10 Things You’ll Wish You Knew Before Starting Your Career

It took some of us five or ten years to figure this out.

by Andrew RanzingerLast updated: 06/16/2020

Image by: Xan Griffin

Graduating from college and starting your first job is a time of excitement and possibility. It can also be a time of anxiety, doubt, and uncertainty. 

Regardless of how you’re feeling about getting started with your career, there are some truths that will make your path easier if you embrace them now.

1. Network is net worth

Your relationships will have a bigger impact on how much you achieve than what you know. It’s a hard fact of life that you’re better off with a mediocre skillset and a great network than with an amazing skill set and nobody who knows about you. Combine the two and you’ll be unstoppable.

Don’t get so focused on your job that you forget to invest in building relationships. And remember—“networking” isn’t just something you do at career fairs. It’s equally important inside the company you land a job at. Good relationships within your company will mean more support for your projects, more openness to your ideas, and a faster rise through the ranks. 

2. Job descriptions are unrealistic wish lists

Job descriptions are ads that are only loosely connected to reality. They are an idealized version of what the company would like the position to look like, not necessarily what it actually looks like.

This fact means two things: 

First, don’t be afraid to try punching above your perceived weight if a job description feels like it’s a little beyond your skill set. Chances are you could fill most of the requirements, and learn the rest on the job. 

Second, expect that if you get the job, what you actually end up doing day-to-day could be very different from what was in the job description. Use the interview process to try and tease out what the daily work really looks like, or by your second week, you might feel like you’re in one of those expectation versus reality memes.

3. Nobody cares where you went to school

Unless you’re one of the 0.0001% of graduates that went to an Ivy League for undergrad, nobody cares where you went to school. And even if you did, it would only matter for a very narrow set of careers.

At the end of the day, what businesses care about boils down one thing: How can you make them money? If you can convince them you’ll be a high performer, who signed your diploma is irrelevant.

Don’t stress about where you’re going to school, and instead focus on doing things that will give companies confidence you can deliver—getting experience, building a portfolio, and honing your interview skills, for example.

4. You won’t have a lot of direction

College is one of the most comfortably structured environments you’ll ever be in. Every part of your “job”—learning—is spelled out for you. Your professors tell you what to read, what to study, and what’s going to be on the test.

That’s not what real life is like. 

When you get to your first real job, you’ll be given a desk, a computer, and some projects to work on. The rest will be up to you.

You will have 1000 questions and nobody to spoon feed you answers. Be proactive, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. Most people will be happy to show you what they know, but nobody will do the work for you.

5. Your habits will determine your happiness

Starting your career often brings a lot of new freedom. For the first time in your life, you’re living on your own, paying your own bills, have your own money, and nobody is telling you what to do outside of work. 

With this new freedom, it can be all too easy to slide into bad habits. Nobody is going to stop you from watching Netflix until 3 am, or eating frozen pizza for dinner two weeks in a row.

Maintaining a good sleep routine, exercising regularly, eating healthy, budgeting your money, investing in some hobbies—these are the habits that will make you happy and successful in the long run, but you have to intentionally build them. 

6. You need a personal vision

Getting a job and then working hard at it isn’t enough to make your dreams come true. If that’s all you do, it’s a recipe for disappointment and a midlife crisis. 

You need a vision for what you want your life to look like in the future. It’s what puts your current job in context. What is this current role a stepping stone for?

Your personal vision will be your reference point when things in your life change or new opportunities come your way. Just ask yourself, does this fit with my plan? 

Having a vision also keeps you from getting complacent. Without one, it can be too easy to put your life on cruise control. Before you know it, you’re 40, unfulfilled, and wondering where the time went.  

And don’t worry if your vision changes as you grow, that’s normal. The important thing is that you always have something you are consciously working toward.

7. Choose your boss carefully

People don’t quit their jobs, they quit their bosses. 

Your boss will have more of an influence over your experience at a company than any other factor. More than any other person you work with, your boss is in a position to be an advocate and mentor for you, or a burden and hindrance. 

A great boss can make a difficult job rewarding, and a bad boss can make an otherwise great job insufferable.

As you search for job opportunities, don’t just look at the company, the job description, or the compensation package. Pay special attention to who you will be working for and reporting to. 

What impression do they give you? Do they seem genuinely interested in your development? What do other people say about working for them?

Many wise people have chosen better leadership over higher pay. 

8. Start saving for retirement immediately

401(k)s, IRAs, Roth IRAs, Health Savings Plans—it can all be overwhelming at first. And besides, retirement seems so far away. Maybe you think you could use the extra cash elsewhere. The temptation to put off saving for later can be strong, but don’t do it!

Compound interest is a powerful thing, and even small amounts of money saved (or not) now can make huge differences in what you’ll have for retirement in 40 years. 

Experts recommend saving 10-15% of each paycheck for retirement. Most employers offer to match retirement contributions up a certain point, and if you don’t sign up, you’re missing out on free money. 

Set aside some time at the start of your first job to automate your retirement savings. Your future self will thank you. 

9. Don’t be afraid to make a career switch

A lot of us make our initial career selection with incomplete information. In college, there’s still a lot you don’t know about yourself, about the world, and about the careers you are considering. 

There is no shame in getting a few years into a career and admitting that it wasn’t the best one for you. Every job has parts that suck, but if it’s a good fit for you, the good should outweigh the bad. 

If you find yourself constantly unhappy or uninspired with what you’re doing, or dreaming of doing something else, then make the switch! Figure out what you really want to do, then put together a plan to get there from wherever you are now.

Jennifer Hill, co-founder of the company Sixty Vocab, said it best:

“If a job really isn’t working out, find something new and change. Life is too short. It’s the random experiences that make life exciting and will lead to new opportunities.”

10. Listen to your gut

When you’re starting out, there is so much you don’t know. This feeling can lead you to distrust yourself and rely on people who are older and more experienced than you for direction. 

At the end of the day, however, only you can know what the best decisions for your life are.

Practice listening to your inner voice and fine-tuning your instincts. Sometimes that voice will go against all the advice you’re being given by well-meaning people—and it will be the best decision you could have made.

Degrees and experience aren’t everything. You have insight into yourself that nobody else does.  Don’t be afraid to make bold moves if you feel your heart is telling you to.