Work Experience: A Survival Guide

A true work for a Sandtrooper

I was at least three weeks into my first office job before I had the faintest idea what anyone around me was talking about. I was swept from one task to another on gusts of incomprehension, never entirely sure that I had understood the brief and too intimidated by my razor sharp wit-emitting boss to probe further. Doing so would have meant acknowledging that the frenzied nodding with which I received any instruction was a nervous tick, bearing no relation to my ability to carry it out. The only thing I did know was that I couldn’t walk in my new platform shoes. How was it that I, with my A’s at A level and multiple university offers, had suddenly been rendered so inept?

I don’t wish to blow the collective cover of the many apparently competent adults you’ll come across in the early stages of your career journey, but it seems my experience was more common than the success they appear to enjoy today might suggest. A quick straw poll of respected friends and colleagues has revealed many and varied mishaps on entering the working world, including but not limited to: setting the alarm off on the first day at Sotheby’s, getting trapped in a monkey cage while on work experience in a zoo, breaking a child’s arm when in training for a position at a sports centre, getting tangled in a seatbelt and falling into the gutter en route to a job interview in the same car as the interviewer, and— my favourite— accidentally distributing sanitary towels to a group of clients between the pages of the report.

To some extent, a few years under their belts has made them more capable. But they have also learned how to fake it. While no first experience in life should be spoilt by older people lecturing you about how to avoid making the mistakes that they made, here are our top tips on surviving those first crucial weeks.

  • Be yourself. Most of the people you’re working alongside know each other more intimately than their own families, and we all know what familiarity breeds. Chances are they’ll welcome a fresh perspective, someone bringing a few new lines to a tired old script. You are more interesting than you may think, share those interests. This doesn’t necessarily apply first thing on Monday mornings or if said interests are illegal.
  • Ask questions of the kind which help you do the job you’re being asked to do better, as well as the big ones that help improve your own understanding of the world and your place in it. If I’d realised at 18 that I wasn’t expected to know all that much I might have learned a lot more. I laboured too long under the mistaken belief that the education part of my life was complete, giving way to the next bit where I would use all the important information I had acquired at school to make money. I thought I wasn’t allowed to ask questions any more. I now know that the most successful people ask them all the time. In fact, I am sceptical of those who only give answers.
  • Don’t apologise unless you have genuinely wronged someone, screwed something up or used the last teabag. Apologies—‘Sorry, but’ or ‘can I just say’— are not the right preface to a statement, though you’ll hear a lot of people introducing their thoughts in this way. It’s an oft-heard affliction which tells people that you don’t think that what you have to say is worth listening to. Get speaking confidently in public as soon as you can. Break that particular ice and you will never look back.
  • Be passionate about whatever you’re doing, no matter how menial, then know when the time is right to move on. Successful people do whatever they’re given to do with enthusiasm then ask for more responsibility or complexity at exactly the point that they’ve earned trust and proven themselves. Tell your boss about all the ways in which you’re contributing to the bigger picture.
  • Do what you’re asked to do as well as you can and front up when you make mistakes. Seriously. Mistakes get made all the time, the real problems arise when no one knows about them in time to prevent more serious consequences. This comes from someone—okay, me—who booked the entire staff of a well known drinks company onto the wrong non-refundable flights for their annual ski trip. Coming clean took nerve, but having everyone land in the wrong resort a day early would have been one helluva snowstorm.


Written by Rosie Parkyn

Photography courtesy of Kristina Alexanderson