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4 Steps to Surviving a New Job

4 Steps to Surviving a New JobToday's the anniversary of my first day at work in the real world. It was so long ago I've sort of lost count of the years, but I'll never forget how I felt. I want to say I felt unsure of myself and jittery, but that's just sugar-coating it. The truth is, deep down, I was scared. Maybe even a little terrified.

What if I failed? What if all those years of schooling and degrees added up to nothing but a big fat failure? After all, I was hired as a senior engineer in a big company making more money than both my parents combined. Just between you and me, two college degrees taught me zilch about what I was actually hired to do.

Yeah, I was scared all right, justifiably so. And you know what? Every time I changed jobs since - whether it was climbing the corporate ladder, switching disciplines, or changing companies - it was the same thing all over again. High expectations and fear.

While there's nothing wrong with a little fear, the problem is that it's not at all obvious how to handle the situation. If you act overconfident - like you've got it all wired - you may set expectations too high and crash and burn. But if you're honest about what you don't know, you may have everyone wondering why the hell they hired you in the first place.

It's a balancing act, to be sure, but it can be done with a little knowledge and finesse. Just follow these ...

4 Steps to Surviving a New Job
Step 1. Learn the art of being a sponge

There's an art to being genuine about what you don't know without appearing like a clueless idiot who never should have been hired in the first place. How do you do that? By doing what savvy CEOs and other executives do when they show up for work the first day. They announce with authority that "being a sponge" is priority one.

Getting a clear understanding of how things work and what various stakeholders expect of you should be the first priority of everyone starting out in a new job. And that's perfect air-cover for not having a clue about what's going on or even how you're going to go about doing your job. Believe it or not, it works. It works because it makes sense.

Just to be clear, don't overdo it. We're not talking about making a big deal and asking questions about every little thing. You are expected to have some level of competency and understanding of your job function. But instead of nodding your head like a bobble doll when you have no idea what people are talking about, be a sponge. Just make sure you listen and learn. You only get to be a sponge for so long.

Step 2. Plan how to make an impact

While you're going about being a sponge, the most important thing you need to determine - besides all the basics like what your job is, what folks expect of you, and how to actually do your job - is how to make a real impact.

You can take some time with this, so don't rush it. But before long, it's a good idea to remind people that you're not just a sponge and that their original reasons for hiring you were valid. That you are actually capable of producing results. The way you do that is to set a goal and plan to accomplish something reasonably visible and impactful.

For example, for my first chip design, I set a goal of what we called a first-pass success, meaning a perfect design. Well, I failed. There was one error so it took two passes, but management really liked the way I set an aggressive goal for the team. That sort of thing. It helps to keep your boss from getting buyer's remorse.

Planning to make an impact is good for another reason, too. You see, fear loves a vacuum, like when you're feeling unfocused, confused, and generally clueless about what to do. This, on the other hand, will give you something to focus on and make a splash at the same time. It's all good.

3. Get down from your pedestal

Those high expectations I talked about earlier don't usually come from your boss or anyone else at the company. They usually come from you. Overachievers, professionals, even just plain competent people, have a nasty habit of setting themselves up for failure by hoisting themselves way up on pedestals.

The problem with that is you place undue pressure on yourself which renders you far more likely to screw up, make errors in judgment, that sort of thing. Besides, most jobs are challenging enough without the added burden of unreasonable pressure from inside your head.

Moreover, when you set unreasonable expectations for yourself, it doesn't just stay put in your head, where it belongs. It's actually a form of grandiosity, and that means it will likely leak out as commitments to others. Commitments that, frankly, you have no business making. It's your ego writing checks your capability can't cash.

So stay off the pedestal. Reality is challenging enough without you making stuff up.

4. Face your fear, not your anxiety

Most people think fear and anxiety are the same thing, but they're not. They're completely different and you need to get the difference. Fear is an emotional response to a real or perceived threat. Anxiety is apprehension over something you're anticipating or even something unknown.

What does that mean? Let me break it down for you in this context. If you're afraid or concerned that you don't have the skills or capability to do the job, that's real and something you need to deal with. Face it, confront it, determine whether it's real or not, and then plan to address it.

But if you're getting yourself all stressed out ahead of time, over anticipation of all kinds of what-ifs that haven't happened yet and may never happen, you're just building things up in your head and making things worse for yourself. Don't do that. Don't stress over the unknown.

Instead, recognize and realize what you're really afraid of. That way, you can confront it and determine if it's justified or not. Besides, if you face your fear, you won't blabber about it to everybody else. Some people do that, thinking it will help relieve the tension and maybe even endear people to them. It won't. The only thing it'll do is make you look like an insecure person with no self-confidence. And that's probably not what your management thought they were getting when they hired you.

Last word. If you're one of those people who looks for a quick fix for everything, forget it. That's a surefire path to disaster. As with all things, the answer isn't in a book or a pill. Sure, my long years of experience can guide you, but you're going to have to do the heavy lifting yourself. That's just the way it is.

And, if all else fails, remember the immortal words of Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter from The Grateful Dead's Uncle John's Band:

Well the first days are the hardest days, don't you worry anymore;

'Cause when life looks like easy street, there is danger at your door.

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Image: miss_rogue via Flickr
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