Starting a new job: tips to survive as the new kid in the office

Starting a new job can be terrifying. Exciting, sure, but mostly just terrifying. Even just knowing where the pens are kept and what to do if you run out of something takes time. The amount of effort that is required to get up to speed is sometimes Herculean and if you work with the public or with clients, it can be even worse. They neither know nor care that you are new and can’t even find the paperclips yet, they expect you to be able to help them right now, dangit! This can be both stressful and disheartening.

I began working for the Law Library in January of this year. Before that, I was a children’s librarian in a public library, so coming to a law library was like veteran knee surgeon switching to gastroenterology. In French. Or an attorney who spent the last 10 years practicing Criminal Law switching to Probate. In French. The general concepts are the same, but the process, the resources and even the rules are completely different. I was 100% a fish out of water and had to learn absolutely everything that I know now (which, admittedly isn’t much) as I went along and it was the most stressful thing I’ve ever done.

Whether you are a recent law school graduate awaiting your bar exam results and looking for you first job as a “real attorney” or a seasoned veteran looking to make a move into another field, here are some tried (by me) and true suggestions for surviving as the new kid in the office.

1. Don’t be afraid to look stupid.
You are new. You are learning. There are things you aren’t going to know, there are things you aren’t going to be good at right off, especially if this is you first job in the field. No one expects you to hit the ground running. Don’t be hard on yourself if you make mistakes or don’t know something. Showing that you can learn is often more impressive than showing what you already know. Try to have a good sense of humor about it and accept the humility that comes with having to admit, over and over, that you don’t know.

Lots of them. Make “the only stupid question is the one left unasked” your motto for a few months at least. Don’t guess. Don’t make assumptions. If you aren’t sure, ask. Believe me when I tell you that your coworkers don’t mind. If they do mind, that’s a pretty good indication for how long you should stay in this position (read: not very).

3. Don’t be afraid of being annoying.
As a Millennial, this is my big stumbling block. I’m constantly worried I am annoying people if I interrupt them to ask a question. Surely, I think, my coworkers must all hate me because I am constantly bothering them, even though my brain is telling me that in my own experience with new staff, I would infinitely prefer they interrupt me to ask for help than to do something incorrectly. If you have a coworker who seems annoyed by your questions, apologize. Acknowledge that their time is valuable and that you appreciate them giving some of it to you. Maybe try writing down all of your questions to ask at once rather than causing multiple small interruptions.  If you can, vary the coworkers you ask so you limit the number of interruptions to each individual person. I’ve also found that baked goods go a long way toward smoothing over any annoyances.

4. Don’t try to fake it.
They’ll see right through it and they’ll lose respect for you. If you need it, ask for help. Most people don’t mind helping out the new kid and many will be flattered that you asked. Admitting you don’t know something, showing vulnerability, can be very hard, but it can also be rewarding. Reaching out to your coworkers for help can set the groundwork for future collaborations and also take a big step toward teamwork and possibly even friendships that are important to a healthy work life.

5. Be patient.
Be patient with yourself as well as with others. Rome wasn’t built in a day. You’ll get there. Every job I have ever held has at least one thing that can only be found if you already know where it is. “You just have to know” is probably the most frustrating answer to “how do I find that in the future?” It’s like a really bad joke on all the new kids. Accept this and try not to let it frustrate you too much.

6. Take deep breaths.
You’re going to feel overwhelmed a lot. Every time you find yourself feeling panicky or inundated, take a slow, deep breath. Don’t let yourself get flustered by someone else’s impatience. If a client or other outside person becomes annoyed because you don’t know something or can’t find something, calmly explain that you’re new, crack a joke, and call in help if you need it. I like to say “So I’m brand new, I don’t know right now, but we’re going to learn together.” Or “let me call so-and-so, I’m still new and they’re better at this than I am.” Self-deprecation goes a long way toward disarming impatient people.

7. For the love of all that’s holy, organize!
You will not remember everything. You will not keep up with everything. Make lists. Take notes and then type up those notes. Set yourself reminders. You’re probably going to have a lot of downtime while they wait for you to get up to speed - use this time wisely. Go over any notes you’ve taken. Read any pertinent information closely. If you don’t understand something, ask. Keep a running tally of your responsibilities so you don’t forget anything.

8. Plan lots of extracurricular stress relief during the first few weeks.
Whether this is your first job or your tenth, the first few weeks are stressful and exhausting. It’s important to maintain that work-life balance during this time to keep yourself from early burnout. Exercise, vent, hang out with friends, be creative, try to get plenty of sleep, meditate. Remember that when you’re stressed, your immune system weakens, increasing your chance of developing that progress-derailing cold. Take care of yourself. Eat well. It’s important.

9. Befriend the nicest person in the office.
Every office I have ever worked in has at least one person who is just really nice. They’re always glad (eager, even) to answer questions, point you in the right direction, listen when you have concerns and just generally care about how you are doing. If you’re lucky, it’s your boss. If you’re extremely lucky, it’s your office mate. Be very nice to this person. Bring them treats. Let them know how much you appreciate them and their kindness. Trust me, it goes a long way.

10. If you have to, use unconventional methods to get yourself up to speed.
I struggle with reading legal texts (they're not exactly riveting), so I joined a committee that reviews legal books. That way I have to read them closely. I struggle with finding things in our electronic record, so I took over those job responsibilities from one of my coworkers who was going on leave. That way I was forced to learn the nuts and bolts of the system. Sometimes a good deadline or rock-and-a-hard-place situation is just the motivation you need to get you up to speed on a topic.

Not every job is going to be the job whose excitement and fulfillment command your loyalty for the next 30 years, but beginning a new job doesn’t have to be traumatic. Take a deep breath, plaster a smile on your face and you’ll be all right.