10 Non-Negotiables for Your First Year Out of School

It’s not easy for recent college graduates these days.

You’re bright. You’re eager. You feel like you’ve served your time in the classroom and you’re ready to take on the working world of adulthood. As graduation approaches, 20-somethings celebrate job acceptances with friends and prepare for the next stage of life. You're thrilled to finally make it out into the workforce until you suddenly realize, “I have zero clue what I’m doing.”

The reality is, you’re not in the classroom anymore. There are no teachers to help you navigate through complex concepts or to check your work for accuracy. Suddenly it’s up to you to determine the direction you are headed in your life. And that’s no easy feat.

Unemployment rates remain high, and the companies who have openings are taking longer and longer to hire new employees. They’re hesitant to give jobs to “pesky Millennials” for fear of your “entitled, narcissistic, lazy” habits. And if that’s not enough, the problem gets worse for women, as the wage gap remains a reality and more than two thirds of Senior Executive and Manager roles are filled by men.

Despite all of these challenges, young 20-somethings entering the workforce should feel excited by what’s ahead, not fearful. According to Meg Jay, author of The Defining Decade: Why Your Twenties Matter, 80% of life's most defining moments happen by age 35, 70% of lifetime wage growth happens in the first 10 years of a career, and our personalities change more in our 20s than any other time.

This means that the things that you do and the things that you don't do at this point in your life are going to have an enormous effect on the rest of your years. So with this in mind, I’ve written a list of the ten absolutely non-negotiable things you must do in your first year in the workforce.

1) Reflect

First and foremost, you need to do some thinking. It sounds cliché but it’s true. You have to figure out who you are before you put yourself out there. So start by asking yourself – What do you stand for? What are you good or bad at? Who do you want to be? What do you want to be?

If you don’t have answers to these, you should probably find some. The way you approach each of these questions is key to laying the foundation of a road map you will follow for the rest of your life.

2) Set Your Timeline

With these answers in mind, begin to set a timeline. Set dates, specific or vague, for when you want to accomplish certain goals. This will keep you on track and prevent you from waiting too long to make a necessary life pivot.

Jenny Ming, Chief Executive of Charlotte Russe, says, "For a lot of women, myself included, sometimes we get to a point in life where we’re almost too comfortable in our position."

She goes on to explain that the job we’re doing sometimes becomes routine and we become ready for a new challenge, but our focus on being liked, respected, and successful in our role makes us all too willing to patiently stay put. Often times these and many other reasons blind you from knowing if you’re ready to take that next step, so having a timeline to refer to will help remind and motivate you to take action.

3) Find Your Voice

But it’s not enough to set a timeline. You have to make people aware of your intentions. Don’t assume others know what you’re thinking or what you want in your career. You have to speak up.

"[I] love to see someone at a lower or a midlevel position walk into a meeting and know what their role is and have a point of view. Don’t sit quietly and think about things and maybe whisper to somebody or tell people afterward. Put yourself out there, and get involved in the conversation" - Sharon Napier, Partners + Napier

Part of finding your voice is finding strength in what you’re saying. Be confident in your ideas when they’re well received, and don’t apologize when they’re not.

You’ve all heard it. You’ve all said it. “Sorry, but I kind of…” “I might be wrong but…” “Sorry for bothering you…”.

Saying “I’m sorry” as a knee-jerk reaction can completely cancel out a confident tone. Don’t say “sorry” as a filler word when you actually mean, “excuse me,” “pardon,” or some other word more appropriate for the situation.

Always think not only about the tone you use, but the words you choose to convey your message. It’s much easier to inspire confidence in others when you believe in yourself. As Eleanor Roosevelt said, “We gain strength, and courage, and confidence by each experience in which we really stop to look fear in the face... we must do that which we think we cannot.”

4) Adjust Your Body Language

Inspiring confidence is much more than what you say. It’s also how you look. And we don’t mean in a superficial way. Often times your body language is something where the smallest change can make a world of difference in the way you present yourself to the world.

Look around your office. Confident people tend to look like they use furniture wrong. They’ve got their limbs sprawled out over the sides of chairs, their legs resting up on a table, and so on. To put it simply, they look quite comfortable. This type of body language is considered “high power”.

Using “high power” body language is about more than just looking the part. Assuming high power positions with your body actually has a biological effect on your brain. Before a meeting, call or whatever, stand in a power pose for 2 minutes. Studies have shown that simply holding this pose can increase testosterone by 18%. It sounds crazy, but it works. Amy Cuddy addresses this in her incredible TED talk:

Many women are often conflicted with the thought of: if we don’t feel powerful, we can’t act powerful. The Harvard Business School study suggests that we can take control of our psychology by simply changing the way we use our body.

5) Work On Relationships

You’ve heard it before and I’m telling you again. Relationships are an essential part of the professional landscape. It’s no coincidence that 46% of men and 39% of women find their jobs through networking.

Networking events create lasting relationships that can serve you well in the years to come.  A referral from a friend can hold much more weight than even your resume. So develop relationships with everyone that you can. Share the talents and skills you possess that might be useful to them, and determine how you can potentially benefit from their friendship in the future. Doing this will lead to future opportunities in advice, mentorship, and taking the next step in your career.

6) Keep Promises

If you say you’re going to do something, do it! When you’re striving to prove your worth at a new company, it’s easy to want to say yes to multiple commitments and people. Unfortunately, by doing this you run the risk of eventually letting something fall through the cracks (including your peace of mind).

While it may be clear to your supervisors that you’re doing a lot, nothing excuses making broken promises. As Vicki Lynn told Forbes, “You try to please everyone, and in the process you please no one.”

Before agreeing to extra projects or tasks, really consider what you’re capable of and what your goals are. If you struggle with saying “no”, begin to think of it as prioritizing your efforts. Don’t just take on every task given you - focus on saying “yes” to the things that will allow you to develop skills crucial to your career in the long term.

7) Disagree

Saying “no” isn’t just important for your wellbeing or long term skill development – it’s important for driving change in the workplace. Most people don’t enjoy conflict so they instinctively avoid it with coworkers at any cost. In fact, 85% of the American workforce is worried about raising conflict in the workplace because, among other things, they are set up to fail. That’s a really big number.

But I’m here to tell you, as Margaret Heffernan puts it in her TED Talk, that you should disagree with coworkers. You should question the process of your company. Good disagreement is central to progress. You should look for opportunities to create constructive conflict. This may involve seeking out people with different ways of thinking and engaging with them. It may require asking out loud why exactly a something is done a certain way.

Intentionally creating disagreement in the workplace will feel challenging at first. It will take a lot of energy and patience, and you’ll have to fight to change the way your brain automatically works. But constructive disagreement is worth it, because nothing extraordinary has come from willful blindness.

8) Think BIG

Often times it’s intimidating being the new person at the office. You feel an obligation to listen more than you speak.

At Nebo, what we find is that some of the biggest and best ideas come from our junior team members. A few weeks ago, one of those junior members came to us about a campaign that was going on with Uber and the Puppy Bowl. So we called Uber and they brought over a bunch of puppies! And through that, we were able to connect with local media, including television and radio, to spread the Nebo message and brand.

Never think that just because you’re new you don’t have a say. You all have the luxury of a fresh perspective – something that is difficult for veterans to have.

9) Embrace Failure

Failing is scary. It’s terrifying. It’s something we’ve been taught from a young age to avoid and something we even today look down on. And yet, everyone fails. It is a normal part of life and a necessary function of learning and growth.Some of the most successful people in the world have failed…some even more than once.

Ask almost any professional who you consider a role model, and chances are they’ve failed hundreds of times. This is because when you work hard enough, when you take risks and push your limits, you’re bound to discover the edges of your capability. Until you find these edges, you won’t know what areas you need to improve upon. Fear of rejection or failure can only limit your potential.

Surprisingly, a great place to face your fear of failing is on the job. Work with your employer to find a place where you have the ability to try new things and safely fail. Those can be the most valuable learning experiences you’ll ever have.

10) Celebrate Your Wins

In a new role, it’s common to question yourself. Many times we don’t give ourselves the credit that we deserve and resign ourselves to thinking that a situation came together due to luck or even by mistake. Rather than questioning these successes, however big or small, learn to enjoy them and recognize the accomplishments you’ve achieved. It’s much more likely that you got to where you are by doing a lot of things right.

Don’t downplay the role you’ve had in achieving your goals. Always remember to celebrate what you accomplish.

In Closing

Millennials are the future. Your potential is limitless, but it’s not easy. It takes patience, it takes grit, it takes the confidence to be willing to throw your hat in the ring and the humility to know when not to. Many of these non-negotiables will take practice.

But if you commit to them daily, and you work hard, I know you will do great things.


Written by Jenn Vickery on February 17, 2015


Add A Comment
Dave says:

Go out and do it on your own. You don't need us! Be brave, naive, innovative ... And have fun doing it!

Jvick 1 lpx2nyr
Written by
Jenn Vickery
Senior Vice President, Marketing