise you and be relevant to you in unexpected ways. Guaranteed.
  4. Find a mentor. Most seasoned professionals and world-changers are pressed for time, but it tends to be true that those same individuals often find genuine satisfaction in carving out the space to mentor bright, earnest young colleagues. For you, mentorship is a chance to go deeper, to air your vocational goals and quandaries, and to seek direct input and advice. It’s also a chance for you to practice relating effectively to people who are considerably more established and knowledgeable than you. Take your time with this goal. Give yourself a chance to observe and identify the individuals whose actions and viewpoints you most respect, whether they are inside or outside of your current organization.
  5. Develop skills. You were hired to use a certain set of skills so that you can achieve specific outcomes for your employer. While you improve core skills to meet your employer’s goals, why not also develop a few that are important to your own goals? Pick one or two skills at a time that you want to acquire, deepen, or consistently knock out of the park. Do the research, look for expert tips and stories, then practice, practice, practice. You want to be CEO someday? Start by getting to really know the customer. You want to learn to sell but aren’t in a sales role? Then work on active listening and purposeful questioning to get better at understanding others’ needs (and identifying solutions that people actually want). Your goal is to be a change agent? Invest in exploring and honing communication styles that are authentic for you and effective with others. You love strategy, or maybe analytics? Develop your personal agility in translating both word and number problems from data to information to insight to action.




The opportunity to launch into your dream role is not limited by your first job. The opportunity is right here, right now. If you are lucky enough to be starting a Big Career right out of college, these tips still apply. Most of us, though, see our first job as a stepping stone. And what we choose to do in this job sets us up (or not) for leaping to the ever more challenging, more satisfying stepping stones that ultimately pave the unexpected twists and exciting turns of our professional journey.

Adam Phillabaum
Read more from Adam

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