A first job is a terrifying affair, right up there with the PSLE. As you take your first tentative steps into the “real world”, you cluelessly grope your way through the first months of your career, praying you won’t screw up.
While experience will surely teach you a thing or two after a few years on the job, there are a few mistakes that will make your life a lot harder financially and career-wise should you fail to avoid them. Here are four big mistakes newbies tend to make on the job.
1. Getting too dependent on the cash flow
No matter how modest your starting pay is, making the leap from living on a student’s budget to receiving a full-time salary can be overwhelming, and many fresh grads make the mistake of increasing their spending too much and too fast once they clinch their first real jobs. The problem is that once you get used to upgrading your lifestyle whenever your income increases, you get trapped in a whirlwind of lifestyle inflation.
When lifestyle inflation occurs, you match increases in income with increases in spending. This keeps you on the hamster wheel, and you find yourself caught up in an exhausting race to earn more and more in order to support your frequent lifestyle upgrades. As a fresh grad, it is important to be aware of the dangers of lifestyle inflation, and to work to prevent it. Getting too dependent on your new salary could result in disaster should you lose your job or decide to leave—retrenchment in the banking and finance industry is not unusual, and new recruits with little experience are often the first to get cut.
Tip: Track your spending before you start work and continue to keep tabs on it when you begin your new job. Take note of areas in which your spending rises significantly—for instance, food expenses tend to rise if you’re forced to have lunch in the CBD. Identify the areas which are the result of voluntary lifestyle inflation, such as entertainment or shopping.
2. Not paying attention to relationships at the office
As students, most Singaporeans are taught to keep their heads down and hit the books. Work hard and you will prevail, they are told. But at the office, simply doing what you’re told isn’t going to cut it. Even if you’re good at what you do, you’ll soon learn that if you’re unable to foster positive relationships with your bosses and coworkers, your career progress is going to be compromised.
We’re not saying that you should shamelessly suck up to your boss. But do realise that avoiding office gossip, paying attention to the dynamics between the various people you work with and making it a priority to build good relationships with the people around you is crucial if you want to thrive in any organisation. Don’t turn down too many invitations to after-work functions or offers to have lunch together, or you’ll lose out on valuable opportunities to get to know your coworkers.
Tip: Make a mental note of every person you work with and take the initiative to strike up a conversation with each one of them. When you get to know your coworkers a little better, make the effort to organise lunch or post-work drinks from time to time.
3. Not asking for help when you need it
As a newbie, there will be lots of things you don’t know. Even if you were a whiz kid back at school, the workplace is a different story. Not only will have to master the skills needed to excel at your job, you’ll also have to grapple with things like the various systems in place at your organisation and even seemingly simple issues like how to use the photocopying machine. If you refuse to ask others for help and try to go it alone, you’ll find yourself facing a lot more frustration, and making a lot more mistakes that could hurt your reputation on the job.
Learn how to ask for help in a tactful way and you’ll find yourself performing a lot better, particularly in the early days of your career. When I started out in my first real job I was completely clueless and my boss didn’t want to be bothered with queries. So I turned to the secretaries for help, and found them to be a treasure trove of information, having been on the job for many years. Without their help I would have made some fatal mistakes.
Tip: Identify the areas in which you’re having difficulty and then approach someone who can help you. Don’t expect them to drop everything to assist you; instead, be sure to always ask when they’re free and if necessary offer to buy them lunch so you can discuss the issue outside working hours.
4. Getting complacent about your career
Fresh grads tend to think of clinching that first job as the biggest hurdle facing them upon graduation, but after securing a coveted position in a prestigious company offering a high starting pay, it’s easy to rest on your laurels and get complacent. Unfortunately, as you’ll soon see, your struggles at work have just begun. Working life is not easy, especially in the early days, and you’ll have to grapple not only with the complexities of your new role but also learn how to thrive as part of a team.
From your very first day on the job, cultivate the mindset that you are there to learn and improve. No matter how high your starting pay is, be aware that your continued success depends on how well you perform.
Tip: Each month, identify one area where you’re not doing as well as you should be, and take steps to improve. If your presentation skills leave much to be desired, join a Toastmaster’s Club or rehearse presentations with a friend and ask for feedback. If your technical skills are lacking, it might be time to hit the library or take a course with your SkillsFuture credit.
What mistakes did you make in your first job? Tell us in the comments!