My first full-time job after college was at an investment bank in New York.
I was a 21-year-old analyst getting my first experience in the corporate world. And even though my career would eventually go in a very different direction, my time in that role was a fantastic learning experience on multiple levels.
It gave me experience in a corporate structure. It exposed me to how a senior leadership team operates. And it taught me how I wanted to run a company—and how I didn’t.
In every role, you’re almost always learning more than you think. Some of the skills you’ve gained can only be seen in hindsight. But often, you can put in the effort to make sure you’re getting the most out of your role every day—whether you love it or hate it.
Here’s how to approach learning with an open mind, regardless of what you’re doing:
Remember that you’re not just acquiring tactical skills; you’re experiencing the uniqueness of a company.
People often focus on the day-to-day aspects of their work. They consider the job-specific skills they’re honing and the projects they’re working on to be the extent of what they’re learning.
But so much of what you learn in a role comes from working at that particular company. By experiencing its distinct environment day in and day out, you’re seeing how people work together, interact professionally, and manage different situations.
When I was working at the investment bank, for example, my real “job” often didn’t start until 5 p.m. But I had to be in the office all day, so I wound up spending a lot of time getting to know my colleagues. It wasn’t the most efficient way to operate, but it did allow me plenty of face time with the leadership team.
Through them, I learned how a company operates at a very senior level. I was able to see how leaders think and what tactics are best to use, which ultimately helped me step into the CEO role once I started my own company.
Getting to know people, building strong relationships, and learning how to interact with senior leaders are often more important lessons than any hard skills you’ll learn in a role.
So much of what you learn in any job is through osmosis.
You can’t truly learn professionalism or leadership by taking a class—you develop those traits over time. And the best way to build them is by working with people who already have those qualities in spades.
When you meet someone with a skill you’d like to develop, listen to the way they talk about issues, present their solutions, or work through conflict. Take it all in. How do they effectively manage stressful situations? Or stay positive when someone is trying to drag them down?
As a founder, I still use some of the skills I picked up while working with the senior leadership team at Aeropostale. By watching their interactions, I learned how to communicate with tact and how to effectively get a point across. And I discovered how to effectively convey the same information to different personalities.
Some of the best lessons you’ll learn will come from observing others work through tough situations.
Find what you’re good at and use it to help others.
Sometimes, learning on the job is as much about self-exploration and adaptation as it is about learning a set of skills. Being thrown into a new situation will often give you a better idea of your unique value and how you can increase it as time goes on.
After my stint in investment banking, I went to business school and eventually joined the team at Aeropostale. I quickly became known as the Excel and PowerPoint junkie among the team. I wasn’t really an expert, but because of my banking and B-school background, I was miles ahead of a lot of people. It wasn’t the most glamorous skill, but training other people on these tools was something important I could offer in addition to my actual role.
To really get the most out of any job, you need to think about how you adapt to a given situation and bring as much as possible to the table.
If your job becomes monotonous, look outside your role to learn something new.
The more often you go through a process or complete a task, the easier it tends to get. Eventually, you reach a point where you’re pretty certain you could do it with your eyes closed and one arm tied behind your back.
That’s when you should start looking for something new—even if it’s just within your current company. See if you can help out on a new project or shift your focus to kick-start your mind again.
Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse than being in a boring job. But even then, you still want to push yourself to learn as much as you possibly can. You want to leave that job with people saying really great things about you—not only for your next position but for years down the line when you’ll inevitably run into someone you used to work with.
If you decide that you’ve picked up all you can, then don’t be afraid to make the leap and continue to learn and grow elsewhere.