Your First Job is the Starting Signal, not the Finish Line

By Victoria Principato

For a long time, I thought my greatest achievement, and final goal, was to land the ever-elusive perfect first job upon graduating college. (I’ll hold for laughter here.)

The work that goes into achieving that goal, receiving that perfect job offer, can feel endless. Spending hours applying to the right roles on LinkedIn. Asking alumnus or friends (or friends of friends) for referrals. Attending networking events with professors and company representatives (included at these events was plenty of free cheese and buffalo chicken dip, so, hey, I wasn’t complaining.)

Finally, you might land a phone screening. Then you might get a phone interview. Then, after weeks of anxious anticipation, SUCCESS! You land your first, decently-salaried, full-time job.

The first post-graduate job is incredibly unique; for the first time, you exist without the pre-installed guardrails within a university environment. And, in a lot of ways, it’s incredibly freeing! There are no clearly defined barometers for success. There’s no set coursework to complete, grades to worry about, homework to hand in, credits to earn. And, most of all, there’s no defined roadmap for each and every step.

At the onset of graduation, I felt so much pressure to find the first job that aligned in an immediate and obvious way with my Finance degree. I wanted to continue on the path that my degree’s map had set for me. I also thought that once I achieved the goal of finding that first job, I’d feel as if I’d arrived at my destination. And for a minute, it was true! When I first started my job, there was a lot of excitement around having coworkers, and a desk, and a commute, and, of course, a paycheck. I had made it! In New York City, no less!

Except that I hadn’t. Once the endless happy hours wound down, and the days dragged on, I realized I wasn’t quite feeling entirely thrilled with the work I was doing. I felt I had maxed out of my role, and had lost the excitement that came with learning something new. And, what’s more, is that I was surprised to feel this way. How could this thing that I’d been chasing after, the thing that I’d finally earned after so much work, become so dissatisfying so quickly?

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to answer this question, and upon closer inspection, I think the answer to my dissatisfaction stemmed from two main causes. First, I was tied up in the VERY millennial expectation to be “special” and “unique.” For a long while, I thought it was just a “me” problem; I had to be the only person who’d ever felt a modicum of dissatisfaction with my work; I was the only person to feel like they weren’t in the right job or career path. I had the desire to be someone wholly my own. Because of this, I put a lot of pressure on finding a “special” and “unique” job to would fulfill my “special” and “unique” purpose. But when I began working a job that I saw many others were capable of working, I felt less than and separated from my own “unique” identity.

The second part of my own dissatisfaction was, as it is for many strivers, part of the human experience. We fall into the cycle of wanting something, working towards a goal, and achieving it. And this achievement, we’ve been told, will make us happy! (More on this topic in an article by Arthur Brooks here.) Except when it doesn’t. We achieve a goal we’ve been working towards, and, after earning it, feel totally dissatisfied with the result. Being human, we easily forget our own accomplishments. We become easily accustomed to the views from the mountain we climbed; after a while, the spectacular landscape can start to look pretty ordinary.

So, how do we address this dissatisfaction? How do we continue in the pursuit of professional contentment and fulfillment if (when) our original goals don’t pan out the way we’d thought they might?

I think the answer is twofold. First, while every human being is unique, and no two people are exactly the same, we must acknowledge that, at the moment, all work is not necessarily as unrepeatable as we are. That’s not to say the skills we gain in a first (or, let’s face it, mundane) job aren’t valuable. When we consider the capabilities we develop in a first job, it’s important to understand these as steps in a journey, not the destination itself. And while many others have taken these same or similar steps, it is the interpretation of these steps by their traveler that makes the journey unique.

What about the decline in satisfaction after achieving a goal, or earning a first job? If we’re just going to decline in satisfaction after achievement, should we just stop trying to achieve? Absolutely not! As employees in an ever-evolving workforce, we must continue to develop and evolve with it; having this growth-oriented mindset is a skill itself. That said, we must not allow achievement itself to take away from our existing accomplishments. While continuing to strive is an honorable quest, satisfaction must not lie in the destination or end result; satisfaction must come from the journey itself.

As we continue to explore our careers, we must remind ourselves that there is something to be learned from every experience. That we must use these learnings to guide our next steps. And that the journey itself is an adventure.

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