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Lessons Learned From Your First Job

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What did you learn from your first job? Do you remember? We asked people around the country to share what the best things they learned from their first job were. See if you can identify with some of the responses we received. If you have your own lessons to share, please do so in the comments below this article. Here is what people had to say:

  1. Never talk badly about your boss to any of your friends/colleagues at work. It will come back to haunt you.

  2. Be kind to everyone in the company they may help you get your next job.
  3. Volunteer to take on special projects within your own department. It is a great way to learn something new and of course expand your resume.
  4. Volunteer to help out other departments with special projects. Go to lunch with people from different departments. It is a great way to build your professional network.
  5. At times you may not get credit for your ideas and all your hard work, but do not get upset you are learning valuable lessons and will be a better manager in the future because of it.
  6. Stay positive all the time. People like being around positive creative people!

Kathy Doyle Thomas
Executive Vice President/Chief Strategy Officer
Half Price Books, Records, Magazines
Dallas, Texas

That everything comes from everywhere. I spent years working in a local produce department and left in awe at how interconnected our world is. There's a story behind every receipt, every bite, every purchase we make. It's up to us to learn about these stories and be conscientious consumers.

Cameron Conaway
Social Justice Editor at The Good Men Project

I started out as a busboy / "windowman" at Bob's Big Boy. I moved up to cook, then waiter.

I learned responsibility, dealing with people-both co-workers and "the public," so much!

Marc Kruskol
MJK Public Relations

I learned a lot from my first job (in advertising). I had 2 bosses. From one, I learned what to do and from the other I learned what NOT to do :-)

Carly Fauth
Head of Marketing
Money Crashers

I got my first job when I was 14 and I quickly learned that hard work really pays off. I remember being started at $4.25 an hour, and I figured since it's my first job that I would work my butt off. I remember a co-worker who had started about 6 months before me and was making the same amount of money, however after working there for 3 weeks, I got a big bump in pay, all the way to $6.00 an hour.

In the end, the most valuable lesson I learned was to work hard, no matter how hard or less other people around you are working.

Kevin Raposo

To take the time to evaluate whether a position you are offered is a staff job, with little to no growth or a career with limitless opportunities for promotion.

Lynn Gilliard
Writer and author of Let Him Chase YOU (

Most Important Lessons I Learned From My First Job
  • Your first job is a stepping stone and doesn't have to define your career
  • Hard work can pay off if you learn how to talk about the work you have done without sounding like you are bragging
  • Learn how to network
  • Learned a lot about what I was willing to put up with in regard to treatment by colleagues and direct supervisors
Jewells Chambers

My first "paycheck" job was at a candy factory at minimum wage. The most important lesson I learned from that job was that a good-paying job that pays cash money, even if it's intermittent, can be better than a "steady" job that is low-paying and files with the IRS. :)

Aaron Turpen

3 Lessons I learned from my first job:
  • Always be honest and open with customers, you never know who they know and if they may hold an opportunity for you.
  • If you are consistently unhappy at your job, do not continue. Life is too short and there are many opportunities.
  • Don't spend your money before the check is cashed. My first job my boss bounced a large check to me...thank god I didn't have any auto-withdrawals set up yet.

David Pride
Chief Relationships Officer
Social Impressions

My first job was as a Marine, 1964 to 1968, including Vietnam. I've had a very successful career since, earning three college degrees, publishing 11 books, serving ten years as a Massachusetts State Senator (my first job after college, during which I earned an MEd in history and served another 6 years in the Marine Reserves) and since 1982, as a very successful association executive, a profession I'm now retiring from at 67 due to pulmonary fibrosis. I owe all my success to the things the Marine Corps taught me: Self Discipline. Set the example. Look out for the welfare of your subordinates. Focus on the mission. Do what needs to be done now and get it done.

Robert A. Hall
Madison, WI

I worked at McDonald's in high school. And this job has helped me quite well in my corporate career -- from the rank and file to the management meeting rook.

McDonald's taught me team work in a business, as opposed to athletic setting. I also learned a lot about the job realities of working in the United States while quite young. Like providing customers a positive experience no matter how stressed or tired you feel, and the positive value of standardized processes and check-lists to ensure that tedious tasks get completed. Plus, you learn to have fun on the job.

These are all work experiences that I still embrace.

Leo Walsh
Author of the science fiction novel "even snow melts"

My first job was as a Brand Assistant at Procter & Gamble and what I recall the most is how I didn't know how much I didn't know. Key things I've learned that have been critical to my long-term professional success were:
  • C projects make you feel good, but A projects get you promoted.
  • Don't sweat the last 20%. Nailing down all the details can hurt you. Better to focus on the big picture parts of the job and avoid wasting time on dotting every I and crossing every t.
  • If management hears something often enough, they start believing it. This includes being promoted. Starting the rumor can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
  • You never get it all done. Accepting that there is always more to do and walking away is critical to your well-being and ability to perform.
  • If you don't know something, say so. It can actually buy you credibility.
  • Before every interaction, wear the shoes of the other person. Consider their perspective before you start talking.

AnnMarie McIlwain
Founder and CEO

I worked at a Friendly's as a first job in high school. Working at a Friendly's I had to learn to do many things. Cooking, washing dishes, waiting on people. Most important the customer came first and that w/o customers there are no revenues.

Michael Argiro
4T Financial
Wallingford, CT

The best things I learned from my first job were:
  1. Difficult people are everywhere. Knowing how to navigate them and remain effective in your job is a constant challenge and a skill worth refining.
  2. Leaders aren't defined by hierarchy or rank. You can find them at all levels of the organization.
  3. When you know your craft, you can be effective and when you are effective you don't have to worry about politics, bureaucracy or any other inefficient principles.
Janine N. Truitt
Chief Innovations Officer
Talent Think Innovations, LLC

This is a very important lesson and supports seeking to achieve the highest educational level.

When I came out of high school I wanted to work in a ministry of the government and I wanted to work away from having to go down town to work every day. So I asked one of my friends with influence to help me get a job with a ministry of the government that was in a very upscale area, away from the maddening crowd. I got the job of any teenager's dreams. I was 18 years and I was responsible for preparing the files the minister, think senator, would address in cabinet that week. This means that I would be in contact with the secretary to the minister mostly. One day when I brought her the files, she said that the minister wanted to see me in his office. I walked into his office for the first time. It was a huge conference type room with a table taking up most of the room. I walked into the room and he got up and came very close to me, near his table and said that he was impressed with my efficiency and he would like to know me better. While I was wondering why, he put his arm around me and I instantly understood what he meant. I struggled out of his arms and went back to my office in a quandary. I told one of my friends and she said this happens all the time - welcome to sexual harassment.

In two week I became ill. My doctors said that I was suffering from acute anxiety and give me some pills to take on a daily basis. Since I had no intentions of taking medicine, because I knew why I was anxious, I decide to quit my job and go to college. The moment I made that decision, I applied for a scholarship that was given by my church to Honor graduates and the rest is history. I ended up with 2 degrees in biology and a wonderful job as a research associate in one of the world's most prestigious cancer research hospitals. I worked for scientists doing cancer research. They were noble and respectful of all their employees.

The lesson I learned - don't let circumstances overwhelm you. Being overwhelmed leads to illness and robs you of the joy of finding out how far you can go. There are noble people as well as jerks in most life circumstances, so trust that you have the personal power to rise above the grime.

This is why I am a wellness coach to-day. I feel that everyone has circumstances that can be detrimental to health and wellness and all they need is the strength, the stamina, the knowledge and guidance to rise above it and be well and successful.

Celia Westberry is a wellness coach and the award winning author of Eat Yourself Younger Effortlessly - the easy way to slow aging feel great and look good

My first job was as a concessionist at a small town movie theater. While there, I learned to count change, which was a struggle at first but which is a skill for which I am eternally grateful.

I also learned how to engage with face to face customers. A smile goes a long way, even under duress.

I wish I'd learned to tie a tie - I had to wear one to work every night but I just never untied mine except for washing!

Crystal Wiebe
Beer Paws

My first job was selling balloons over the weekends at a 6 week long Pumpkin Festival when I was 12.

At the start of the day I was given 50 balloons and my job was selling them for 75 cents a piece. I received 25 cents from every balloon sold.

This was an all cash business so I learned how to add and make change very quickly. As a child selling a product to parents for their children I learned a great deal about what motivates people to buy and what I could do to influence their purchase.

Although I learned a great many things with that first summer job, the two main keys that I walked away with was:

  1. If there was something that I wanted in life, then I just had to be clever enough to figure out how to get it.
  2. Also, sometimes you need to receive an awful lot of no's before you receive your Yes!

Knowing that I could persevere helped me start or buy 5 businesses and understanding the law of averages helped me to be successful time and time again.

Jennifer Martin
Zest Business Consultant & Certified EMyth Business Coach
Zest Business Consulting

Coming at this from the other perspective, after 20+ years on Wall Street, leading some major teams and sizable deals, this is an excerpt from an email I sent to a friend's daughter on her first job.

I think it's always tricky for women starting out on -- especially in NYC -- so here is my usual list of do's and don'ts I have given out over the years

  1. Show up "Sober, Dressed, and Ready to Work" -- Figure out what time the rest of the team gets in, especially your boss, and be in at least 15 minutes before them. Be fully ready to work. Do NOT come in with drinks in hand, hair wet or otherwise indicating that you did or were anywhere other than at your desk all night. There is nothing more annoying than the summer intern that comes strolling in AT the start time, dumps their bag on their desk, with breakfast, hair sopping wet, and proceeds to be ready to start the day. If you are there early, read the WSJ and any relevant materials they have in the office, or trade magazines. Clean your desk- etc.
  2. Be Dressed down to your Toes: NO open toed shoes NO flip flops (EVER) and bare legs are really dependent on the office. Watch what the senior most woman wears. Flip flops are for the beach or the gym showers. They are disgusting to commute in and mark you as either office help or some young kid. There are cute flats out there so commute in those or get some funky walking sneakers. I don't care if everyone else in the office is wearing fluffy Jimmy Choo open toed sandals. They are designed to make you look sexy and you want to look smart. At your age, the two don't mix in men's minds. Oh, and I never want to see your underwear, or your tummy. (You would not believe the number of times I got asked as a senior managing director at Goldman Sachs to talk to the new summer or analyst girls about the fact that the men on the team found their thongs distracting).
  3. Be Prepared. It will take you longer than you expect to get work done. Never go anywhere without a pad of paper and a good pen. I guess I don't have to tell you not to take a frilly one but I have had it happen. I have also had analysts walk into meetings and just sit there and listen. Your job is to take notes. At the end, you will then have a list of topics discussed and can try to identify projects that relate to you directly OR, better, one off things that you can volunteer to help out on.
  4. Be Precise. Appearances matter -- spell check, do a proof of any PowerPoint you hand in -- are the fonts consistent on every page, does each header, start line, page number add up so that if I flip the book, I won't see movement (extra lines etc.). Can you read everything -- sometimes you can read it on screen but not on paper). Ask how many copies are needed, what binding etc.
  5. Be Proactive but ask for permission. If you are filing papers for your team and think there might be a good idea or better way -- like an index of files -- offer to do it. Working late to do something like this can set you apart. On the other hand, don't take the initiative to reorganize something that everyone likes. We had a summer intern once that decided to reorganize an entire online shared library system for my team into alphabetical order one weekend. Great initiative but we had specifically grouped presentations by topic and client. She also deleted all the "duplicates" so we had to get the archives rebuilt so we could figure out what version of a "basic pitchbook 101" we had used for the Smith family presentation! It was a nightmare!
  6. Smile but don't snivel. You are young and new to the sales force. you will make mistakes and your managers will have forgotten how much work it can take to train someone. If you are overly emotive, they may decide you are more work than use.
  7. Don't drink at work. These are business contacts. They are not friends. They may have social times but get a soda, or a glass of wine, add soda water and nurse it all night. Many an intern has lost a job because they got drunk. And if you do go out with the office, be focused on #1 and #2 above. You must show up the next morning on time, or early and be bright, chipper and perky. You haven't earned the right to roll in late with your hair up on a pony because you were too tired or hung over to get up to wash it!

I read this and think I sound like such a curmudgeon. Things have changed so much since I started out 25 years ago (I bet most women starting out today don't even own a slip or a camisole for under your heavy suits and silk blouses!). That said, it's still awfully hard on women and certainly a double standard remains in place. Men your age will be judged on how well they get along. You are pretty first and foremost. With luck, they will think of that as a secondary or tertiary characteristic within a few days.

Holly Isdale

  • That people will be unhappy but it's still my job to have a positive outlook and not take things personally.
  • My urgency is not someone else's and to come up with a way to help the other person understand my urgency.
  • Timing is everything.

Sheevaun Moran
Energetic Solutions
Huntington Beach, CA

The most important lesson I learned from my first job was how to speak in a way that your audience understands. My vice presidents and directors solve problems (and require abstraction of the problem) at a much higher level than my IT co-workers who are actually fixing the root cause.

This lesson has helped me not just in my career, but also in life. Learning it early on has helped me in crafting emails, speaking on the phone, and speaking at multiple conferences. For speaking in particular, I always tailor the presentation. By keeping my audience in mind - and tailoring my message - I've always had a great response and been invited back.

Sid Savara

I was working as a virtual assistant in San Diego and was asked to move to Maine to help start a marketing company. I uprooted my entire life, which I was very excited about doing, as my family happened to live there, and the company wanted to leverage my connections. It was an honor to be asked, and I was to be very well taken care of with a car to drive and a condo to live in.

After a year of living there, the company still hadn't taken off. The founder and funder seemed to have a million other distractions - another job which he eventually got fired from, multiple lawsuits, and family issues.

The most logical next move to him was renting an oversized office with an ocean view in downtown Portland, buying all new furniture, and installing multiple landlines. I guess he thought they would magically start ringing once we got there.

But the company still didn't have an identity, and for the longest time didn't even have a name. The company spent $30k on branding alone, only to come back to the name and overly masculine and aggressive look that the owner initially had in mind.

Then, as if we weren't in the red enough, he began hiring employees to help build this unknown business. They settled on a social monitoring company, once they hired an employee who was great at pitching this flavor of Kool-Aid.

As the number of employees increased, my role as affiliate manager turned into business development, due to us not having a product or service for affiliates to promote (we were still waiting for the CEO's high school buddy to reinvent the wheel to build a CRM from scratch).

Then I went on vacation, and when I came back my role had gone from biz dev to administrative assistant, or I guess imaginary party planning for the nonexistent launch of the business. There was suddenly a lot of data entry and online research, which I'd outsource overseas for $2/hour and take the day off. I suddenly began experiencing sexual harassment for the first time at the office, and was made to feel extremely undervalued and not at all needed.

But it wasn't only me that felt this way. The other women in the office complained that there seemed to be a "boys club" that held secret meetings behind closed doors, and the men would get taken to lunches and coffee. It was the worst company culture I'd ever been a part of.

By the time I left, there were 12 employees and a grand total of $40k in revenue which was a result of my own efforts. By that time our owner thought it would be a good idea to rent the office next door and knock out the wall between the two.

We also had a lot of plants and a "plant lady" to take care of them. But she was let go when the CEO decided she was a spy. I'm not sure if that was before or after he installed video cameras in the office because he was sure that there was another spy among his employees.

I quickly moved back to California, and have since received updates, as the company had hit a wall and had to begin firing everyone. To my knowledge, there are no more than 2 employees left, and a great amount of debt.

I'm fortunate to have launched my own swimwear line, and having learned enough about business, marketing, monetization, and the fashion industry, I also do a good amount of consulting in these areas.

More than ever, I can truly appreciate a lean business model, as well as the importance of aiming before shooting. What's more, I've racked up a lot of take-aways in the "what not to do" department, from spending money on things that don't add value, to how to treat employees.

That company was one that was started out of revenge, and if your intent isn't good then your business never will be. Yet I wouldn't take back the time I spent living there, near my family and I'm grateful that this is part of my story that I can look back to laugh at and learn from.

Joanna Kinsman
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