On the Web recently, I ran across the reminiscence of a senior citizen about his first job as a shelf stocker at a supermarket. “They told me I would get two weeks paid vacation,” he recalls. “I couldn’t wait to find out where they were going to send me. I wasn’t the brightest crayon in the box.”

When you’re in the job market for the first time, it pays to listen to everything you’re told . . . and not told, most especially before they welcome you aboard. Always remember: If you’re hearing something that’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t . . . and you are the one who’s likely making it up.

In my experience, young people usually fall into three different categories when looking for their first job. The first sort imagines a perfect job will land in their laps. The paycheck, the coworkers and the challenges couldn’t be better. A short and bitter collision with reality bursts that bubble, and these exasperated souls give up and just avoid looking for work as long as they can.

The second type is more practical. They willingly punch any time clock, rationalizing that the job of the moment is just a stopgap until they put their mind to finding something better. Most people, unfortunately, fall into that category. They just forget where to put their mind. Instead, they spend their entire working lives more or less falling into one job after another, only half-heartedly trying to create a meaningful career.

The third group is a rare breed.

  • They constantly ask themselves what they really want to do. They learn precisely the skills they have to perfect, and they find ways to meet and understudy people who are now what these beginners want to be.
  • They forever fine-tune their plans for where they want to be in five years.
  • They don’t waste opportunity. Always on the prowl, they learn from their present job and contacts. They leverage what they have into something they really want to do.

Today I’m chairman of a $100 million envelope company, Outside of paper routes and setting pins in a bowling alley, my first real job was as a summer fill-in at Howard’s Men’s Store in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.

Sounds like a pretty remote switch, but was it really? I still consider a CEO to be any firm’s #1 salesman, and what I learned about sales at Howard’s was epic:

  • Choices: Never put more than three ties on the counter. It only confuses the customer.
  • Convenience: Never start locking up, even if the customer is a couple minutes late.
  • Commitment: When the customer tries on the pants, it’s usually a done deal.

How you tackle your first job will likely shape how you manage your career for the rest of life. And, I surely learned from my share of mistakes: such as asking for time off, even though the main reason I was hired was so that senior staff could enjoy their vacations.

If you’re like most people, you’ll churn through 3-5 career shifts and 12-15 job changes in your working life. Smart people probably switch less, and they surely determine when and why they make most of the changes.

The difference starts with positive attitude and perseverance. Remember, if you think you can . . . or if you think you can’t . . . you’re right.

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