4 things no one tells you about the first 5 years of your career

There are several things no one tells you about the first 5 years of your career. After spending much of those years really confused (maybe how you’re feeling now) and constantly soul-searching, below are 4 things I wish someone had given me a heads up about when I was starting my career.

When we enter the working world for the first time, we show up with a lot of assumptions about (but little understanding of) how the corporate world works. Sometimes these expectations are met, but a lot of the time they aren’t – leaving us confused and wishing someone had told us what to really expect before we even started.

Well, as a former sales rep turned career coach, I’ve learned that there are several things no one tells you about the first 5 years of your career. After spending much of those years really confused (maybe how you’re feeling now) and constantly soul-searching, below are 4 things I wish someone had given me a heads up about when I was starting my career:

1. It’s okay to keep your personal and professional lives separate

When I graduated college, I thought I’d immediately become best friends with everyone I worked with. Shows like “The Office” made it seem that all office environments were like family – even if there were some quirky members. Not so much.


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When I found myself in my first corporate job, I thought I was weird for not immediately connecting with all of my colleagues. I just assumed that all of the entry-level people would become good friends and go out for drinks together all the time.

While this may be some people’s experience, it’s most often not the norm. Just like you don’t become best friends with everyone you meet in life – you’re not going to become best friends with every person you work with. And that’s okay.

Or you may fall into the camp where you like the people you work with, but prefer to keep most of the details of your personal life separate from work. That’s okay too! In fact, I’d argue that keeping some separation between your work life and your personal life is really healthy.

Yes, show up and be your authentic self at work, but you don’t have to fill your coworkers in on every single detail of your life or go out drinking with them if you don’t want to. You can build a great working relationship with your colleagues without fully integrating them into your personal life or fully integrating your personal life into work.

Now that I’m older, I actually see it as a blessing that I kept the two a bit more separate than I initially intended.

2. Everyone looks out for themselves – and you should too!

I learned this lesson the hard way several times. Loyalty is an extremely high value for me. It makes me a great friend and employee, but it also means that many times in my career, I was afraid to make a move or take a new job because of the loyalty I felt to my boss or company.

The truth is, in the end, everyone is looking out for themselves – the awesome boss you feel loyal to included.

As much as you may feel supported at work, ultimately you’re the only one who can truly, one hundred percent look out for you. So when making career decisions, you need to be the one keeping your own best interests in mind.

I don’t mean go be arrogant or self-absorbed about it. What I mean is follow the opportunities that are going to further your career and get you to your end goal, even if it means leaving a boss or company you feel loyal to. That said, do it respectfully and don’t burn bridges. Maintain those great work relationships you’ve built because you never know how or when people will come back into your life.

Sometimes following those opportunities is going to bump up against your sense of loyalty. When that happens, put yourself in the shoes of the person you feel loyal to. If the tables were turned, wouldn’t you want them to go after the best opportunity for their career, even if it meant leaving your team? Yes, you would.

So stop stressing about being disloyal when making those career decisions because the people who really matter (the ones you want to maintain a relationship with) will ultimately understand. Chances are they’d do the same thing if they were in your shoes too.

3. Figuring out what you don’t want is just as important as figuring out what you do want

I can’t tell you how many times I complained about how all I could seem to figure out was what I didn’t want to do with my life. Would I ever figure out what I did want to do? Now as a career coach, I hear the same statements from my clients all the time.

Most people don’t land their dream job right out of college, or even know what their dream job actually is for that matter.

But that’s what your 20s are for: getting experiences that help you hone in on what you will ultimately find fulfilling. Like any evaluation, the process of finding a fulfilling career involves a lot of figuring out what you don’t like.

Rather than being frustrated by this, look at the things you know you don’t like as awesome insights into what really matters to you. Each thing you cross of the list helps you to narrow down your options in a world where the number of career possibilities can feel so infinite that it’s often paralyzing.

Additionally, each thing you don’t like gives you insight into what you do like. For example, say your first job out of college is on a marketing team where you are doing a lot of data entry, putting out fires, working alone, and each day feels like it blends into the next – and you hate it. Well great! Now you know that you don’t like:

  • Working alone
  • Feeling like your work is reactionary
  • Repetitive work

AND if you flip that around, you have some insight into what might be more fulfilling for you:

  • Working collaboratively with a team
  • Forward-looking, strategy work
  • New tasks each day

So rather than beating yourself up for only having taken jobs you don’t like, think about the ways those jobs are actually clueing you in to what you do want in a job.

4. Look around, not just up

From a young age, many of us are taught that success as an adult looks like climbing straight up the corporate ladder. When we get our first job, we look at the people above us and assume we’ll move up into their roles at some point.

This may be the case for some people. But what happens when the ladder you’re on doesn’t feel right? Or when a different ladder looks more appealing? Or when we don’t like the feeling of being on a ladder at all?

For those of us who were taught to look straight up, this sort of realization can send us into a total panic. We falsely assume that because we chose a ladder, we’re now stuck on it and the only option is to keep trudging up – even if we hate it.

But the reality is that your career can go in many different directions. You don’t just have to look up. You can look around you too!

You’re not beholden to the ladder that you’re on nor are you beholden to actually climbing a ladder at all. In today’s world, there are many career options that look nothing like the options available to previous generations. And you have the power to choose one that makes you happy.

When you allow yourself to believe in your own autonomy and ability to make a change, you open yourself up to new opportunities that will allow you to do just that: make a change on your own terms.

That change might be up. But it could also be a zigzag, sideways, down, behind, etc. Be open to moving in different directions.

This article first appeared on Kununu.

Carolyn Birsky|is a Certified Life + Career Coach and Owner of Compass Maven, a business through which she helps women in their 20s + 30s gain the clarity and confidence they need to get unstuck and turn the lives and careers of their dreams into reality