It's not easy starting a new job. It's all the social pressure of the first day of school—what to wear, what lunchbox/briefcase to carry, whether to brown bag your lunch or try to find a cool group to eat with, hoping your teacher/boss is nice, etc., with one notable addition. After all, you have to pay your bills, take attractive people on dates and, you know, generally eek out an existence. No biggie. No stress, at all.
I started a new full-time job a few months ago, as wary as can be after getting stung several times by notably bad bosses. Approximately the time I started, a friend and former co-worker called. She had started a new job months before I was let go from the company we had both worked at. I told her I felt a little like a lady in a Lifetime movie, trying to date again after being in abusive relationship. She said she knew what I meant and had gone through the same thing. "I still jump when one of the higher-ups asks to see me in her office and shuts the door," she admitted.
But, as we each discovered, there are good bosses out there, too, and good jobs. Sometimes, it just takes a few tries to find one that is a good fit, just like with dating. The only way to learn what work is like and how to be good at it is to do it. And now that I've been practicing for half the time I spent getting my degree, I feel like I'm finally hitting some kind of stride. This time, all is well at the office. I've managed to learn something in the two and a half years since I graduated from college. It wasn't easy. I had a lot of tough lessons to learn.
Here are the top five:
Lesson 1: Size doesn't matter.
You can say on paper that you like a big company or a small company better, but what it really comes down to is the individual culture at any given organization. It doesn't matter how big the company is—there are always going to be small cliques and teams that you really need to mesh with to be happy. Big companies can have certain advantages—better benefits, nice schwag or cafeterias, the whole shebang. They might be able to offer you a highly specialized position instead of requiring you wear as many hats as small companies often do. But no matter where you work, what it really, essentially comes down to is if you get along with your supervisor and your team.
Lesson 2: You know what they say about assuming ....
Yeah, well, you've heard that one. Whatever assumptions you have early on in your career, they are probably wrong. For example, after my first job working at a big company full of good ol' boys, I thought a small company with more female staff members would automatically solve the culture-fit problems I had at my first job. It made sense. A small company would be nurturing and friendly, and more women would mean I wouldn't have any more problems with sexual harassment. It would be an Amazonian paradise. El wrongo.
At least 75 percent of the staff was women, and the whole thing felt like an adult version of "Mean Girls." There was a Christmas party with an enforced lock-in sleepover at the office and a costume contest. We heard tell the woman who had won it the year before had dressed up as a sexy present addressed to the male owner of the company. After that, I learned to stop making lists of assumed qualities and just take each employer and job offer at face value, judging only on the numbers on paper and the conversations with my potential teammates.
Lesson 3: There will be other jobs.
I know, this one isn't true for everyone, especially during a recession. But bear with me. One thing I learned the hard way in love and work was that your first isn't your only. You know how when you're 18 and pledge to be with your first significant other until you die? And you quote The Smiths all the time and actually mean it? I was the same way about my first job.
I was so amazed I actually had a job in my field, I felt like I had to make it work no matter what, even if it didn't make me happy. After I was let go, I realized I had the exact attitude about my first boyfriend, whom I dated for five years out of sheer surprise that someone actually wanted to go out with me. Now, I recognize that there will probably be several jobs, and that's OK. As my mom put it to me when I was 14 and we were watching "Dirty Dancing" and I got upset Johnny Castle leaves at the end, "Meghan, not everything has to end in marriage." That includes whatever job you have now.
Lesson 4: Forget the "supposed to's."
I definitely know people who are happier at less prestigious jobs in the service industry than at some swanky office job they hated. That's totally OK. What matters is if you can pay the bills and like who you work with and don't hate your time on the job. If that means waiting tables because it makes you less neurotic, that's awesome that you own that. Forget the supposed to's. Do what makes you happy and lets you put something good back out into the world. It might be insurance reports; it might be breakfast burritos. Everyone has something to contribute. Don't let others tell you what it should be or how to do it. Some of the smartest, most talented people I know work at Starbucks. There's no shame in that. Starbucks has health insurance!
Lesson 5: You don't have to be friends with your co-workers.
Some people don't have a hard time with this; others do. I'm one who does. I have yet to master the art of seeing people every day and spending more time with them than I do my actual friends or significant others and not thinking that means we should be close. But really, 90 percent of the time, it's best to find your work persona and run with it. I don't mean to be fake but instead to find the mellow middle ground between your best behavior and being comfortable. Just like your work wardrobe, try to find the side of your personality that looks extra nice but that you can stand wearing for eight-plus hours a day.
College doesn't teach you a thing about what work is actually like. It's less the clichés a lot of people spout off, about how you actually have to show up at work on time every day instead of skipping class when you have a hangover, and more (for me at least) the weight of expectation. For one, it's entirely up to you to please your employer enough to not get fired and thus continue to pay your bills. For another, work doesn't end after a semester. A bad professor is one thing, but a supervisor you don't mesh with can be your nemesis for years. A bad fit can, at worst, mean you just won't ever make that person happy, and then where are you? Unable to pay rent. Take some of this advice, and maybe the next job you'll have will be one that suits you and makes you happy. Whether you've been working for no years or 25, there's still always something to learn about making good workplace matches.
Meghan O'Dea is a 20-something writer, pop culture critic and social media fanatic. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter if you have questions, comments or stories on being a young adult in the workforce. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.