This question originally appeared on Quora: What is the best advice that can prevent people from screwing up their first job out of college? Answer by Patrick Mathieson, venture investor at Toba Capital.
Dealing with your boss
- Think of yourself as a “black box.” A black box is something that takes some inputs from someone else, deals with all of the complicated BS out of sight by themselves, and comes back with useful and straightforward outputs. An example of a “black box” is Uber…you press a button and a car shows up to take you somewhere. All of the complexity is hidden from the end-user. That’s how you should be when it comes to your work. Your boss will explain what they want from you, answer the questions you have, and then you should come back in a day or two with the concise (and correct) byproducts of your work. Spare your boss the complexity. That’s why they hired you in the first place.
- With that being said, don’t take this too literally. If you’re legitimately stumped about how to deal with a problem, it’s better to talk through it with your boss than to sweat it out on your own for two weeks and end up disappointing everybody. The “Don’t bring me problems without solutions” rule can be broken semi-frequently as long as you’re not doing it every day.
- Ask questions about anything you’re not crystal-clear about. What you want to avoid is 1) Not asking questions when you should, and 2) Asking the same question over and over because you didn’t fully internalize the answer. Asking tons of questions but never really repeating a question—because you are starting to get it—is best.
- Don’t take hard feedback personally or emotionally. It’s just business.
- Never make your boss look stupid in front of other people.
- Learn when to use e-mail/when to use the phone/when to talk face-to-face. In general, e-mail is better for topics that contain a lot of minutiae, need to be documented somewhere for future reference, and are not emotionally charged. Phone and face-to-face are better for dissolving conflict.
- NEVER send an e-mail when you’re in a highly emotional state. Take a walk.
- Absolutely, positively, no racist/sexist/homophobic jokes. Never.
- Shut the fuck up when you’re in hallways and bathrooms. People are listening. Nosy people loooooove to snitch on the 22-year-olds for saying something inappropriate while they’re gossiping in a place that they think is private.
- When speaking in meetings, get to the point in the first or second sentence. Young people often feel pressure to drone on and on to give evidence that they’ve put work and thought into whatever they’re about to say. Don’t do that.
- Be an A+ listener. Often the best way to move up is to be the person that your boss (or boss’s boss) vents to about stuff that’s vexing them, even if it’s just to have another warm body in the room while they say it.
- Adding to the previous point… keep your eyes away from the laptop during group meetings. Be attentive, or you might miss something really important.
Dealing with coworkers
- Your number one job around coworkers is to be likable. Be nice. Don’t come off like a brown-noser. Be generally enthusiastic about your job but not a slave to the corporate machine.
- Don’t talk badly about anybody that’s not around. You should deliver negative feedback in private, and positive feedback when around others. Just be nice. Be chill.
- Learn Excel and Powerpoint better than everyone else on your team. If you’re super good at it, people will start pulling you into meetings and projects that utilize those skills, and that gets you access to the most interesting information and the best projects.
- At office parties, drink exactly 50% as much booze as the average attendee. You can accomplish this by slyly leaving your half-drunk beers on tables or the bar.
- Mentors are good. If you can find somebody to show you the ropes and give you useful advice about your career, it’s usually a good idea to build a mutually beneficial alliance with that person. However… be careful about this. Some people are not good role models. Some advice from older people might be outdated (e.g. what they’re suggesting made sense when they were your age in 1997, but for whatever reason the cultural or technological environment has rendered that approach useless). It’s not useful to have a tight mentor/mentee relationship with somebody who is not well-respected in the organization. And even with people who are generally good mentors, all of their advice exists in the context of the particular lens with which they view the world, including cognitive biases and prejudices and emotional blind spots and so on. So while you should always listen to their advice, you alone have to decide whether or not to implement it, and the answer to that question isn’t always “yes.”
- Don’t under-dress. But don’t over-dress. “Dress for the job you want” will get you into almost as much trouble as dressing like a slob. If I had to pick a word to use, I’d say that you should dress “crisply.” Hair & facial hair in good order, pants clean, clothes made from relatively nice fabrics, choose colors that flatter your skin tone, and so on….
- Three simple rules that will cover 90% of the previous bullet: 1) Get a good haircut, 2) Buy great shoes, 3) Make sure your clothes fit your body type.
- Ain’t nuthin’ wrong with a little sex appeal. JUST A LITTLE.
On working hard
- Your number one job is to remain calm/steady and not fuck anything up too dramatically. Do not seek perfection in your work…you’re just out of college, fergodsakes. All of your peers will be fucking things up constantly, so just by being steady and methodical you will separate yourself into the top third of your peers without having to do anything more substantial to distinguish yourself.
- But regarding mistakes: when you do make one (and you will, don’t worry), own the situation completely and rectify/snuff out the mistake with dramatic flourish. It’s often more impressive to make a mistake, take ownership of it, and then fix it with utter panache than to never have made the mistake at all. So don’t let it fester. (Also see Jason T Widjaja‘s answer for more on this.)
- Find a breakout project. While you’re trying your darndest not to screw anything up too badly, look for opportunities to do something that would benefit your organization tremendously, but nobody is making moves to get done. Take it on and knock it out of the park. I’m actually going to disagree with some of the advice from Xena Lee and others who indicated that it’s crucial to be hyper-reliable as a new employee…I actually think that being hyper-reliable on tasks that don’t really move the needle (i.e. I finish everything on time, but 80% of that work is just bullshit paperwork) is way less useful to your career than being semi-reliable (i.e. I finish the important stuff on time but neglect some of the less important things) in the midst of executing on a kick-ass breakout product that makes a name for you in the organization. Real A-players ignore the trivial stuff in their search for high-impact projects. (Note that trivial isn’t the same as menial. Don’t blow off projects just because they seem like grunt work. Grunt work is probably what they hired you to do in the first place.)
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