By Allison McWilliams (’95), Ph.D., Assistant VP, Mentoring and Alumni Personal & Career Development, Wake Forest University

Professional woman standing up in an office wearing a light blue shirt

Photo from

Year One. The first year of anything – a new job, a new place to live, a new relationship – brings with it a mixture of emotions, challenges, opportunities, and experiences that are unrivaled by any other time. When you are new at something, you see it with the freshest eyes you will ever have. Year One is the time to loosen your hold on what was known and familiar, to embrace something new and uncertain, which for some people is full of excitement and anticipation, and for others can contain moments of anxiety and dread.

Part of this uncertainty stems from the fact that there is very little formal preparation for how to walk through this transition moment. Sure, you may have had internships and summer jobs along the way, you may have worked throughout your college-going years, and those experiences sort of prepared you for this. But it’s different when you’re doing something for a finite amount of time, than when you’re stepping into the rest of your life. How do you show up, on day one, ready to take ownership for the rest of your life?

Well, first, you probably won’t. You’re going to screw some things up. You’re going to miss some opportunities. And that’s OK. It’s all part of figuring out who you are, what matters to you, and how to start to build a life and a career that has meaning for you. And, as you do that work, it’s important to remember that while this might feel different, and even look different, than what you’ve done before, you actually have a lot of wisdom and knowledge at hand that will help you to be successful.

Below are our top ten list of strategies you can start to put to work for yourself, starting right now. And then for more information, check out our new book, Year One: How Young Professionals (And Their Managers) Can Thrive in Their First Job After College.

  1. Transition is a process. The organizational change management expert William Bridges notes that change is an event. But transition is a process, and it’s deeply personal, emotional, and psychological. You may be graduating along with a thousand of your peers. But what you are feeling and experiencing is unique to you. Honor that feeling and pay attention to it.
  2. Identify your go-to strategies. Take some time to write down what’s worked for you in the past when faced with stress, deadlines, difficult decisions, finding friends, finding hobbies, finding mentors. You will have to do all this work again (and again, and again). When you do, you’ll be so thankful that you gave yourself some advice on how to handle it!
  3. Be OK with not knowing everything (if anything). College is all about being the lone expert, the first person to the right answer, the loudest voice in the room. Work, typically, isn’t like that. Be OK with being a learner for a while. Figure out who the experts are and make friends with them. That’s how you get smarter and better.
  4. Have curiosity conversations. Almost no one likes the word networking. And yet, we all need strong networks to be successful in work and in life. Curiosity conversations are just grown-up informational interviews, and that’s a practice you can start right now. Get comfortable with reaching out to people for no other reason than to learn from them. The conversation leads to the relationship. The relationship leads to the opportunity. And that’s how you build your network.
  5. Figure out why you work. There’s been a lot of talk about meaning and purpose over the years, but before you can get to that, you need to start with your why. Why do you show up to work every day? What motivates you to work? And, does your role and organization align with those things? What does it mean for you if it doesn’t?
  6. Get real about your money. Not only do you need to know why you work, you also need to know what you need in order to live the life you aspire to. Start keeping a budget, now, if you have not done so before. Get honest with what you will need. Adulthood is about taking ownership of your life, and part of that is being responsible with your resources.
  7. Seek out feedback. You will learn in short order that not everyone is great at giving feedback. But that doesn’t mean you don’t deserve it or should not seek it out. In fact, getting honest with yourself about your strengths and your opportunities for growth is how you build your emotional intelligence, or EQ. And EQ is one of the most important factors for your success in work and life.
  8. Set short-term goals. Don’t worry so much about the twenty-year plan. Set no more than six-month to one-year goals. Think about where you want to be a year from now and how you want to grow and develop.
  9. Be OK with plan B (or C). We all have dreams for our lives. But the first job was never meant to be the dream job. It’s one step on your way to your dream. What may look like plan B (or C) could end up being the best choice you make, if it gives you work experience, challenges you, helps you to afford your life, and gets you one step further down the path towards your dream.
  10. Remember you GET to own your path. Finally, remember, there is no such thing as getting an A in life. But, you get to decide what an A life looks like for you. That work starts right now, so show up with intention, and embrace this new experience.

No matter your experience, there is something amazing happening right now that should be recognized and honored. This is the big payoff moment. This is the time when you get to use that great wisdom and knowledge you gained in college and make intentional decisions about who you are going to be moving forward, what you are going to do with your time and your experience, and with whom you will do it. This is your life, so embrace it, and dive into this moment and know that you absolutely are ready for what is to come.