12 People Share the Most Valuable Lessons From Their First Jobs

These stories will remind you how valuable your first job was, too.

No matter how many times you’ve changed jobs or switched career fields, the lessons you learned from your first job have likely stayed with you. And whether you loved your first professional experience or spent the majority of time wishing for Friday, those lessons have shaped you into the manager, colleague, or entrepreneur you are today. 

We asked members of the Thrive community to share the most valuable lessons they gained from their first jobs, and how they used their experiences as opportunities for growth.

Give credit where credit is due

“I learned the importance of saying thank you. My boss at one of my very first jobs was incredible at building others up, giving credit where credit was due, and thanking each employee individually for their efforts — not just in mass group appreciation. This practice made me feel valued and want to work that much harder. Now, in a manager type role myself, I make it a priority to always individually thank my team members for their hard work. Employees will always give more when they feel respected and appreciated — I know I will!” 

—Stephanie Purcell, entertainment producer, Los Angeles, CA 

Finish tasks as they come  

“I was a teenage dishwasher. Our boss’s yelling motto was, ‘Handle everything once!’ I’ve applied that in life. Why stop at putting the dishes in the sink when my hands are still on them? Go the distance and put them in the dishwasher. Why pick up this paper and move it to the other side of the desk when I can respond now and file it?  Why put a pin in something when I can decide to act on it now or never? This is proficiency in motion.”

—Roselle Shallah, educator and social worker, Bozeman, MT 

Don’t rely on external validation

“The most important lesson I learned in my first job was to ensure my sense of self-worth comes from within. I remember asking for a raise at 15, and not getting it. The rejection furthered my dedication to doing my best whether I was in that role or another, and whether going ‘above and beyond’ was acknowledged and celebrated or not. I realized that my motivator was the quality of my work and the feeling that it gave me, versus external recognition.”

—Stephanie Thoma, networking strategy coach, San Francisco, CA

Have your colleagues’ back, and don’t cut corners

“McDonald’s, when I was there, did a great job of fostering team spirit, a sense of healthy competition almost like a sports team. It rooted us all into the wider shared purpose, so no matter how many customers showed up, no matter how many buses of hungry people showed up unexpectedly, we had each other’s backs. We banded together to keep up with the demand — without taking any shortcuts. Anyone will want to cut corners when they’re overwhelmed, but on the McDonald’s team you really felt that you wanted to get it right for the customers, because they notice everything — even the slightest oversights in the food preparation, or changes in calibration or ratios. For us, customer satisfaction was more important than the bottom line, because loyalty will drive profits in the long run. It’s all about the reputation. Also, when it comes to cooking, clean as you go!”

—Scott Stratton, MPH, health care executive, Orange, CT

Find the silver lining

“My first job taught me that being fired could be the best thing that ever happened to me. Whilst I felt shame at the time I also felt relief; I was rescued from an environment that didn’t suit me at all, and free to explore what would become my true passion!”

—Susie Ramroop, mindset coach, London, U.K.

Know the environments in which you thrive best 

“For my first job, I covered a territory that spanned 150 miles, which only allowed me to physically see my co-workers once every three months, and required me to attend virtual internal meetings. Although I loved building relationships with my clients face to face, I really struggled with the extreme independence in this role. I missed the community aspect that comes with a strong team culture and shared mission statement. So, what I learned from that experience is that environment is everything for me. Most humans thrive in a habitat that allows them to connect, grow, and bond with others, so this is now one of my biggest motivators in the workplace and serves as a non-negotiable.”

—Melissa Muncy, content marketing, San Francisco, CA

Realize every job requires work you might hate

“My first job was working for my dad in Alaska. I lived with him during the summers and worked for his business as a teen to save money for college. The biggest lesson I learned is that every job has required work that you might hate. I hated doing inventory with a red-hot passion, but my dad explained he hated it too, yet it was necessary. He said every job has tedious parts to it, but even those parts — when done well — could forward a business’s success. Tolerating the once-in-a-while loathsome task has kept me moving forward in all my goals, whether work or play.”

—Bridget Fonger, author,Los Angeles, CA

See every door as an opportunity 

“With parents who started their own business, my first job was as a kid, taking on odd jobs to assist them. Proceeding any concept of social media, emails or the internet, our marketing efforts consisted of sliding advertorial flyers under doors. Our beat included a few high-rise university student housing units with stuffy hallways and lots of stairs. We raced through these halls as fast as we could and the work felt long. What stands out is that we didn’t quit until every last flyer was delivered. A missed door was a missed opportunity to assist our growth. I learned not to wish away doors or distractions. And I learned to see them for what they are: The necessary steps to reach your objective.”

—Jen Hill, writer and editor, Salt Lake City, UT

Don’t just hear people, listen

“The greatest wisdom I gained from my first job was to listen. I learned how to not just hear people, but how to actively listen. It’s exhausting, but I’m more effective because I learned it. Remember: When you rearrange the letters in the word ‘listen’ you get ‘silent.’” 

—John Harrell, entrepreneur, author, and inspirational speaker, Austin, TX  

Put people before profit 

“At my first job straight out of college, I was a consultant in a large national corporation. I was thrilled to have the opportunity to work with a large group of colleagues and have an established bank of clients from day one, but I soon realized that bureaucratic inefficiencies and the goals of the organization at large did not mesh with my personal values. I learned that when individuals and organizations put profit margins before people, everyone loses. I changed jobs within 11 months of starting, and I have never regretted moving on.  

—Kristin Heck Sajadi, social awareness entrepreneur and adjunct sociology faculty member, Lexington, KY

Don’t take rejection personally 

“My first paying job was telemarketing — calling businesses and homes located in Los Angeles from the Yellow Pages and offering them a subscription to The New York Times. There were many hang-ups and also many enjoyable conversations. I learned not to take rejection or complaints personally and to never give up. If one person is not interested, find them!”

—Laleh Hancock, business wellness consultant, Washington, D.C.

Be transparent, for your sake and your company’s 

“Hiding under a rock to avoid the challenges within your business or organization will only turn them into disasters and create a negative, unhappy workplace culture. Learning how not to lead taught me the importance of creating a transparent, honest, and positive culture for my staff and clients. A happy and healthy workplace equals happy and healthy people!” 

—Carrie McEachran, Executive Director, Sarnia, Ontario, Canada 

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Stay up to date or catch-up on all our podcasts with Arianna Huffington here.— Published on July 17, 2019

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