7 tips for getting off to a good start at your first job

We asked experts who work with young professionals about the best ways to set yourself up for success.

7 tips for getting off to a good start at your first job
[Photo: Julissa Capdevilla/Unsplash]

Taking the reins at your first job can seem daunting. How do you make a great first impression? How do figure out what to prioritize? And how can you avoid pitfalls that will take you off course?


Of course, the answers to those questions become clearer with experience, so we asked a range of experts who work with young professionals to share seven of the most important lessons they’ve learned.

Prepare in the right conditions

One thing to practice early in your career is performing in high-pressure situations, like a job interview or a big presentation in front of coworkers. You’ve probably been told how important it is to practice your answers or talking points beforehand. But how you do that can have a major impact on your success. Rather than just rehearsing to yourself, “practice under the conditions you’re going to perform under,” says Sian Beilock, PhD, cognitive scientist and president of Barnard College in New York City.

“Practice in front of other people, videotape yourself, practice in front of the mirror—anything that makes you self-conscious to the point that it mimics what’s going to happen in the real situation,” she says. Upping the pressure to mimic what you’ll be facing is an effective way to prevent choking during the actual event.

Be ruthless about priorities

Be sure you understand clearly what your new employer values, and focus your energy there instead of taking on “busy work” to try to impress or people please, says change management expert and sailor Lisa Dorenfest.

Throughout her career as a “corporate firefighter,” facilitating large-scale transformation programs, Dorenfest has been a mentor, encouraging people to avoid focusing on others’ requests just to be well-liked. Even if you’re doing great work, it will likely go unnoticed or be minimized if you’re working in areas that aren’t valued by the company, she says.


“When in doubt, ask for clarification,” says Dorenfest. “Asking for clarification actually probably became one of my strong suits. Asking what almost seemed obvious.” And, often, she found that others around her needed clarification, too, she adds. This is the best way to get insight about where you should focus your effort to position yourself for success.

Start building your financial safety net

Money can be tight when you’re starting out, but prioritizing your own long-term financial well-being is one of the best things you can do for yourself, says Elaine Sanders, EdD, cofounder of New York City-based Harlem Girls, Inc., which provides leadership, business, and self-esteem training and coaching to women and young people. “I moved out in my own and had a decent job at 23 years old but had no concept of investing and truly saving,” she says. She used her savings account for whims and thought investing was only for wealthy people. She didn’t realize the power of compounding and investing small amounts over time.

Good financial basics—maxing out your employer-sponsored retirement plan contributions, establishing an emergency fund of three to six months of expenses, and investing for the long-term—can help you overcome financial worries. More employers are offering financial benefits to employees, too, so explore whether you have employer-sponsored options to help you create a financial plan.

Improve your emotional intelligence

Understanding your job and industry is important, but never underestimate the value of understanding people, too, says Riley Adams, a tech industry CPA who writes about creating financial independence and a better life at The Young and the Invested. As he watched a colleague manage a cross-functional team and successfully analyze and deliver information about the impact of tax reform on the company, even though the team leader didn’t “have a strong handle on the finer details,” he realized the power of being able to understand, motivate, and lead people.

“I’ve come to find what’s more important is how you manage your emotions and others while working on teams and toward shared purposes,” he says. “Knowing how to handle difficult situations, phrase your responses, position your actions for the most benefit, and knowing how to disagree without being disagreeable are all valuable lessons I wish I had known at the start of my career.” Now, he works on developing those skills by taking seminars on emotional intelligence. He also recommends How to Win Friends & Influence People, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and the emotional intelligence book series by Harvard Business Review.


Build your support team

Navigating your career is easier when you have the right team around you. So, creating a strong network is essential. Build relationships with people who believe in you, Sanders says. You need people who can help you rally on bad days, and you need people who can help you make smart decisions.

“Find someone who’s doing what you want to do, says Sanders. “Often, those people will talk to you.” It can be scary to ask, but people are often inclined to help others, and the worst someone can say is “no,” so ask for advice and input. You may even find that the more experienced person becomes a mentor, she says.

Don’t let impostor syndrome derail you

Early in your career, it’s easy to let inexperience take a toll on your self-esteem. “Impostor syndrome”—the feeling that you’re not good enough or experienced enough to do the job—can be paralyzing. But Beilock says that almost everyone feels that way at some time or another, so you’re not alone. “People who feel like impostors worry a lot, they do well, and then they worry again,” she says. “Actually, lots of people who have it go on to be very successful, so just remember that.”

Think about what you do bring to the table, she says. Instead of focusing on the negative, think about your attributes. Perhaps you bring a younger perspective or new data analysis, or reasoning skills. “There’s a reason you’re there,” she says.

Be purposeful about building your life

Dorenfest began sailing when she was young and and later chartered sailboats with a childhood friend, who had breast cancer. After her own breast cancer treatment in 2012, she decided to take more time off from her successful corporate career to sail. “Don’t be afraid to ask for time out. I am a serial sabbatical taker. I was promoted after the first, successfully delivered the largest project of my career after the second, and am enjoying my third one right now,” she says.


During her second “sailbatacal,” she and her partner crossed the Pacific Ocean, sailing 11,000 nautical miles from Mujeres, Mexico, to Hawaii. She has traveled to 60 countries across 360° of longitude. Dorenfest is currently sailing in the Caribbean and plans to complete her first circumnavigation in the fall of 2019. A visual storyteller as well as a successful manager, she shares her experiences on her blog. While some might question whether it’s possible to balance a big career and months off to circumnavigate the globe, Dorenfest is a living example of using work to create a life you love.

About the author

Gwen Moran is a writer, editor, and creator of Bloom Anywhere, a website for people who want to move up or move on. She writes about business, leadership, money, and assorted other topics for leading publications and websites