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Advice for the newly employed and those who hope to be

In July 1999, I was a month out of college. One day, after an early supper with my parents, I got into my beat-up Ford Taurus and started driving toward the setting sun. My destination was Santa Fe, N.M. — and my first job. I had tears in my eyes. I was sad to leave my family and friends. I was excited. I was scared. I put Guns N' Roses in the tape player and turned it all the way up.

Ten years have passed in a flash. Sure, there was some loss and some heartbreak. Yes, I might have done things a little bit differently. No, I'm not the person I thought I'd be when I was 22. But I'm still standing, and I guess that's the point.

I never did hit the lottery, so I have spent the majority of my waking hours at my job. Before I forget my first decade working, I wanted to share the unvarnished truth with the kid who is packing up this week or next month. Here are 11 lessons for people about to embark on their new job:

1. Seek interesting problems, not prestigious positions. Find problems that stimulate you and get you out of bed in the morning. If you take care of that and do a good job, the rest should follow.

2. Seek responsibility, not income. Big paychecks are nice, but big responsibility is what will make you grow, and then income should rise.

3. Work is all about relationships. In my first week on the job, I complained to my father about the guy in the next cubicle who wouldn't stop pestering me. If only I didn't have to deal with him, I insisted, I could get on to the important stuff. "Dealing with that guy is your work," my dad said to me. I rolled my eyes. But he was right. People are hard to deal with and — get this — you're probably one of them. No matter what, though, you can't avoid them.

4. It's not what you know, it's who you know. My grandmother used to say this to me. She was right, too. Most of the major young successes I know are children of major old successes. Here's the good news: You know people. You probably don't want to ask them for a job, but if you work hard and you're reliable, they might be willing to help you.

5. Be good to people. Another hard truth is that jerks thrive in a lot of professions. Happily, there is a more profound kind of success, and a real sense of reward, when you collaborate with a team of people on a worthwhile goal. If you show one another kindness and respect, you can accomplish amazing things. The people I admire most treat everyone the same, no matter what their station in life. If you can do that every day, you'll make out fine and you can usually sleep at night.

6. Competence can be a trap. Some managers pride themselves on "getting a lot out of people." Sometimes that means "use these young kids until graduate school starts looking good to them." People who are competent and have a strong sense of responsibility will get used the most. Don't slack off. Keep your eyes open for exciting opportunities and let your supervisors know. If they're smart, they'll open those doors for you.

7. Failure is not fatal, but failure to change might be. John Wooden, the college basketball coach, said that. I would have liked to play for that guy. If only I was a little bit taller.

8. Don't sit in judgment; make things. My friends who are happiest in their work make things — laws, furniture, better students. Those who complain maintain things — buildings, markets, the status quo.

9. Find balance. I'm a 32-year-old guy with a good job that I work at 70 hours a week. I take no vacation. I've gained 15 pounds. I have no wife and no kids, but I wish I did. I'm obviously no authority on this. You should prioritize your life outside of work early on. Otherwise, you'll get in a rut that gets deeper every day.

10. Find a mentor. A big reason I've stayed in my job for eight years (sounds like forever) is because my boss is a decent man and a good leader whose insights and style I've liberally stolen. He gives me the time of day, really candid advice and encouragement when I screw up.

11. Stick around. I've never attended graduate school. I don't learn much sitting in a classroom. I learn from having to speak to a roomful of people who are paying my company, or from going on a business trip to a new country. That's another reason why I've stayed in my job. About two years in, when most of my peers went to law school or business school, my experience made me valuable. I was taking on responsibility every day. I was managing a big team. I was thriving. By contrast, peers who have jumped from job to job or school to school miss out on the chance to really understand the organization and master the work. They move on just before they get that chance to grow. Don't be a jumper.

I reserve the right to revise this list 10 years from now, when time has dulled my memory and made me more nostalgic.

I hope one or two of these ideas will help people lucky enough, in this tough economy, to have a new job in their immediate future. But if you're anything like I was, you'll probably just roll your eyes.

Good luck.

McCannon is a vice president at the Institute for Healthcare Improvement in Cambridge, Mass.