How to Take Initiative: Definition & Complete Guide for Career & Education

To truly succeed at school and work, you need to learn to take initiative. Learn the meaning of initiative and steps for improving here!

“The early bird gets the worm!” 

We’ve all heard the expression before, but if you’re a heavy sleeper, you might have dismissed it out of hand. Sure, people who wake up early get there first! So what?

Those early risers among us know: the expression isn’t about laziness or going to bed early when you know you have class in the morning. That wakeful bird is showing some initiative! 

“What does initiative mean?” you ask. Well, we’ll take the initiative and answer that for you! Because you took the initiative to ask, we’ll provide you with a complete guide to taking initiative, full of information that will teach you to be more like the bird and less like the worm in your academic and professional life. 

Press the snooze button one more time if you must, then read on to learn all about initiative, including actionable tips for taking initiative in your life today! 

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What Does Initiative Mean, Anyway? 

The word “initiative” is a noun, and our friends Merriam and Webster define the word as “the power or opportunity to do something before others do.” 

In essence, initiative involves three main qualities:

  • A self-starting nature
  • A proactive approach
  • Persistence in pursuit of a goal

Initiative is one of the essential qualities of a strong and competent leader. It’s a way of making it clear that you have a plan and are putting it into action on your own, without someone telling you to do so.

Initiative can look like delegation, sharing ideas, researching a route you believe in, calling out injustice when you see it, or simply asking for what you want because you believe you can handle it. 

This all sounds simple on paper, but in practice, it’s a little bit more complex. This goes double for women, gender non-conforming folks, and members of the racial global majority. Anyone who has been socially conditioned to be polite and wait their turn might feel uncomfortable with the idea of taking initiative, but the first step to challenging that is to ask “Why?” 

Even if you don’t fall into any of these groups, look back on your experiences. You’ve probably spent 12 or more years in a school, where you learned how to follow directions in exchange for praise, grades, or awards. Even so, the student leaders that you grew up with managed to step out of their two straight lines in the elementary school hallway, so you know that it’s possible. 

In truth, taking initiative can be a little bit scary! You are drawing attention to yourself, and trusting that your ideas and beliefs are strong enough to stand on their own. It can mean exposing yourself to the possibility of rejection, which is hard. 

Luckily, it’s possible to start small and still get noticed for your proactive nature in school or the workplace. Taking initiative can be as simple as asking your boss or mentor “How can I help?” Acting instead of reacting starts with baby steps and, like most academic and work-related skills, can improve over time. 

Related Read: How to Manage Your Time Effectively

Why Should I Take Initiative? 

Is it possible to survive in the academic or work world without learning to take initiative? Of course. Expect to spend a lot of time waiting for instructions from supervisors who may have antiquated ideas, or who fail to see the world from your unique and valuable perspective. 

To take initiative, you must believe that your contribution to your school or workplace is important and necessary. That requires self-confidence! Demonstrating initiative is one of the clearest ways to show employers that you possess this quality. 

This is why initiative is one of the most important qualities in a leader! Not only will your supervisors see your confidence and come to view you in a new light, but those with less confidence will trust you to lead. Yes, you are drawing attention to yourself, but would you do that if you weren’t worthy of that attention? 

Prove Your Competence With Confidence

Self-confidence leads others to have confidence in your abilities. If you put yourself out there, you may get rejected … but you might not! Suddenly, you will be in a position to see your ideas in action, gain more experience, and prove that you are creative and capable! 

Once you prove yourself, others will count you as a reliable member of the team. Supervisors will offer you opportunities for further leadership before others. When it’s time to give out promotions or awards, your new experience will rise to the surface and you will rise through the ranks. 

Save the Day by Stepping Up

Things do go wrong in the workplace. The boss may be out sick, a co-worker might quit in a rage, or the deadline might suddenly change. When that happens, will you sit around twiddling your thumbs or step up?

Taking initiative can be a form of problem-solving and, in many cases, can save the day. When you are comfortable taking the reins, you can steer any project back on track. This can make you an invaluable member of the team, and those in charge will remember that if it ever comes time to cull the herd. 

Land the Next Great Gig 

As you progress, you’ll almost always hear some version of this question in a job interview: “Tell me about a time you demonstrated leadership qualities,” or “Tell me about a time something went wrong and you took initiative.”

The more success stories you have, the clearer it will be that you are an exceptional candidate for the role. If you don’t build up your ability to take initiative, these questions can be awkward. Leadership, self-confidence, and problem-solving skills are all attractive 21st-century skills that employers are looking for, and that’s unlikely to change!  

Stand on Your Own 

You might have ambitions beyond the office or academic world. If you’re interested in a career in a creative sphere, such as writing or the arts, you will need to show initiative to survive. Remember that persistence in pursuit of a goal is a key element of taking initiative.

To make it in a creative field, you must have complete confidence in the work that you are producing. You will be submitting it to a lot of people, including gatekeepers who may be seeing your perspective for the first time. Those with initiative skills will submit and propose their ideas until someone hears them.

Those with strong initiative skills won’t wait for the approval of those gatekeepers. They might make the work anyway to prove that their voice is necessary. That is experience, too, and will serve as one more project on your resume when you begin the next project. 

Related Read: How to Use the Feynman Technique

Starting With Confidence

Imagine that your ability to take initiative is like a muscle. It’s something you must feed and build up slowly. For most of us, learning how to take initiative means developing self-confidence. 

When you’re trying to grow that muscle, you can’t just go to the gym – but you can try a few regular daily exercises that can help you to recognize your value and self-worth. Once you recognize that you are an intelligent, capable person with a unique worldview, you will feel worthy of stepping up at school or work. 

Make a List

No matter who you are or how much professional experience you have, chances are you have achieved a lot in your life. Start and maintain a list of your achievements so you can see them all in one place. 

Were you captain of a sports team? Did you win an award for academic achievement? Did you get a poem published, or see a piece of your artwork hanging in a gallery? 

Think small if you have to. Good grades count. Learning a new skill, even if it’s a hobby, counts. 

You’ll know that you’re capable because you’ll have tangible proof. Plus, it can be inspiring to look at your list in those moments when your attempt at initiative doesn’t work out and you’re facing a setback. 

Related Read: How to Stop Overthinking

Set a Baby Goal

Your first act of initiative probably won’t be too radical. If you’re working on building self-confidence, nobody expects you to storm into the boss’s office, deliver a rousing speech, and immediately demand a raise! 

Instead, set a small goal and see it through. Make sure it’s a SMART goal, with actionable steps and a clear timeframe. Prove to yourself that you can see something through from beginning to end. 

Give Yourself a Pep Talk

Have someone ever caught you off-guard with an unexpected compliment? Even a person randomly complimenting your hair or your outfit can put a smile on your face for the entire day. If you’ve ever refreshed a social media feed waiting for likes, you know that the opinions of others can radically shift your mood. 

Waiting for others to say something nice is the opposite of initiative. Say something nice about yourself! You may feel silly, but consider looking in the mirror and telling yourself how amazing you are! 

Write out some post-it notes with positive compliments about yourself and leave them on the mirror where you get ready in the morning. Start your day thinking about your intrinsic value, worth, and skills. 

Take a Tiny Risk

Taking initiative can feel uncomfortable at first. Self-confidence can start with getting comfortable with discomfort. What is the smallest way that you can step outside of your comfort zone today? 

Here are a few ideas to try:

  • Compliment a stranger
  • Insist on paying for a friend at a coffee shop
  • Plan a get-together and invite someone you don’t know well
  • Buy a scratch ticket
  • Try to speak three times at a club meeting
  • Request a change in your schedule at work

All of these little risks come with the potential for failure, from social rejection to losing money. Take the risk and experience what it feels like for things to go right…or wrong. Sit with your failure and try again to build resilience. 

When you’re building muscle, you’ll be sore at first. Failure or rejection might be hard. Ultimately, however, you will grow stronger, the sting will hurt less, and you’ll be ready to step up at work or in school!

Related Read: 10+ Niche Social Media Sites & Vertical Networks to Join in 2022

Tips on Taking Initiative at School

Are you feeling stronger and more confident now? Are you ready to take risks and grow as a student and learner? Showing initiative in the school setting is a great way to gain experience that will help you stand out among other entry-level candidates as you finish school and set off toward your future.

When your professors notice you and can speak to your skills, you’ll be able to count on a collection of references and letters of recommendation. You will be able to fill your first resume or CV with valid experiences. Your network will grow, and experiences might come your way before you even need to seek them! 

Here are some suggestions about how to take initiative proactively while you’re still in college. 

Raise Your Voice in Class

There’s a Hermione Granger in every class – the student who constantly has their hand raised, and has an answer to every question the professor could pose. You know who they are whether you’ve ever spoken. This is because volunteering to speak and demonstrate a point of view during classroom discussions is a way to show academic initiative. 

Where’s the risk? Your ideas or opinions might be different than the ideas or opinions of other students. By expressing yourself, however, you will be exposing your classmates to your point of view – which means you have the power to change minds and perspectives!

If you consistently speak up (even if you don’t become the Hermione Granger just yet), you can bet that your professors and classmates will notice. Both your grades and relationships may improve. 

Join a Campus Organization

Even small colleges often boast an extensive list of student clubs and organizations. How does joining one of these clubs show initiative? You are choosing to demonstrate your passion and dedication to something that interests you, which is especially important if you are going into a competitive field. 

Just about every organization on campus has an executive board that makes decisions on behalf of the organization. This may include how to spend or raise funds, planning events, or deciding what happens at meetings. What do you have to lose by running for a small position and becoming one of the decision-makers?

Even as an alternate officer, the rest of the board will invite you to participate in executive board meetings. When you’re part of a smaller and more intimate group of decision-makers, you have more opportunities for your voice to be heard. You can also see how student leaders operate and organize themselves so you can be the next club president!

Formal leadership roles look great on resumes, and you’ll almost definitely be able to gain a positive reference from the club’s faculty advisor. 

Related Read: 10+ Best Tips for Improving Communication Skills

Go to Office Hours

Have you ever actually read a course syllabus? Without fail, there is always a little section letting you know when the professor is holding office hours. Most of the time, these are hours that your professor is spending alone in an office, hoping and praying that an engaged student will come by to chat! 

If you’re one student in a giant lecture hall, this is a great way to introduce yourself and express interest in the subject. If your professor is an adjunct, they may currently be working in the field and be able to connect you to internships or job openings. If they are an academic, they may use office hours to scope out new TAs or research assistants. 

Just showing up is more than most students will do. Even if you stop by to introduce yourself, you will be taking initiative! 

Volunteer for Tasks

You don’t need to sign up to build houses in war-torn countries to take advantage of volunteer opportunities. Sometimes volunteering at school might mean setting up chairs for a speaker who is coming to campus. If the speaker is an important figure in your field, you might be buying yourself a ticket to a one-on-one conversation with an idol! 

Every time you volunteer, you are putting yourself on the radar of someone with the potential to help you out. It might be a professor in your department or even the college president! Plus, volunteering is a great way to gain experience in areas where you may have deficits and build that confidence up even further! 

Volunteering is a way to step outside of your comfort zone with very few repercussions. You can’t get fired from a volunteer job, and others will immediately perceive you as helpful and willing to contribute. Don’t be surprised if a volunteer opportunity leads to a paid one shortly! 

Related Read: How to Stop Procrastinating

Tips on Taking Initiative at Work

If you’ve managed to land a job or internship, then you might already have experience taking initiative! For someone to choose you for a selective position, it means you’ve already advocated for yourself, spoken from experience, and proven you are capable of leadership!

If you want to stand out from other interns or employees, however, there are still some things that you can do to move up the ranks and see your ideas come to fruition. 

Be In the Room

As an intern or entry-level employee, you’ll probably hear about meetings. Meetings happen just about anywhere, from the least stressful jobs to the most stressful jobs. You might even hear that these meetings are optional for someone in your position. Go anyway!

These meetings are where top employees discuss their thoughts and take action. You will be able to observe the movers and shakers in the company or organization and understand what qualities set them apart. You will make yourself known to them since even showing up is going above and beyond! 

Once you’ve become a reliable meeting attendee, don’t be afraid to speak up if you have a thought, idea, or contribution. If a task seems like something you can handle, why not volunteer yourself? Expressing interest is the first step for gaining more responsibility and becoming indisposable. 

Don’t Eat Lunch Alone

Important relationships are often formed in mundane places – and that might be the staff room or cafeteria. Just because you’re low in the rankings doesn’t meet that you need to scuttle off and eat lunch alone in your car! Take the initiative and ask if you can sit with more established co-workers and begin to build relationships! 

You don’t need to become best friends with your boss to make change happen in the workplace. You just need to prove to others that you’re a human being beyond the job. After all, wouldn’t you be more likely to run an idea past a confidant than the stranger in the next cubicle? 

Allow others to learn your name and professional interests. Become a person who is on their radar. When it’s time to dole out responsibilities, you’ll be more than an anonymous name on a list. 

Don’t Be Afraid to Ask!

Even if you got the job, you aren’t expected to know everything! Asking a question can feel humbling, but it’s proof that you want to understand and do the best job possible. Asking a question about something beyond the realm of your role is a way to express interest and continue to grow as an employee. 

Asking can go beyond questions, too! Ask for more responsibility when you’ve finished with a task! Ask how you can help, or if there are any opportunities to develop your professional skills! 

Even if they say no this time, you’ll be demonstrating that you are ready and willing to do more and learn more. Keep asking! Eventually, someone will reward your initiative with a way to show off exactly what you can do.

Related Read: Tips for Dealing With Anxiety & Overcoming Stressful Situations

You’re an Early Bird in Training

The early bird doesn’t catch the worm because they woke up early. The early bird catches the worm because they took the initiative to set their alarm, get outside early, put in the time to grow their worm-catching skills, and collect excellent worm-catching references! 

What does initiative mean? It means showing off your self-confidence by putting yourself out there first. It means catching the worm even though you might miss it because you know that’s how you grow!

You can use these tips for taking initiative immediately by downloading the Goodwall app (Android or iOS) and forging connections with other students and young professionals. You’ll gain access to a network of other early birds who are eager to expand their skills and experiences. Sign up today to get started!

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Goodwall Team
Written By Goodwall Team
This article was written by the Goodwall team or by a contributor for publication on Goodwall. Goodwall is dedicated to helping students, entrepreneurs, and young professionals reach their full potential. We'll share thought-provoking and supportive articles on career advice, self-improvement, navigating the college landscape, climate action, social impact, and more. On the business side, we'll talk about SMB subjects related to community, diversity, talent acquisition, case studies, and enterprise.

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