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  • 3 Common Traps to Avoid when Choosing Your First Job

I remember in college just about the most stressful period of every semester was not finals. It was the time everyone had to choose their classes for the next semester.
At the University of Michigan, there were literally hundreds of courses, you could enroll in, and students would become overwhelmed by options. What I noticed was that the freshman students went about choosing courses by very different standards than some of the seniors.
A first-year student, for example, picked courses by topic and title. More experienced (lol) seniors often selected the classes by the individual professor teaching the course.
They knew something the freshman didn’t know about what makes a class good and were able to avoid the trap that many new students fall into — topic/title bias.
As I’ve gotten out of school, I’ve noticed something similar that happens to new college graduates. They see hundreds of job listings online and at career fairs, and they don’t have the knowledge with which to evaluate these opportunities properly.
(This is incidentally why it’s best to start your career way earlier)
I see two types of professionals emerge during this process. There are the ones who build a career that allows them to grow quickly, learn a ton and gives them ever increasing optionality. Then there is the much larger group that stagnates in a job they hate and often take years to break free from it.
This post deals with the second group.
Here are the common traps they fall into when choosing a job and what to do instead to avoid them.

The Salary Trap

The standard career wisdom tells you to choose the job with the highest salary. It seems to make sense. You just spent all this money on college after all, and it’s time to see some return!
Money is necessary but making career decisions on that basis is often incredibly short sighted.
Here’s a real simple example. Let’s say you have two jobs offers.

  1. You can make 60k right now in an entry-level role at an ad company.
  2. You can make 30k right now as a marketer at a startup.

The common advice would tell you to take the 60k and get yourself a new car, but there are tons of reasons not to do this.
What if the ad company required living in New York City or San Francisco? Suddenly the cost of living will offset almost all the income gains.
What if the startup could have equity options in the future? Choosing the established ad company could mean taking short-term profit at the expense of much greater long-term income.
What if the startup will give you the opportunity to take on a much higher level role and get a big picture view of how the business works. What if it offers a better learning opportunity? In this case, consider taking the lower salary.
Charlie Hoehn worked for bestselling author Tim Ferriss for free for a time because he knew he could learn a ton. As an added bonus, he connected with a much better network than the job opportunities available to him. It paid off hugely.
It’s why I spent my money to get my job at Praxis.
The fact is that your salary in your early twenties is not all that important. You should choose your job because of the experience and opportunities it gives you, not the paycheck. Look for interesting people to work with and exciting projects to work on. Money will follow.

The Industry Trap

There’s a scene in The Graduate during which the character, Ben, receives some advice from an adult he trusts after graduating college.
“I just want to say one word to you. One word. Plastics. There’s a great future in plastics.”
Ben unenthusiastically agrees to get the guy to go away, and viewers of the movie have laughed at the ridiculous advice.
And yet when we are looking choose our first job, we often do exactly what that man told Ben in the movie.
We obsess over finding the right field or industry to go into and are terrified of picking the wrong one. We assume career building is a conveyor belt that once we jump on, we can never get off. Better choose correctly!
The reality is, especially in today’s world, that your career will likely not be linear. Your first job will probably not matter. In all likelihood, you’ll end up in something far different anyways down the road as you get more experience, more opportunities, and more self-knowledge.
Your goal with your first job should is not to find the exact fit. You don’t need to go into plastics now to get into plastics later, so to speak.
Instead, you should look for opportunities with highly transferable skills and experiences. You should build a platform for yourself that allows you to go into any job. Doing marketing now doesn’t need to prevent you from being in management later, it can reinforce it. Doing sales now won’t stop you from being a designer later, it can help your ability to design marketable products.

The Prestige Trap

Big, established, prestigious companies are great for some people but there are unrecognized benefits to working at smaller businesses.
Young people today go to career fairs at colleges where they get a small view of the kinds of companies that are hiring. They’re pushed by parents and administrators to go after the company that has the most prestigious name, just like how they choose colleges.
The assumption here is that working at a company like Apple or Amazon will look better than smaller businesses most people haven’t heard of.
This might be true at a very theoretical level, but once you start to put things into the context of your goals, it becomes less certain.
Working at Amazon doesn’t necessarily make sense if your goal is to start a business one day. You could potentially learn far more about starting, growing and operating a business by working closely with a startup founder.
Working at Deloitte doesn’t make sense if you want more flexibility over your working hours or prefer an entrepreneurial environment. You might get that better at an upstart software company.
Likewise, the short-term prestige of working at an established company might pale in comparison to being a key builder in something smaller.
Instead of looking at the title of the company, look at the opportunities that exist within that company. Also, pay attention to the long-term potential of working there. You might find the Googles and Oracle’s are not the best fit for you.
Now that you know what to avoid, you can start working on landing valuable opportunities. The good news is, we’ve got a ton of great resources for that here on the Praxis blog.