During the summer of 1998, I worked a night shift for a research lab in which I shovelled and sifted dirt for eight hours at a time. I hung out in this little room in the basement of a greenhouse that had a chute in which dirt had been dumped. I'd set up a large tub on top of a pushcart, put a screen attachment on top of it, then scoop several shovelfuls of dirt on there. I would then sift that dirt, retaining a few specific items off of the top of the screen, and then do it again. And again. When the cart was full, I'd push it over to the elevator, take it up to the planting rooms, and then retrieve an empty cart and do the same thing again. This post originally appeared on The Simple Dollar.
That's about as entry level as you could get. Shovelling and sifting dirt.
Here's the thing, though. I was part of a team. I had a role to play with that team. I learned about why I was doing it (to make good planting soil for the lab techs to plant seedlings) and how to do it better. Over time, I built a positive reputation within that research lab, moved on to bigger and better projects and eventually ended up moving to a different lab where I was given a big bump in pay and a lot more responsibility.
That job sifting dirt was a pretty awful job, really. I went home sore every night… or, shall I say, every morning, as it was a night shift job. My hands got callused. I was often very bored with the work.
The truth of the matter, though, was that my choices while at that job did quite a lot to determine whether I stayed there shovelling dirt for years and years or whether I moved on to bigger or better things. By extracting every little bit of value that I could out of that job, I was able to propel myself up the ladder and onto a bright future.
If you have an entry-level job or are about to embark on one, and your view is that the job is just misery, take a different perspective. Look at it like a maple tree. It's hard. It's rough on the outside. But with some sensible strategies, you can extract a lot of sweetness from it.
Here are 16 strategies for extracting every bit of value from an entry-level job so that you're prepared in every dimension to move onto something bigger, better and brighter.
Have a Good Attitude
This job isn't your life. It's an opportunity — a stepping stone to something better. Don't look at it as misery. Look at it as the first step or two at the bottom of a giant staircase. Look up, not down.
Simply showing up for work in an upbeat mood — or at least showing that you have an upbeat mood — can make all of the difference. It can drastically change the impression others have of you in a very positive way, and it's often those other people who determine how miserable and how pleasant your job actually is. Don't grumble about some task you don't like. Be positive in your interactions with others. Smile, even if you have to force it. Look at your job as the first step on the path to greatness (which it is), and you want to nailthat first step.
How can you do that, though, if you literally hate your job? For me, the best method was to put that hatred on me, not on the others I was working with. If I didn't like the job or my situation, that was me, not them, and they didn't deserve to see or hear my negative thoughts. I found other channels for it — namely, I went on these insanely exerting bike rides to pedal out my frustrations. It really helped.
One of the worst things you can do at an entry-level job is waste time. Don't stand around doing nothing. Don't constantly check your phone when you're on the job. If you don't have anything to do immediately, look for things to do.
What if you can't think of anything? One thing you can always do is maintenance work on the things that you use. Clean the grill. Mop the floor. Run through any checklists of things that need to be done. Clean your tools. If someone else is busy, jump in and take a bit of their load for a while (if it's entry-level work, you can probably handle some of it).
The worst thing you can do is just stand around. Not only does it make you look really lazy, it also makes the time pass slowly. The time you spend at work actually seems to go by much faster if you're doing something rather than standing around watching the clock.
Ask Lots of Questions
Often, people take on entry-level jobs without getting the big picture as to why their job is important in the big scheme of things. Since they're not looking at how their job fulfils an important role, they work mindlessly through their tasks and don't consider how to do them as well as possible to fulfil the overall mission of the business.
Doing that takes a lot of questions, even at an entry level job, and asking those questions and approaching the job from the perspective of helping the business as a whole is something that is going to definitely get you noticed in a positive way.
What I found at my job was that the best approach was to go to my supervisor when he or she was out and about and easily available and just ask if he could answer some questions about the work. I did this out in front of everyone so there wasn't any "meeting behind closed doors". I also sometimes asked questions of the lab techs who weren't my boss, but had to deal with what I produced.
I asked about all kinds of details. I asked about how the dirt was used and what I could do to make the dirt carts as easy as possible to use for the planting technicians. Where do I put the carts? How full should the bins be? I asked where all of the gear should be stored and how it should be maintained, so I started taking about fifteen minutes at the end of my shift to clean the gear and put it away in the way that my supervisor suggested (other people just left shovels laying on the floor and such).
I found that asking questions almost always led me to the best way of doing my job. I learned why I was doing these things and how to do things so that they were maximally useful to others so that the overall goals of the lab were accomplished more efficiently. The end result wasn't that I did things much better than anyone else, but that my efforts had noticeable additional "polish" on them, something that my boss noticed and that the techs noticed.
Maximise Every Job Perk
If your job offers some kind of special perk — discounted food, free event tickets and so on — take advantage of every drop of that perk. Eat a cheap meal when you arrive for your shift and when you leave. Grab every event ticket that's available. Get everything you can.
There are a bunch of reasons for this, even beyond the obvious. For one, it's obviously going to save you some money, which is a key part of any entry-level job. Your pay isn't good, so if you have a chance to get other benefits, you should do so. For another, you can sometimes "flip" some of those perks to put more money in your pocket. My wife had an entry-level job where she cleaned floors for a concert venue and often wound up with tickets which she would then "flip" to make some pocket money.
Another big reason that's often overlooked is that you gain a perspective on the product from the customer's view. If you're eating at the restaurant you work at, you quickly gain a sense of what's good about the food and what's bad about it. The better the product you put out there (for the dollar, of course), the more customers you're going to bring in over the long haul and the more money the business will make. If you play a role in figuring that out and making that happen, it benefits you, too. Understanding the product is vital for maximising an entry-level job.
Look for Inspiration and Mentorship
Ask about the background of everyone above you in rank in the organisation, especially those several steps above you. Did they start with an entry-level job like yours? How did they climb the ladder to their current perch?
Find people who have risen from your spot to great things and make those people into mentors. Ask for their advice with difficult situations. Ask for their suggestions on how to improve your chances of moving up.
The key part, though, is actually following that advice. Hearing it is one thing — putting it to work is what actually matters the most, though.
Present Yourself Well
Show up to work clean and presentable, even if it's a manual labour job like my old job scooping dirt. You might go home sweaty and nasty, but there's no reason to show up like that.
Take a shower. Make sure your clothes aren't wrinkled and aren't falling apart. Use plenty of deodorant. Brush your teeth. Brush your hair. In other words, take care of yourself and offer the best presentation you can to the world and to your coworkers and to your managers.
I can't tell you how often I see entry-level employees show up looking completely dishevelled, half-awake and unshowered with rumpled hair and wrinkled clothes. Those people are loudly shouting, "I don't want to be here and I don't take this job seriously." Don't be that person.
Be on Time
Whenever you're late for work, that means someone else at your job has to cover for you. Often, your supervisor is aware of that, too, and probably has to deal with it in some fashion. Being punctual means no one else has to deal with those things.
Not only that, when you're punctual at an entry-level job, you tend to stand out in a positive way from others who are not punctual. This reflects well on you, and when you stand out in a positive way, you're much more likely to reap workplace rewards from doing so.
My strategy for punctuality was to plan to show up at work 15 minutes before I was scheduled to start. Depending on how I felt, I'd either dive in immediately or else I'd find something useful to do on site until my shift began. The goal was simple: Never be late.
If you're given a task that's actually reasonable to accomplish, accomplish it. Finish the task to the best of your ability. When you're called on to do something, do it without dispute. Take on the new task and finish it to the best of your ability.
You want to reach a point where you can be called on for a reasonable task and just complete it with minimal issues. The truth is that the people up the chain from you want minimal issues. They want to get through their day, just like you do, and when you make that easier for them by just doing what you're supposed to do with minimal assistance and hand-holding, everyone benefits. You get fewer lectures, you get a steady growth in respect and they get an easier day.
If you have a task to do, do it well. Do it consistently. Do it so that others don't have to jump in and clean up your mess.
Avoid Negative Workplace Talk
Most workplaces have some amount of gossip and some amount of negative talk. People love to complain about their situation and many people take glee in the trials and tribulations of others.
It's not surprising why this happens — it can feel really good to vent. However, there's a big negative consequence for participating in it. For starters, the negative words you say can easily be carried to others. You might implicitly trust the people around you when you're venting, but those people might find value in carrying your words to your boss or to the people you criticise.
Furthermore, if you're often critical and negative toward others, people are going to begin to trust you less as they know that they will eventually be the target of your venom.
A much better approach is to avoid the negativity entirely. Don't say a negative word about coworkers or your job in the workplace. Listen to what others are saying, but don't repeat it. Don't contribute to it, either. Instead, seek out other things to talk about and steer the conversation away from negativity. It doesn't help anyone.
Give Credit to Others
If you are called out for doing something great at work, do not take all of the credit. Instead, take minimal credit and share that credit with others. Point out everyone who did things to help make that thing happen, even if you might not necessarily feel that they fully deserve it.
Here's the reality of what happens when you do this. First of all, the supervisor usually knows that you did a lot of the work to make the good thing happen. Sharing credit won't change that. What it will do is demonstrate to your supervisor that you are a team player and are working to "lift" the other people in the workplace.
At the same time, everyone loves to receive credit for their efforts. You're holding your coworkers up in a positive light and giving them credit. That feels good to almost everyone. Those coworkers are going to appreciate you more than before as well.
When you give credit to others, you win with your supervisors and you win with your coworkers. There is literally no drawback to giving credit where credit is due.
Identify Reliable Peers
Over time, you're going to gradually gain a sense of which coworkers are reliable and trustworthy and which ones aren't. Some people work hard and do a good job, while others don't. Some people keep their mouths shut, while others spew poison and report every infraction.
Don't worry too much about the negative people. Don't make them into enemies, of course, but don't focus on them, either. Instead, build relationships with the people who quietly do their job and do it effectively. Those are the friends you want at work. Build that relationship through positive conversations or conversations about non-work topics. Help those people when you have the opportunity and don't expect something directly in return.
A strong relationship with the best employees in your workplace will constantly benefit you once they're established. Good coworkers will help you when you need help, cover for you on occasion when it's really important and have your back in any workplace conflicts. These people usually have a good reputation with the boss as well, which means that their word will count for a lot when it comes to you.
Ask for Specific Tips for Promotion
If you're interested in staying with the organisation for a while, a promotion is probably something that looks pretty appealing to you, particularly when it comes with an increase in pay and opportunity.
The catch is that it's sometimes unclear what you need to do in order to earn that kind of a promotion. Obviously, the tactics above will help you get in a good place, but there are specific things at any job that will put you in line for promotion.
The solution here is to sit down with your supervisor or with whoever is responsible for your potential promotion and simply ask what exactly you need to do to earn a promotion. What are they looking for? What do you need to accomplish or to show to earn a promotion from within?
Whatever you're told, use it as a checklist. I would literally write down what they said and then use that material as your guide for what to do at work every day above and beyond your typical responsibilities.
Think Like a Customer, Always
In the end, every organisation has customers that they're serving. Perhaps it's people wanting to dine at your restaurant. Maybe it's people looking to buy tools at the hardware store. Maybe it's impoverished people looking to pick up food from the pantry.
No matter what, your organisation has customers. Whenever you're considering how to handle a task, stop for a second and think about what you're doing from the perspective of the customer. What can you do to give that customer the best experience without costing your business extra money?
You can keep the grill clean. You can keep the food fresh. You can keep the shelves stocked. You can answer customer questions and be as friendly as you possibly can.
When customers are happy, they come back. When they come back, your business thrives. When you do the things that bring the customers back, people within your organisation will notice, and that will purely benefit you.
Build Marketable and Transferable Skills
Every day you're at work, keep the next step in your career in the back of your mind. Where do you want to go next? Even more importantly, what kind of skills do you need to go there?
Often, the skills you need at that future job won't overlap perfectly with what you're doing now, but there is almost always some sort of overlap. Maybe it's customer relation skills. Maybe it's time management. Maybe it's information management. Maybe it's some flavour of IT skills.
Just look for overlaps between the skills you're using at your entry level job and the skills you will be using at your ideal job. Then, when you're at work, put extra effort into honing those skills. If you're going to continue in marketing, focus on maximising anything that might relate to marketing, for example. If you don't have a specific skill, work on things like communication skills, information management and, well...
Don't Give Other Workers Reason to Backstab You
There are always going to be negative people in the workplace. They're going to attack people and stab them in the back. They're going to try to tear down others. That's just their character — nothing you can really do about it.
What you can do, however, is not paint a giant bullseye on yourself. Don't leave coworkers hanging. Don't make their jobs more difficult. Don't create any kind of conflict if you can possibly avoid it.
What will happen is that other people — the people who don't do their job well and create challenges for others — will become the low-hanging fruit with the bullseye on their back. Sure, it's not the happiest outcome, but if there's going to be a bullseye — and there will — make sure it's not on your back.
An entry-level job can be a powerful stepping stone for the career that you want, even when it doesn't seem like this simple job can possibly lead to where you want to go. Never, ever fall into the trap of thinking that your job doesn't matter or that it can't provide anything for you other than a paycheck. If nothing else, every job is capable of opening doors to your future, whether you see them or not.
Take your job seriously. Use a customer-focused perspective on what you do. Be reliable, be timely, be presentable and don't idle. Look for mentors and strong relationships, and ask what you can do to get promoted. Those things will pave the path to a much better future.
How to Get a Ton of Value Out of an Entry-Level Job [The Simple Dollar]