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5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated

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NYC Time Capsule 1964It’s been five years since I started my first job back in the summer of 2003 and in that time I don’t believe I’ve ever written a “Things I Wish I Knew” post. In looking back, I was probably as green as they came in the corporate world. I had some internships while in college but never co-op’ed anywhere and certainly didn’t know how to truly live on your own (college is more like training wheels). Now, five years wiser, having gone through two jobs, I think there are at least five things I would tell myself five years ago.

Work Life Balance, Spend Save Balance

One of the big phrases of the decade seems to be “work life balance,” referring to how workers should be careful to balance the amount of time and energy they spend towards work with what they spend on their personal life. The funny thing about that term is that employers don’t mean the two should be equal, just that they need to be “more in balance.” It’s an important concept to understand as a student because the workplace differs from college in one important respect – there is no visible end. In school, it was a series of sprints. In the workplace, it’s a 40 year marathon.

The same is true with your money. Spending and saving should be in balance, you shouldn’t sacrifice one for the sake of the other for too long a period of time. When I started working, I didn’t save much. I spent a lot of my paycheck because it was so much more than I was used to. I was still finding good deals and making the most of my money, I just wasn’t saving much of it (more on this later). After the first few months, the pendulum swung back as I thought about what I wanted to do in the future (buy a house). For a period of a couple months, I only went out to the bars a few times, brownbagged my lunch in more often, and spent little. While it didn’t “hurt” persay, the lesson I wish I learned sooner was to be more balanced about it. Going ultra-frugal for a while, especially if there’s a goal, is fine. I can’t go ultra-frugal or ultra spendy and expect myself to last for the long haul.

Set Realistic & Stretch Goals

A few months into my first job, I attended an off-site with about fifty other young professionals that were hired within a year or two of me. When collectively asked about our future aspirations, about 80% said they wanted to be managers. I was one of them. I wanted to be a manager because I thought that was what came next. I would only learn later that I definitely didn’t want to be a manager, I would rather be a lead on a part of a program. Either way, it’s important to set goals for yourself because it gives you a direction to go in. You can set goals using the SMART model (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Timely) or any other method, but it’s crucial that you give yourself direction (in your professional and personal life).

It’s also important to set stretch goals to give yourself something to strive for. Those are the ones where “attainable” is a little hazier and timely may be a little farther. Just think about the guy in your office or workplace that always has those big dreams, dreams that you think are closer to pipe dreams than reality. Well, those should be your stretch goals. Being #1 is hard, but someone has to be #1 and that has more to do with attitude, dedication, and hard work than anything else.

Windfalls Are Infrequent, Save Them

When I graduated in 2003, my job offer at a defense contractor included a very nice “signing bonus”/”moving stipend” of several thousand dollars. Some of it went to actual moving expenses but the bulk of it went to some frivolous expenses. I was a college kid, feeling flush with money, in economically rosy times… I did the irresponsible thing and bought some junk! 🙂 One of the purchases was a paintball handgun, something I had always wanted when I was playing recreational paintball in college. It wasn’t too expensive but I’ve used it only a handful of times.

I wish I had told myself to use that windfall more intelligently. Windfalls, especially ones that don’t come with emotional anguish, are very infrequent in life and they offer an opportunity to save for the things that truly matter. Rather than spend it on a silly paintball gun, I should’ve put it away to get farther along in my house fund. While the choice to spend it didn’t derail any important plans, the opportunity to get a little ahead of the curve was, somewhat, squandered.

Take Advantage of All Opportunities

Another moving related benefit my first job offered was paid housing expenses had I stayed in a hotel while I sought an apartment or house, a maximum of thirty days. In addition to the room, they would pay for food as long as it wasn’t groceries (i.e. purchased from a restaurant). I didn’t take advantage because I was eager to get settled and get on with things. The only downside of taking that offer was that I’d have to live in a hotel for thirty days and I wouldn’t have access to most of my belongings.

Looking back, I should’ve taken advantage because it could’ve saved me an easy $600 in rent. $600 tax free for a little bit of headache? No brainer…

Building Relationships As Important As Performance

When I started working, there was this one guy who always seemed to be in the spotlight. I didn’t know how hard he worked or how strong of a performer he was, but he could kiss ass with the best of them. That’s when I learned that the workplace was different than school. In school, you took tests, you wrote papers, and you worked on projects – your grades were mostly the result of your performance. If you were buddy buddy with the professor, maybe he gave you some extra help or hints, but by and large it was performance driven.

In the workplace? It’s more “relationship based” and people who can brown nose and be “well-liked” can often shoot ahead. This is especially true in industries where the spread between a strong performer and a weak performer is very small. I’m not saying that you can be terrible at your job, kiss some butt, and expect to succeed… but…

Do you have any lessons I should tell myself once I build my time machine?

(Photo: wallyg)

{ 14 comments, please add your thoughts now! }

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14 Responses to “5 Things I Wish I Knew When I Graduated”

  1. Your list is rock solid.

    For me, I think a lot of them could fit within a broader realization: Your real education begins, not ends, with graduation. (Another way of expressing this is “Know what you know but it is more important to know what you don’t know.”)

    The overconfidence of youth can really bite you. It did me as it has many others.

  2. Gleiby says:

    Be deliberate in how I spent my time and money on social/leisure activities.

    In the first few years out of college I blew through a lot of money doing the usual…eating out, bar tabs, shows, etc. I could have modified (not necessarily cut out) my spending and pursued something cool like scuba diving (which I did later).

  3. Gates VP says:

    I’m going to heartily disagree with this one: Building Relationships As Important As Performance

    This is the sign of a common but dysfunctional workplace:
    In the workplace? It’s more “relationship based” and people who can brown nose and be “well-liked” can often shoot ahead.

    Ironically, it really goes back to your desire to be a manager. Managers (contrary to popular disbelief) are cost centers and not revenue generators. Good companies pay their all-stars and do everything to allow those all-stars to continue to perform.

    If your company is promoting the brown-nosers rather than paying the all-stars, your company is going to lose. If a company only offers the best pay to managers, then everyone wants to be a manager. If everyone is a manager, who the heck is going to do the work?

    Let’s flip it around. Now that you’ve seen brown-nosers get promoted and stars get passed up for raises, do you want to be a star? Probably not. Of course, the problem is, that great companies are made profitable by star employees (and better yet star teams). If your company doesn’t pay their stars, they will inevitably end up at a company that pays them more (and likely competes with you). Now your company has lost revenue generation, has a bunch of overpaid managers and they’re fighting increased competition from their best ex-employees.

    Honestly, if your company appears to be “relationship-based”, I would just get out. If you’re serious about maximizing your personal revenues you avoid these companies like the plague. I made the switch and doubled my personal revenue (from 38k to 75k in less than 18 months).

    Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that social skills are unimportant. Many a genius has been undone by their own lack of social skills. What I’m saying is that in the non-government world, the promotion of “brown-nosers” is the first sign of serious company (or at least departmental) sickness.

  4. Tim says:

    The biggest thing for me is to make informed decisions. I definitely had sufficient income when I was starting out to do everything that I did on debt. Much of my choices were misinformed and cost me heavily by going into debt. Some things you have to learn the hard way. Learn from your past, but don’t live in it.

  5. Gleiby says:

    Gates VP,

    The key to his statement is:

    “This is especially true in industries where the spread between a strong performer and a weak performer is very small.”

    Most of us would agree if performance were exactly the same, more opportunities would be available to the most likable person (I do not like the term “brown nose,” it connotates a disingenuous person, which is undesirable).

    I work in information technology and see almost daily people who have great technical skills, but the benefit is offset by a lack of “soft skills.” Sometimes someone with less technical skill but more “people smarts” is required to complete the mission.

  6. Miss M says:

    I wish I knew how to budget, save and invest when I first started working. I had been pretty poor up until that point so as soon as I had an income, I I felt free to waste money on stupid stuff. Since I spent the first 5 years out of college blowing money and running up credit cards, I had to spend the next 5 years digging out of debt. So now I’m 10 years out of school and finally have my financial life straightened out. I’d be so much farther ahead had I not made my early mistakes.

  7. jim says:

    GatesVP: You are totally right and I did leave that company. 🙂 The reality is that for a lot of large corporations, it’s difficult to separate yourself because there are simply too many people and too many tasks for decision makers to keep their eyes on. I left that first company and went to somewhere where, while also relationship based, was smaller and performance carried more weight than relationships. However, relationships still play a large role (both within your organization and with clients).

    @GatesVP, Gleiby: I used the term brown nose because, especially in the case that was in the forefront of my mind, that was exactly what it was. Kissing ass, telling a particular manage he was awesome when he was clearly put in that role so that he could do the least damage (why was he there? Nepotism, ask anyone and they’ll tell you that.). However, with that example as my guiding light, I may have overemphasized brownnosing.

  8. Eric N. says:

    Thanks Jim! As a college student now, I really appreciate the tips and getting ahead while I can.

  9. Gates VP says:

    Gleiby: I work in information technology and see almost daily people who have great technical skills, but the benefit is offset by a lack of “soft skills.” Sometimes someone with less technical skill but more “people smarts” is required to complete the mission.

    It’s funny b/c I too work in IT and find that IT has one of the largest divides between the stars and the non-stars. Joel Spolsky put this number somewhere in the 10x region in his book. As a person who’s done job interviews, I’ve met candidates who can do in an hour what other candidates can’t do in a week (all asking for the same salary).

    What you’re describing is a classic IT problem. But there’s a similar payout issue there. An all-star “soft skills” person will still bang out twice as many requirements in half the time (again, I’m speaking from experience). You still haven’t resolved the issue of who should be getting paid more.

    If your all-star programmers are making less than the “average” soft skills guys, they’re not going to hang around very long. The programmers will just be poached by other companies that can pay them more where “all-start” soft skills guys can keep the pipes filled with work.

    But let’s flip this around. If the divide between the best and worst is small, then yes the soft skills are very important. However, you also have a very different problem. If your job can’t be done any faster (or slower), it’s quite likely that your job has very low long-term security.

    Jobs with low efficiency factors quickly become “commodity” jobs. How do you ask for a good raise if you can’t generate any more money for the company? And if the company is giving you a raise how many times can this happen if they can’t make any more money off your time?

    Obviously, this whole concept breaks with government, where none of these free market concepts really apply. But I think the point is clear. The #1 investment held by basically everybody between 20 and 60 is their job. If your job cannot be done twice as fast then it’s just going to be outsourced to the lowest skilled bidder. If you’re living in North America, you’re not the lowest bidder (see call centres).

    So again, if you have a job where “soft skills” are more important than some revenue-driven metric, be very aware of your future. Either the company won’t be competitive b/c of lack of talent or the job will be shipped somewhere else b/c of lack of productivity gains. It’s really kind of a no-win.

  10. Greg says:


    At the risk of getting us kicked off the comments list for drifting off topic…

    What you point out is without a differentiator, jobs become a commodity. The IT sector is a great example. You can hire a support hack from India to do my hard skills for significantly less than what I am paid (and even less from China). However, what I can have (for right now) is the ability to translate geek speak to a language that CFOs, Sales Executive, and other “shirts” can understand so they make informed (meaning the right) decisions.

    Just so I am clear, these soft skills would be meaningless if could not tell the difference between a gigapixal and a kilobit. But compare me with someone who has better technical knowledge and know how, but can not communicate this to the decision makers (or in the case of a programmer, can not design a program for real world use), and the value added by soft skills becomes clear.

    I do agree that rewarding the brown nosers (meaning disingenuous, no character) is poison to the company. A big difference between paying a competent (not great) programmer well because he brings some other [soft] value to the organization versus a competent programmer who kisses up.

    Finally, I agree that the pay structure in most IT shops is broken. Traditionally, part of being boss means higher pay. Take a good tech with no soft skills, make them a manager, watch them fail. Unfortunately, they hit a ceiling and the only way to pay them more is make them management. This is a situation where someone who is less skilled technically, but posses soft skills could do well at potentially less pay then the stars and franchise players. The role becomes less of a “boss” and more one of facilitator and project manager. Oh well…when I run my own company…

  11. Michael says:

    Good advice Jim! I think the relationships aspect of work is extremely important. To me it’s more about picking your battles and not sweating the small stuff. If you get along well with your staff they will go to battle for you and everybody does better. It’s not so much about “brown nosing” but more about treating everyone in the workplace with the respect they deserve regardless of whether they make more or less money than you. If everybody in the workplace feels appreciated and is excited to come to work it just makes work a lot more fun. You spend 1/3-1/2 your life at work and nearly 1/3 of your life sleeping so I think it’s best to make your work life as pleasant as possible and that starts and ends with your relationships.

  12. Gates VP says:

    Greg: Unfortunately, they hit a ceiling and the only way to pay them more is make them management.

    And that’s the fallacy. Nobody would tell Lebron James that he could only play 20 minutes / game b/c they also needed him to coach. Yet IT companies happily do this all of the time 🙂

    Finally, I agree that the pay structure in most IT shops is broken…Oh well…when I run my own company…

    You and me both.
    (Fortunately, my boss just hired a “manager” who does indeed manage work items, but doesn’t cost significantly more than the developers. So these mythical managers do exist 🙂

  13. Ceessie says:

    The thing I found very usefull and only learned after working for a while.

    Take time to invest in yourself on the job. Always look for opertunities to learn new skills and knowledge (training, projects that are not directly related to your current job, software systems).

    Then if you really want to become that star this is what you need:
    1) A skill/knowledge that is rare.
    2) A skill/knowledge that is in demand.
    3) A skill/knowledge that is the future.

    For example, become the freaking EXPERT on that new software system, new legislation or a new product.

    You’ll make yourself very valuable for your company, hard to replace and thus in a good position to negotiate salary, trainings or careerpaths.

  14. rob says:

    I wish I knew that having a job means hard work and little free time. As a student I had plenty of time and no income. Now I have income but no time!

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