The biggest mistake I made at my first job — and what I learned from it

The biggest mistake I made at my first job

This post is from staff writer Suba Iyer.

At my first job, fresh out of college, I was determined to prove myself, prove that hiring me was one of the best decisions the company made, prove that I could take any challenge and make it work well before the deadline and prove that I could handle multiple tasks well.

It helped that it was an interesting and challenging job, and so I took on a lot of projects with enthusiasm. Even when the inevitable problems and frustrations arose, I made sure never to complain. I developed a reputation for finishing tasks well before the expected deadline. Everyone was pleased, and I thought I was doing great.

Then came the promotion list — without my name, but with another coworker who joined around the same time. Since I was under the impression that I had exceeded expectations in every aspect, I was surprised. However, I thought about it and decided that may be I just had to work harder to impress my supervisors, make my work even better.

But the better I became at my work, the worse my work conditions became.

Slowly the challenging work started to reduce and the grunt work started to pile on my desk. The work that didn’t get done because no one wanted to do it started getting assigned to me. I had already set the bar high, so shorter deadlines became normal and I was expected to beat my own records.

What did I miss here?

I was doing a great job, but I never let anyone know how much I was accomplishing or highlighted how much my work had contributed to the overall bottom line of the company.

At the time, it sounded like boasting to me. After all they gave me the work and I exceeded their expectations in the quality of work and the deadline, so they should realize how good I am without me making it explicit, right?


My clients, who used the product and loved how easy it was to handle, expressed their pleasure, but when the compliments were passed on to me, I waved them away saying, “Oh, it was nothing.” I was a fool! As a result my supervisors and upper management never realized the amount of effort and late night hours I had expended in making it that way.

Essentially, I never owned up to my accomplishments.

I am not alone, a study from Columbia University highlights that men tend to exaggerate their accomplishments more than women.

What I learned from my mistake

In general, women, especially introverted women like me, don’t speak up. Studies show that 57 percent of male graduate students negotiated their salaries while only 7 percent of female graduate students did. I did not negotiate my salary when I took the first job. I had to face the repercussions of that even at my second job when they offered me a salary based on what I was already earning. I had to spend more time preparing to negotiate my salary than preparing for the actual interview. Women feel that if we do an extraordinary job we will be recognized. When we don’t get recognized we start to doubt ourselves.

Some of us need to be a lot more aggressive in getting credit for a job well done.

  • Accept the compliment: Say “thank you” instead of dismissing it.
  • Own the accomplishment: Give yourself a moment to reflect on a job well done. This gives you the confidence to ask for a raise, speak up in a group meeting or anywhere you will be seen.
  • Educate your superiors on your work: It need not be every single detail, but an overall picture to make them appreciate what went into finishing the job along with suggestions on how it can be improved. This accomplishes two things:

(1) Lets others know you didn’t just slack off and subtly shows how much thought and effort you put into the project.

(2) You will let them know that you can do more than what you are asked to. You have suggestions on improving the project, are ready to take on more responsibility and establish yourself as a person who takes the initiative.

A simple shift in my mentality has given me exposure I never had before. I still deliver the best possible results, but now, I also have a reputation for being the go-to person for any problem in my domain. I learned from my mistake never to dismiss my accomplishments and always speak up!

10 Responses to “The biggest mistake I made at my first job — and what I learned from it”

  1. Anonymous

    One of the reasons why businesses don’t get ahead is because they fail to reward the right person. It’s usually the loudest and brashest that get ahead only to scupper things for everyone else. I was once involved in a team where an unscrupulous individual took credit for most of the work and was promoted, several months later the section fell apart and eventually the right person got the job. Corporate affairs are a shambles as they say. Great article, got me thinking.

  2. Anonymous

    I’ve worked in many corporate environments and it did infuriate me when those who did little work were rewarded because they were more socially skillful at letting others know when they did any work at all. I saw those who were consistently late and did little work get promoted because they hit it off with the boss! I finally gave it all up because there’s so much injustice in the workplace. Great article, I hope people who are starting their career find this article so that they can be better prepared and fully informed.

  3. Anonymous

    Anton, in the best of all possible worlds your boss could read your mind and remember everything you ever said or did. But that would be an unrealistic expectation.

    When I was a supervising manager I had as many as 30 direct reports and 100 people subordinate to them. Sometimes my direct reports worked across the country; sometimes I never got to see them in-person over the course of a year.

    So while it would be lovely if your sterling qualities and accomplishments were at the forefront of your boss’s mind, why leave it to chance? When you know evaluations are due, why not send an e-mail with your 10 biggest accomplishments and a reminder of your numbers? It sure can’t hurt! 😎

  4. Anonymous

    A very unfortunate situation, but that’s the world we live in. Ideally, you would think your supervisors would have noticed and recognized you for your effort and accomplishments, even though you didn’t directly advertise them. But since this is almost never the case, one has to learn how to work the system to his or her advantage just as much as how to work hard.

  5. Anonymous

    Corporate culture and ethos have a huge impact on employee expectations. Being highly productive isn’t necessarily high on the list of managerial expectations if competing goals such as maintaining status quo ahead of achievement exist. The right communication not only recognizes employee achievement, but also establishes promotional benchmarks even if they include under-performance.

  6. Anonymous

    Very interesting article. I have something similar occurring at my job. I feel like I am an above average employee, but my supervisor’s supervisor (former direct supervisor before promotion) puts down my contribution on a regular basis.

    I decided to make them see how valuable I am by going to HR and filing a complaint of unfair treatment.

  7. Anonymous

    You have to invest a bit of time learning how “the system” works at your company. What is valued most, what are the real criteria for evaluation (and what is just paperwork), who is reviewing and where do they get the information from (the written forms, talking to you, talking to other people). It works differently in every company and sometimes varies by unit, so you can’t assume you know. Talk to your manager in advance, talk to other people who have been in similar roles.
    Speaking up is always important, but you have to speak up to the right accomplishments and the right way. I’ve seen people emphasize the wrong achievements and coming through as pushy or too eager, not a good thing obviously.

  8. Anonymous

    As a supervising manager, I expected my management employees to write their OWN evaluations each year. That gave them a chance to “remind” me of their accomplishments, gave me a chance to understand their views on their own performances, and helped me manage the workload of writing many evaluations in a short amount of time. It also helped teach my managers the difference between accomplishments and daily tasks; no, checking your e-mail each day is not an accomplishment.

    When I’d take over a new group my “do-it-yourself” approach brought cries of horror and self-pity. I was accused of laziness, and told I should “know” what my people had accomplished. And, besides, my peers didn’t make THEIR direct-reports do their own evaluations. I was SO mean!

    But here’s the thing: When I went to my bosses to negotiate salary raises for my people, I needed to be armed with compelling ammunition. I expected my direct-reports to help me “sell” them to executives who barely knew them since our operation was remote from headquarters. My peers and our other constituents were always happy to report to the bosses any time we had a hitch in our giddy-up. It was up to US to toot our individual and collective horns when we did something good — when it happened and at evaluation time.

    As for me, I always sent my own boss a list of my accomplishments a month before I knew s/he had to write my evaluation.

    And I also reminded my folks each year that end-of-year evaluation time is a great time to update one’s resume. I’d always get blank looks and queries about whether this meant I was downsizing. Every year I’d have to remind them that professionals simply always have a current resume at their fingertips.

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