3 fundamental tips for building a future

The views expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Up until my first job out of graduate school, I thought the phrase “Don’t bring me a problem, bring me the solution” was universally applicable in the business world. My professors and other role models had always maintained that the more initiative I took, the better. So when my boss tasked me with writing a paper and I couldn’t find the answers in my sphere of influence, my first instinct was to go around my department to find a solution. I didn’t go to someone else in my position, nor to my boss, but to my boss’s boss for help.

That didn’t go well.

In all my years of university study we had never covered topics like “chain of command”. I thought I was doing a great job as I was learning a hard lesson. I didn’t even learn it right away.

For today’s youth, the age-old notion that their choice of college, major, or even fields of experience will determine their path for the rest of their lives seems less true than ever. There have always been many choices in how we get from point A to point B and more than one path to success.

Related: Jefferies CEO shares 15 tips he wishes he knew as a summer intern on Wall Street

1. Don’t surprise your boss in public

Never try to surprise your boss, good or bad. Or at least do it privately first. Going around my superiors at my first job, I surprised them — negatively — a mistake I repeated about five years later. At that point, I was a marketing manager at another company, waiting for a promotion. Once again, I started taking the initiative, purchasing a pocket guide to get more information on how to operate in my new role. Instead I was fired.

The VP of sales said they couldn’t manage the budget because I was making unexpected purchases. The pocket guide was inexpensive and there were probably other factors affecting their work, but it was at least a surprise beyond those difficulties. Then, they used this statement to validate why I should no longer be a part of the company.

Even good surprises can be bad surprises unless we fully understand our boss’ intentions. If a boss announces that a project should take 40 hours to complete and someone delivers it in 10, that might come as a positive surprise. Announcing this surprise at the next general meeting, however, could undermine the boss’s credibility and judgment. If you know something surprising is coming, prepare your boss with this expectation in private and allow him to support you.

Related: 11 Successful Entrepreneurs Reveal What They Learned From Their Early Jobs

2. The best job skills are learned on the job

When my sons graduated from high school, I told them that college would teach them As think, but not necessarily What think. One of my sons learned this lesson after completing his chemistry degree. After five years, he had finished school and was unable to commit another five years away from his family to pursue an advanced degree.

So, he took a different route and was miserable for the first couple of years. Unable to find real work doing chemistry in a lab, he took on contract and temporary jobs, received little pay, was given excessive and unsatisfying work, and profited greatly.

So I challenged him: “For the next job you take on, consider looking outside chemistry.”

He took my advice and refocused his career, staying in the lab but moving into quality control. College taught my son the lingo of the industry, but it wasn’t until after earning a pittance and learning the hard knocks of bad managers and poor communication that he developed a passion for a career. He is now a well-paid and respected quality engineer in a heavily chemistry-focused environment, but not necessarily a traditional chemistry lab.

College teaches us how to learn and process data, but we only learn what we love to do by trying, failing, and exploring new experiences. When a path doesn’t work, keep an open mind. By exploring adjacent opportunities, we may find new positions that are more compatible with our skills and passions.

Related: Mark Cuban Says “Follow Your Passion” Is The Worst Career Advice You Can Get. Here because.

3. Remember who is signing the check

The first year after college can be challenging, both for first-time employees and their employers. In my experience as a small business leader, it can be difficult to hire these young professionals right away – they still have so many lessons to learn, especially who is writing their checks.

When we attend college, we write checks, and as a result, we are generally responsible for our college experience. Of course, our professors and principals set certain rules, but we can break them — showing up ten minutes late, skipping class on Monday, or not completing an assignment — and accept the consequences of a slightly lower grade. Barring serious misconduct, we practically make the decisions.

That changes the day we collect a paycheck from someone else. Instead of asking, “What will you do for me?” now we must ask ourselves: “What can I contribute to ensure that my employer gets a positive return on his investment?” This isn’t to say that someone has to work 60 hour weeks and lose their work-life balance, but it does mean that how we see ourselves as students is not the right lens for seeing ourselves as professionals. Starting from the perspective of how to get a return on that paycheck from day one will help jump-start your career.

Work, like college, can be fun in the right environment and with a good leader – like a good professor – who challenges you and gives you clear, transparent directions. This relationship will be crucial. Your boss can promote and support you or they can get in your way – building that relationship from day one can help ensure your long-term success in a company. He tries to get at least an hour of exposure weekly and to create and set mutual expectations. With initiative and the right approach, even straight out of college, most of our success is within our reach.

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