I’ve (by chance) had quite a few conversations recently about how important it is to make good decisions early on in your career. It’s interesting because I think there is a school of thought to suggest that you can afford to take risks early on in your career, try things out that might not work etc. You hear this a lot – “I spent the first few years of my career trying to figure out what I wanted to do” “just get any job and you can figure out what you want to do long term while you’re working”. Both of these things are true and there is some good sense in approaching the beginning of your professional life with a sense of freedom. However I think there is a much better way of thinking about it – and it’s pretty straightforward.
Before I give you the “secret formula” let’s just play a situation through. The situation is that you leave University, you’re not sure what you want to do, you know you want to make some money and be independent so you decide to get a job. You’re not that bothered what it is you just want to be doing something that will pay you enough money to live and have fun at weekends, let’s say you get a job in the local café. You work 5 days a week 9-5 and you earn enough to pay rent, have fun at weekends and eat (relatively) well. That’s great, and actually just the fact that you’re working at all is great and will be interesting enough to keep you entertained for a while. But what do you do next? I would argue that the next job you get will be an entry level or ‘graduate’ level position. Why? Well what knowledge have you gained that will mean you can get a higher value job next? You could get a more senior job at another (or the same) café probably, because you have experience working in a café.
Starting to see where I’m going? Ok, let’s break this down.
Let’s try to imagine that broadly there are a three “factors” to consider when you’re choosing your first career move. ‘Money’ is one, ‘fun’ is certainly another and ‘knowledge’ is the other. So let’s say that these are the three big factors to consider. Now, at certain points in your life different factors will be more or less important to you, the key is to try and make sure that you give these factors the right level of gravitas at the right point in your career.
At the early stages of your career the number one factor to consider absolutely has to be ‘knowledge’. It just has to be. Actually money (in most cases) probably isn’t the most important thing, sure you need to earn it, but it shouldn’t be the most important factor. When you’re older and under financial pressure to pay a mortgage or support a family or whatever then maybe you prioritize money but in your first job, ever…?
Think about what you’re going to be learning. Think about what you’ll be learning practically, ie what actual skills. Think about who you’re going to be learning it from. Think about what sector/industry you’re going to learn about. Think about what value this knowledge has to other people.
It’s not easy when you start out, and you may well think “I’ll decide what I really want to do once I’m earning some money” which is totally valid, but `all the time you’re making that decision you’re learning about something you might not necessarily want to work in long term, which means that the value of what you’re learning just isn’t as high as it should be.
So where does that leave us, we’ve got three boxes, how much weight are we putting in each?
I would argue that for the first 3-5 years of your career you should be focussed on learning and probably fun too, so when you’re choosing a first job make sure that these are the factors you consider and remember, just like in the café example you will be learning in every job, but you need to make sure that what you’re learning is useful for now and for the future.
The last thought I’ll leave you with is this; you don’t need to know what field you want to work in, you don’t need to know what sort of role you want to do, what you need to know is what skills/experience will be useful to you long term.
"What can I learn now that I will be glad I learnt in 20 years?" If you are presented with a job opportunity and you can honestly say “I know that I’ll be glad I learned what I think I’ll learn doing this job” then go and do it.
It is a really important decision because if you do a year or two years’ work in something then you won’t actually want to go back to square one after it, you’ll want to progress. So learning useful things that either apply generally to most things or apply specifically to what you want to be doing is the trick.
And be sure to have fun doing it too – you’ll learn a whole lot more if you are!
See you next wee