9 Things I Wish My Guidance Counselor Told Me Before My First Job

Career Guidance After Graduation

My career guidance counselor at college did nothing for me.

I remember meeting her twice in my entire time at the “prestigious” undergraduate university I attended. Once at the beginning and once at the end. All she did was stamp some papers and told me I could graduate.

There was no career guidance before graduation, so I shouldn’t have been surprised when there was no career guidance after graduation either.

So I had to learn for myself what the working life was all about.

After a disastrous run in my first entry-level job, here are the 9 things I wish my guidance counselor had told me about working in Corporate America:

1. “Work on high visibility projects or you won’t get any of the credit.”

You’re going to do plenty of work that nobody sees or appreciates, especially as an entry-level employee. It’s a trap. Dominic Connor at The Register says the trick is to display “continuous visible productivity” by getting on highly visible projects ASAP:

No one really cares if you’ve made the backup process run 50 per cent faster unless it’s stopping work, so don’t waste your time on this until some politically powerful person or business unit asks.

Many times the highly visible work isn’t particularly helpful to the company. Plenty of projects in the Fortune 500-verse are just for show. But the appearance of importance is everything.

In the Cover Your Ass culture of big companies, you can always shift the blame later if a project you’re working on goes to the toilet.

2. “Ignore anyone who says you need to pay your dues first.”

Inevitably you will run into a “lifer” at the company who insists that you must pay your dues before you can get on the better projects or interact with the executives.

Bullshit.

This is usually code for “don’t steal my thunder, kid.”

Sometimes though, the person giving this advice is genuine. The lifer you’re talking to might have paid their dues for twenty years before getting to where they are today. They expect you to do the same.

That’s nice. But in today’s vastly different environment, keeping your head down and plugging through busywork is not going to get you anywhere except the unemployment queue.

There’s a phrase we use for this outdated mentality: climbing the corporate ladder. People set out ladders for you to climb one rung at a time, because it tricks you into thinking you’re making progress.

Truly successful people make their own ladders or take the elevator.

Want proof? Dig into the story of the founder or founders of your company. Chances are they didn’t climb somebody else’s ladder for twenty or thirty years before setting out to do what they wanted.

Remember that all advice is anecdotal. Use your judgment.

3. “Commuting to work is going to kill you.”

Even if battling road rage, moronic drivers, and hazardous weather conditions doesn’t kill you, sitting for an hour a day in your car until your spinal column irreversibly fuses will do it for sure. Your risk of a heart attack triples with a 30 minute or longer commute.

If I was giving a new grad advice, I’d say live no further than a 15 minute drive from your work. Better yet, walk or bike to work.

4. “Sitting at your desk all day is also going to kill you.”

Sitting 8 hours a day in a poorly-lit cubicle also isn’t doing you any health favors. Sitting leads to obesity, diabetes, and even more heart attacks. Sitting is the new smoking.

If you can switch to a standing desk, I would do it pronto. But assuming you can’t, getting up and walking once every 30 minutes is helpful. Whether it’s to the bathroom, to get coffee, or to flirt with the office hottie, all that “procrastinating” you do can actually save your life.

Just don’t let the CEO catch you chatting up the executive admin.

5. “Your time is the company’s to waste.”

The Paradox of Intelligence states that the more valuable your brainpower is, the more likely you are to be renting it to other people.

All those impressive credentials and achievements you’ve racked up will now be put to use deciding which color tabs make most sense for your Excel spreadsheets. Or condensing 30 page reports into a one page “For Dummies” version that the higher-ups won’t read anyway.

You could be out changing the world. Instead you’re mastering the art of alt+tabbing away from your fantasy football league’s homepage before your boss can see. Congratulations, welcome to adulthood!

6. “Your soft skills are way more important than your GPA.”

In school, they teach you that GPA is everything. You’re ranked based on it. You’re granted or denied access to classes and resources based on it. You’re told you are smart and capable of changing the world if you have one that’s high enough.

Not in the corporate world. In the corporate world, you can be a complete chowderhead and still move up the ranks, so long as your “soft skills” outweigh the deficiencies in your mental powers.

Corporate America disproportionately rewards schmoozing, small talk, and faking interest in other people’s kids.

When in doubt, remember that it’s better to be liked than good.

7. “Your manager is judging you by how many hours you work, not your effectiveness.”

I didn’t understand this at first. The 9 to 5 myth is so pervasive that I made the mistake of thinking 40 hours a week of soul-crushing, energy-draining, and mind-numbing drudgery was enough to justify my biweekly hits of paycheck.

Not so.

After only a month or so at my first entry-level job, I was taken aside by my manager and told that the expectation at the company was that employees at my level would work 50 or 55 hour weeks.

Never mind that, unlike hourly workers, we weren’t compensated for working extra time.

Never mind that I wasn’t any more effective working those long hours (you aren’t either, despite what you might believe).

Most policies at these types of companies are based on outdated theories of management and holdovers from our days as an agricultural economy like the Morning Person Bias.

Don’t bother pointing out the research or the studies, because your rigid, bureaucratic company probably can’t handle things like new evidence or data.

8. “Vacation days are just for show.”

Career Guidance Counselor

Shhh.. don’t talk about vacation days.

Want a sure sign of a dysfunctional work culture? In the United States, it’s very common for employees to forfeit vacation days.

That’s right, even though Americans get the least amount of paid vacation days in the developed world, they still feel enormous pressure not to use the measly few days they have to take time off. A CNNMoney report details the statistics:

About 57% of working Americans had unused vacation time at the end of 2011, and most of them left an average of 11 days on the table – or nearly 70 percent of their allotted time off, according to a study performed by Harris Interactive for JetBlue.

There are sound reasons for your business to let you take time off, but most salary slaves have convinced themselves that their job depends on them sacrificing vacation days, sick days, and personal days to the payroll gods.

I saw this firsthand at my old job. Even though I told everyone before taking the job (even at the interview) that I had to take a few days off within the “probationary period” (the first month or so in the U.S.), I still met resistance when I went to do it.

Yes, the company resisted me taking unpaid time off.

My American readers are shrugging because they are familiar with this kind of treatment from HR departments.

My international readers are shaking their heads in disbelief.

9. “No moonlighting, sidelighting, or having a livelihood outside of the company.”

Forget a second stream of income. When you sign on the dotted line and submit to salary slavery, your employer owns you.

When a big company talks about loyalty, they mean your loyalty to them, not their loyalty to you. If it helps the bottom line or boosts the stock price for shareholders, they would lay off your entire department in a flash. This is the essence of the Asymmetric Loyalty problem.

You should also expect to sign onerous non-compete clauses that make it impossible to work in your industry for 6 months to 2 years after you leave. That’s right, for the privilege of cutting you a paycheck, they get to dictate the course of your career even after you’ve left.

Ready for Entry-Level Hell Yet?

If my dream guidance counselor had told me all that before I started my first corporate job, I might have found the path to entrepreneurship much sooner.

The truth is your guidance counselor’s job is to make sure you get a job. Any job. In order to boost the school’s employment numbers for college rankings, without regard to whether you’ll be happy nine months later.

That’s why career guidance after graduation is pitiful in the United States.

You’re no longer the school’s responsibility after a certain number of months have gone by. Chances are, you’ll only hear from them again when they’re hitting you up for donations!

You have to look out for yourself, which is why autonomy is such a large component of living the agile life. Too many people have been misrepresenting their interests to you over the course of your life.

Time to tune them out and start thinking for yourself.

♦♦♦

If you liked this story and have something to say about it, you can use the contact form to message me directly with questions, comments, or ideas for posts or guest posts. Look forward to hearing from you!

Top image by Tim Patterson. Caption image by stevendepolo.

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