A career is nothing if not a series of learning curves—as a student, as a new worker, as a new employee, as an employee with new responsibilities. No matter how many years you’ve been working, or how far you’ve gotten in your field, there’s always plenty to learn. (Don’t believe the hype about old dogs and new tricks.) But not all of those lessons need to be learned the hard way! Here are 12 lessons to keep in mind as you move through your career.
1. Happiness is as important as any other part of your career.
Okay, maybe it’s slightly less important than having a paycheck—having a roof over one’s head and life’s basic necessities do outweigh most things. But otherwise, life is definitely too short to stay in a job that makes you totally miserable. If you feel uncomfortable with what you’re asked to do, or have a terrible boss, or can’t stand your work environment—those are all major red flags that you should be doing something else, or at least somewhere else.
2. Mistakes are not fatal.
If you’re a heart surgeon or an airline pilot, then yes, there are more important stakes here. But for most of us, mistakes happen, and then we move on. That’s not to say there are no consequences—there usually are. But sometimes things will just go wrong at work, and all you can do is work on overcoming them and move on.
3. No job is worth your health.
If you’re so stressed out that you’re not eating, or wake up every night at 4 a.m. after having the same stress nightmare about your inbox, then that’s not a sustainable career plan. If you’re sick and miserable, you’re not going to perform at your best. Then you’re even more sick and miserable…and on and on. That is not a cycle that will help you reach any of your career goals.
4. Be open to new opportunities.
Even if you’re relatively content in your job, or aren’t interested in a job hunt right now, don’t close yourself off to other opportunities. Keep your networking relationships current, and make sure your resume is updated periodically to reflect your current experience and skills, because you just never know when an opportunity might come along.
5. Don’t sweat the everyday things.
This is especially important if you’re still starting out in your career. Things like setting up meetings, making presentations, sending an email to a group of people—these can seem like daunting tasks, fraught with all kinds of room for public mistakes. But really, they’re just tasks. Do as good a job as you can, and move on. If you make a mistake, learn from it and make sure you apply that the next time.
6. Don’t be a lone wolf.
Ultimately, your career is about you. But without team members or colleagues helping you along the way (even if it’s just doing their own jobs so you can do theirs), you’re not going to make a ton of progress. Plus, you never know what you can learn from others. It’s important to make connections with the people you see and work with every day.
7. You control your destiny.
Business writer Francisco Marconi sees this as a variation on “you’re on your own,” but I prefer to think of it is each of us being our own best advocate. You set your goals, you decide what’s right for you, and you are the one who gets to make bottom-line decisions about your career. If you just drift along, letting everyone else define your career, you can end up in a spot where you’re unhappy about your job, or regretful of chances you didn’t take. So make sure that you’re setting goals that will make you feel fulfilled, and do everything you can to meet those milestones along the way.
8. Failure is not the end.
It certainly doesn’t feel great to fall short of expectations (yours or others’), but sometimes failure is what you need to either a) teach a valuable lesson about how you’re doing things; or b) helping you realize that you should be doing something else. Some of the most successful people have failed, and rather than let that define their careers, they took the painful lesson and moved forward. Even if you’re fired, it’s not necessarily the death of your career. There’s always something to be learned in failure, which you can then apply toward being more successful in your career.
9. Cultivate outside interests.
If you find yourself working long hours, sacrificing personal time to answer emails after hours, and basically living and breathing your job, that’s a shortcut to burnout. Outside of work, set aside time for hobbies and interests. Doing things that are creative, or give you an outlet, can actually make you a better worker. You could be building creative or problem solving skills that might very well come in handy at work at some point. Or it might just relax you, and give your brain some down time so that you can come back to work happier and more refreshed, and ready to tackle the issues of the day.
10. Find a de-stressing method that works for you.
Whether it’s five minutes of desk yoga, or basic meditation exercises, you will need a way to calm workday stresses at some point. Even if you love your job with a passion, it’s important to have coping mechanisms in place for when things don’t go 100% well, or when days are extra busy.
11. Move outside your zone sometimes.
Doing things that are new, or which you’re not very good at (yet) can be scary. It’s much easier to keep doing what you know, and improving at things you’re already familiar with. But what happens if the job you’re really good at doing is eliminated, or you find out that you need new skills to move forward in your career? It’s important to branch out and be good at different things, even if you don’t plan to use them. For example, if you’re great at writing emails or explaining things in writing, but lousy at presenting, sign up for a public speaking class. Target those weak areas so that you can convert them into a strength.
12. Disconnect sometimes.
Put the phone down. Shut off the iPad. Set up some screen-free time with your favorite people. Part of the reason people are more stressed than ever is that we’re attached (often quite literally) to our devices, letting work encroach on down time. Sometimes you need to take the active step of eliminating these distractions, and that requires saying no to technology every so often. It can also help at work as well, if you set an email-and-phone-free hour to work on a project that’s been lagging, or you have a meeting where no one’s multitasking on their phone or tablet while you talk.
13. Never stop building your network.
Meeting people in your field, or following influential people on social media, is one of the most important things you can do for long-term career health. You never know when opportunities might come through these folks, or when information you learned from them can come in handy. Plus, it’s nice to have a support network, whether it’s personal or professional. Think of it as professional gardening: sometimes it can be tedious to water and fertilize your plants (if you’re not green-thumb-inclined, like I’m not), but if you stick with it you have grown something that you can continue to appreciate and enjoy.
If there are other lessons you’ve learned along the way, please share away! We’d love to hear what’s worked for you.