(Jonathan O'Connell; CB photo illustration)

Here’s what your commencement speaker didn’t tell you: You’ll probably hate your first corporate job.

This is okay. I know because I hated mine. You're probably torn between feeling lucky to have a job with a big company and feeling ungrateful because you aren't excited about it. But there are ways to make it work for you, rather than fritter away your time there feeling stifled and bored.

After a year as an economist with a government agency — a job I enjoyed — I decided to join the portfolio management division at a global investment bank. The job paid very well, made my parents happy, and put a bold-faced name on my resume. But more often than not, I was miserable.   

I worked 60-hour weeks and ate more lunches, dinners and late-night snacks at my desk than I’d care to remember. I’d arrive and leave work in the dark, and everything in between was endless spreadsheets and flashing green and red terminals. It didn’t take long before any creative impulse was wiped out by standard operating procedures and endless compliance measures.

Making matters worse, I received little feedback about my performance, got few opportunities to expand my skills, and found most of my colleagues to be uninterested in little more than making money. That, of course, was the purpose of my job, and it became increasingly difficult to get motivated by the idea of making the world’s richest people even richer.

I took the job because, like many people, I was a box checker. I got good grades, got a good degree from a good university, and thought a well-paid corporate job was just another in a long list of boxes I needed to tick off. The problem? A well-paid corporate job does not equal fulfillment. And “find your passion” was never on the list.

Despite the fact that I was miserable much of the time, I now know how essential the experience was to my career.

It gave me credibility when I met with venture capitalists for my current startup, something I wouldn’t have had if I hadn’t worked for one of the world’s largest investment banks. I gained new professional qualifications that taught me about raising startup capital, which has been incredibly useful in my current job. I was also fortunate to experience the financial crisis first-hand: Being a part of history opened my eyes and helped to give me direction.

But I could have gotten far more out of the experience. And no matter how much you’re dreading the next couple of years of spreadsheets and soulless corporate jargon, you can too. It’s one thing to work in a job you find monotonous; it’s quite another to work in one that uses absolutely none of your marketable skills.

What would I have done differently? First, I would have sought out mentors immediately. All too often, I turned to my boss for advice, but he was motivated to keep me focused and the department running smoothly, not to help me figure out what I want to do next with my life. Buy people coffee. Join a corporate sports team. Work on a company volunteer program. You may cringe at the thought of spending even more time with people at work (I know I did), but the people you get to know outside of your department may be much more important than the ones inside it.

For instance, despite being interested in renewable energy, I never once tried to get input from the bank’s analysts or fund managers who were experts in that industry. They might have told me which companies they felt had the hottest prospects, or helped to introduce me to people in the field. Large global corporations may seem faceless, but they’re also filled with experts who can be a resource if you only take the time to seek them out. Don’t keep your head down. Move around.

In those first couple of years, develop transferable skills. This sounds obvious, but all too many first jobs involve grunt work that won’t translate well into other fields. I worked in a major bank but never thought to get assigned to a project that would have taught me about lending practices, a skill that would have helped me now.

Don’t just fill out spreadsheets; learn how to manage a profit-and-loss statement. Look at the processes in your company and make them more efficient. You’d be surprised how manual some work can be — streamline it for people and you’ll not only be rewarded, but gain skills that will go far in the nonprofit world.

Finally, set timelines for your next move, and do your best to stick to them. One of the most surprising things I found about entering the professional world is that there are few signposts that mark beginnings and endings; few milestones that help you know when it’s time to move on. In college there are grades, semesters and summer vacation. At work there is typically little feedback and even fewer reminders of how much time has passed. It all starts to bleed together.

This is especially true if you’re working for someone who seems to have little interest in your development. When I finally quit and told the head of my department I’d decided to move on to other things, his response was: “All right, see you later.” Not the sort of reaction you would expect from someone to whom you’d just given four years of 12-hour days. Companies often exploit their young hires, but there are good bosses and bad bosses. Which one you have can change everything.

The longer you stay in one place, the more “what ifs” life stacks up around you. Every job — even a humdrum, entry-level rung on the corporate ladder — has things it can teach you, but it doesn’t take long to master most of them. Learn what you can and move on.

Howe is a partner with Escape the City , a startup recruitment Web site that helps match professionals with adventurous entrepreneurial jobs.

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