My first job post-grad was as a graphic designer and social media specialist for a craft beer and wine distributor. I designed things like boozy posters and menus for restaurants and bars and shelf tags for grocery stores. I occasionally posted a Wine Wednesday meme on Facebook. An English major prepared for nothing, I had no idea what I was doing or what I wanted to do. But I was trying very hard to do something. At least I had that going for me.
I left that job for graduate school and a career in writing and journalism a mere six months or so after taking the gig, but in the short time I was there—again, very confused and often breaking things, which I’ll explain—I learned many valuable lessons about working and careers. It’s amazing how an experience so brief can have such a huge impact long-term.
These are a few of the life and career lessons I’ve carried with me since leaving my first job years ago. Hopefully as you start yours, map your career path, and grow in your expertise, these takeaways can make your journey less challenging and more empowering.
5 lessons from my first job that I’ll never forget
1. Ask for help
At my first job, I broke a laminator—one of those heavy-duty ones that takes up half a room. It cost the company $5,000 to get it fixed. Why, you may ask, was I messing with said machine to begin with? I needed to laminate some posters, and I thought I could handle it on my own. I pulled up YouTube videos of laminators (yes) and watched people use them. My boss, who was very kind about the entire debacle, reminded me then that coworkers are there to support you, that it’s okay not to know things even if the task is part of your job, and that asking for help doesn’t cost five grand. Noted.
2. Stand up for yourself
I was the youngest employee at the company by at least 15 years. In some ways, that was funny: I was 21 when I started, and being at an alcohol company, I got more than a few questionable glances while sampling products. But oftentimes, being the youngest really wasn’t amusing at all. One woman used to call me pet names like “monkey” while sliding her work across my desk. I felt too nervous to say anything to my boss because the woman had strong ties to the company’s CEO, so instead I kept my frustration to myself and only brought it up when I resigned. My boss, again, set me straight: He told me that if keeping something like that to myself had affected my happiness on the job every day, then I had every right to say something. Regardless of power dynamics at work, no one has the right to make you feel less than you are. I’ve spoken up in every job, for a variety of reasons, since.
3. Advocate for your career
You need to be seen at work. People should recognize your ideas, the things you produce, every ounce that you contribute to a company. And if people aren’t seeing you, then you need to show them what they’re missing.
At my first job, a lot of my tasks were off the radar for most people within the company. Bar-goers might have seen my menu layouts, but the higher-ups? No. They were too busy making new connections in the industry. It took me introducing myself to executives and pitching my ideas and goals to them for me to get the attention I felt I needed to move my career forward. After chatting with the CEO about my blog ideas, for instance, he asked me to edit some of his email communications and put me forward for a conference in the fall. Although I left before I could attend, the self-advocacy I practiced, which was mostly carried out through small talk, became a mainstay in my career. Talk about what you’ve done, can do, and what you want. Manifest your reality.
4. Make friends and allies
I love having a work wife or an office bestie, and I learned that at my first job. During lunch, I used to watch House Hunters with another woman in the breakroom, and we’d bond by laughing over things like the woman on the show who wanted to move into a Chinese high-rise but was afraid of heights. That lighthearted friendship eventually developed into a sounding board and a voice of validation...because that’s what building trust and camaraderie does. Something felt off in a meeting? While strangers on TV shopped houses, I talked to my lunchmate about why that might be and how I could navigate it. Connecting with others on your team can help you practice empathy, recognize gaslighting and toxicity, see multiple perspectives, and work up the courage to make power moves. You don’t have to feel alone.
5. No job is perfect or forever
I don’t know many people whose first job was their dream job. Mine was okay on paper, but the environment wasn’t for me. The office was too quiet, and I had zero opportunities for collaboration. In fact, I spent the majority of my time so alone that I listened to all of Jane Austen’s classics on audiobook. At the time, though, I thought that was it. The end. I was going to spend the rest of my life looping Captain Wentworth’s proposal next to that broken laminator.
Clearly, I was wrong about the laminator. I eventually figured out what I wanted to do and made my first big career move, which was empowering, exciting, and the best decision of my life. But looking back, that foggy in-between period at my first job was helpful, too. I learned that you can like what you do but not where you are and how to spot when things aren’t working and when to leave.
Jobs don’t have to be dreamy or even on a linear path to be instructive and foster growth. You take what you can from your workplaces and build a career out of the things at each that mattered to you. When you’re done collecting those experiences, either ask for more or brush up your resume. No job is forever.
Read more: I Learned How to Be Happy at Work