Into the Real-World
At age 21, I was on the brink of entering the so-called “real-world,” eager to start writing professionally and excited for new adventures in a big city. I’d already held multiple jobs throughout high school, everything from babysitting to teaching gymnastics to manning the snack bar at the local country club, and in college, I waitressed alongside a paid internship. I thought I knew a thing or two about hard work, growth, and hustle. I felt prepared for adulting and ready to dive headfirst into a successful career.
Now, after ten years in the communications industry, I’ve done pretty well for myself—but I’ve also definitely had a few facepalm moments, lessons I wish I had learned a bit sooner. Since I can’t go back in time, here are the top 20 pieces of career advice I wish my younger self had paid more attention to, and why they matter so much.
Pick Up The Phone
A former coworker once told me to email less, call more, and I laughed it off as old-school. Wrong. Too much is lost in translation in this digital day and age; what’s worse, it’s easy to misinterpret context or intention. Why spend 15 minutes crafting the perfect message when you could get a straight answer in 5, you know? Better yet, hearing the nuance in someone’s voice provides valuable insight that could be useful to your end goal.
Actually Get To Know Your Team
I never used to understand people who were BFFs with their colleagues; didn’t they have, like, friends and family at home? However, the individuals around you will prove to be your most useful asset. I don’t mean useful as in, “use them,” but more the fact that you can learn from your peers every single day. You can cultivate relationships so that when things get rough or you have a bad day or you get backlogged on a project, you have access to help. You also never know what others are dealing with on a day-to-day basis. Figuring out what makes someone tick, what matters to them, where their strengths and weaknesses lie is all part of feeling connected to one another as humans.
Ask For A Raise
I spent a lot of months wondering whether or not I’d get a raise or a bonus at the end of each year or upon every performance review. Instead, I wish I had advocated for myself and asked for that monetary recognition. As a manager now, I realize that the people on my team who I’m likely to promote are the ones who tactfully go to bat for themselves, because they know where and exactly how their work contributes. If you feel like you’re going above and beyond, and delivering high-quality results, then ask to be compensated as such.
You know the old saying, “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me”? It’s true. Assumptions lead to stereotypes, like thinking men excel at math and women are good at communicating, or people who speak English as a second language can’t digest information quickly, or someone older than you isn’t capable of picking up new technology. Avoid jumping to conclusions, particularly when an issue arises at work, and instead gather necessary context to find a solution or make a decision.
No Task Is Beneath You
There are moments in every single job, in every industry, where you look around the room and think, “I’m getting paid for this?” or “I went to school for that?” You might be pushing papers, running errands, logging data or any other menial task, but don’t roll your eyes or huff and puff. Any leader worth their salt understands that all responsibilities and roles matter. Working your way up from the bottom gives you a more well-rounded perspective regarding how your company or business or department functions, plus highlights where you can make the most impact.
Questions Aren’t a Sign of Weakness
Early in my career, I kept mum during meetings with supervisors even if I wasn’t quite sure of the ask being made of me, or what steps needed to be taken next. I thought questions were for people who couldn’t figure things out on their own, and I desperately wanted to be viewed as someone competent and wise. But the smartest people ask questions. Lots of them. You’re not supposed to know everything; the goal is to learn as much as possible. So don’t be afraid to question the norm, clarify the unusual and investigate gaps in your knowledge base.
Don’t Bow Down to Bullies
When you work with a bully, especially one in a leadership role, you often feel like you’re not allowed to say anything or you simply have to put up with it. But you don’t have to tolerate them, nor should you. Conflict and disagreement is normal and healthy; a coworker who constantly interrupts, belittles or manipulates is not okay. Deep down, bullies want three things: to feel safe, like they belong and that they matter. That’s not necessarily your problem to solve, but the bullying itself isn’t a testament to your worth. Talk to HR, stick up for yourself, and let the bully know their behavior is inappropriate.
Always Take a Seat at the Table
As a young assistant, I typically placed myself in the back of the room during meetings. I didn’t want to get in the way, or take someone’s seat, or be a distraction. Truthfully, it’s because I didn’t believe I was important enough to be part of the conversation, and I wish I had viewed myself in a different light sooner. You were hired for a reason; show up and speak up accordingly.
Your Lack of Preparation Is Nobody Else’s Problem
Ever been in the position of running late on a deadline, and coming up with some excuse about what got in the way? Me too. And it’s kind of a crappy move. Of course things do come up, and the unexpected happens, but most of the time, I get behind on a work-related project because I didn’t prioritize my time appropriately. That’s nobody’s fault but your own, so don’t make it anyone’s else’s problem. Stay on schedule, plan ahead and allow for an extra cushion of time for potential issues, so you can execute properly.
It’s Okay To Feel Like You Don’t Know What You’re Doing
Guess what: everybody experiences imposter syndrome occasionally, where you worry you’re going to be “found out” as a fraud. However, all the moments in my career over the past ten years where I felt afraid, in new territory and out of my comfort zone led to the most growth. People fake it until they make it all the time; it’s a natural part of evolving as a professional.
I see a lot of people who come into a job and assume their role is to check off every single responsibility perfectly. And yes, that’s great. But the best employees take it a step further. I wish I had embraced risk more frequently instead of striving to be perfect. If you’re not sure how to start, just notice when you think to yourself, “Wouldn’t it be interesting if we . . . “ or “I wonder what would happen if . . . “ and go from there. Let your curiosity be a guide, and it’ll likely pay back tenfold.
You’re Not Better Than Anyone Else
This one is easy: remember to lose the ego. You’re part of a team, not the special hero coming in to save the day. I’m not suggesting you lack confidence, but find a way to stay humble at the same time. Every person you work with should contribute to your company in some form, and the combination of different skills, talents and personalities adds much-needed dimension. It’s not just about you.
Unexpected Detours Are Hidden Lessons
I planned on going to law school after college, so I studied hard for the LSAT my senior year and did well. Then I realized that I absolutely dreaded the idea of being a lawyer. Like, I had no desire to follow through on it, even though that had been my plan for years. After freaking out for a few weeks before graduation, I accepted a random job through my religion professor at a church, and joined the team as an associate editor. Working at a church was not on my list, and it wasn’t part of my intended trajectory; At the time, I felt completely lost and like I had no direction. But that initial, unexpected job taught me how to read, write and edit, and led to a series of gigs that not only honed those abilities, but allowed me to figure out a course in healthcare communications and freelance writing instead.
Follow-Through Trumps Genius
You can be the smartest person in the world, but nothing beats an ability to follow through on an assignment or execute for results. For a long time, I wanted to be the intelligent person everyone came to for brainstorming. I quickly learned that being the person who got things done, and fast, was more critical to the success of a team or department, and doing so led to three promotions in the span of a year.
Be Willing to Adapt
The biggest problem area I’ve seen with employees over periods of time involves an unwillingness to be nimble or adapt. Ten years ago, I thought you entered a field, found a job, moved up the corporate ladder and eventually retired. That may be the case for some people, and yet, you may instead need to shift gears repeatedly within one position. Or hop companies when your start-up goes under. Or learn three brand new software programs at once. Be willing to readjust.
Just don’t. It makes you look like a jerk, and ruins trust. Take the high road and set a positive example. Each time I indulge in a little bit of gossip, I immediately feel a sense of “ugh,” so now I avoid it whenever possible. Vent when you need to--that’s to be expected once in awhile--but don’t lower yourself to a base level by running your mouth. Especially if you’re privy to confidential information.
Give Yourself Permission to Change Your Mind
Over the years, I’ve watched managers and directors do one of two things when presented with a different point of view on a topic: they either stick to their guns firmly, wanting to appear strong, or they allow themselves to frame up a revised stance. The latter is ideal. Admitting when you are wrong, or acknowledging that you may need to create room for another opinion or choice, is brave. Giving yourself permission to change your mind indicates that you will prioritize what’s best for a given situation versus your own pride.
Articulate What You Want
Nobody is ever going to walk over to you, tap you on the shoulder, and say “Hey, it seems like you secretly might want to work on that presentation, here you go.” Or, “What kind of data is most interesting to you?” Or “Why don’t you lead with this client?” Okay, if you have an exceptional manager or boss, they might actually say these things, but for the most part, you need to articulate what you want. People can’t read minds, and it’s good practice to clarify where you feel the most energized, useful and engaged. It’s easier to get access to opportunities for growth if you constantly verbalize your enthusiasm.
Take Your Lunch Break
In most work cultures, the name of the game is hustle, hustle, hustle. Oh, and do it at the speed of lightning. Whether you subscribe to that or not, I’d like to return to my younger self and remind her to take a break. Namely, her actual lunch break, rather than slamming leftovers while staring at a computer screen at noon. Breaks are good for the mind, spirit and body; they keep you healthy and sane. Do not overwork yourself. Use your vacation days, paid time off, go for a morning walk around the block—whatever it takes to give yourself a moment to breathe. You’ll be more productive in the long run, I swear.
You Spend A Lot of Time Working - Find a Way To Enjoy It
Consider this: you’ll supposedly spend a third of your life at work, or more if you work upwards of 40 hours a week. You don’t necessarily need a job that fulfills every desire and passion, but it’s cool to enjoy what you do versus complain about it. Life is too short to shudder at the thought of going to work every day. No matter what, find your joy in every job.