If done right, a career is a long string of learning opportunities. No one knows everything (despite what they may think or tell you), and the people who are best at what they do understand that there is always something new to be learned—about the job, about the field, about the people. Much of this knowledge is something you have to learn as you go. But there are also a number of realities and hard-fought realizations from others that can make your work life easier as you move through it.
1. Grab opportunities as they come.
This one may seem like a no-brainer, but it can be hard to spot opportunities in the wild. It can be harder still to sacrifice a stable status quo to go for one. If you come across a job opening that would be great, if only the timing weren’t a little off, or you meet someone who would be a great network member, if only you had time to grab that drink with them—try not to let those slip by. Inertia can be a choice too (albeit a default one), and you should try to make as many active choices as possible. Your career is yours, and yours alone. Nothing will happen unless you put in the effort to find and take advantage of potential stepping stones.
2. Don’t worry about the small stuff.
If you’re holding people’s lives in your hands as a healthcare provider or crossing guard, then yes—sweat the small stuff. But if you’re like many of us who have careers that do not directly impact anyone else’s safety, obsessing over small details and mistakes is unlikely to have a major impact. Do the best job you can do, and move on—obsessing over minutiae can distract you from what you really need to be accomplishing.
3. Life is short.
Wednesdays or staff meetings may seem awfully long sometimes, but in the grand scheme of things, they are not especially long-lasting. It’s important to keep in mind that sticking around around in a bad or unfulfilling work situation (or life situation, for that matter) is not in your best interest, because it’s time you could have spent being happier and more productive.
4. Look away from the screens.
Technology is fantastic, and has made virtually every aspect of our lives easier in some respects. That doesn’t mean we don’t need breaks from our many screens every day. Build time into your workday to talk with colleagues about a project instead of emailing, or get away from your desk for a bit. Your eyes—and your stress level—will thank you.
5. Make genuine connections.
Sites like LinkedIn and other career networking sites are fantastic—they keep us posted on professional development opportunities, and what our networks are up to. However, these digital connections shouldn’t be mistaken for the real thing. Whenever you can, set up time with key members of your network, just to grab a coffee and talk. Even an email can work if they’re not local, as long as it’s personal, individual outreach.
6. Challenge yourself.
We all have comfort zones: areas of things we know we do well, and feel comfortable doing. Doing things well is going to be an asset to your career, obviously, but you should also not be afraid to experiment with new things that aren’t in that comfort zone. Take on side projects that need you to stretch your skills a little. Take a class in something you never even considered learning before. And if you find yourself saying “no” to something, ask yourself why, and maybe reconsider.
7. Success is not overnight.
Especially when you’re just starting out, not having a lot of tangible success up front can be frustrating. But remember: very few people (some Silicon Valley startup wizards aside) see success right away. Career success almost always = hard work + time.
8. Neglected networks are not networks.
If you just hit someone up when you need job leads, that’s not much of a relationship. Make sure your network is current. Let people know what you’re up to, and ask what they’re up to as well. Engage by sharing articles or information about your field. Send out holiday cards once a year (digital or analog ones) to stay on people’s radar. If you’re just a faceless connection on a website, how useful is that to you or anyone else?
9. Your job is not worth your health.
Stress can have very real, very unfortunate effects on your health can well-being, like depression, anxiety, lack of sleep, and any number of small issues that can be swept away or dismissed until they’re severe. If you’re sick more often than you used to be, or find yourself waking up at 3 a.m. panicking about whether you sent that email or not, that is not a good situation. Similarly, if you find that your job is taking necessary time away from your family, or making it so that you have very little down time, it may be time to look for something more friendly to creating a work-life balance.
10. Advocate for yourself.
Learning how to negotiate is one of the most important things you can do for your career. You are truly your own best advocate, because you know your interests best. Knowing how to negotiate for raises, promotions, or salary will help you take control over your career.
11. Failure isn’t forever.
Mistakes suck, and they can be humiliating—especially if they lead to losing your job, or other major consequences. But no matter what happened, you can bounce back if you don’t get stuck in the mindset of branding yourself as a “failure.” Learning from past mistakes, and making changes so that those mistakes don’t get repeated, are actually leadership skills. But you don’t have to take my word for it: plenty of big names have suffered significant failures, and bounced back.
12. Diversify yourself.
You don’t have to be expert at everything, but try to be good at a lot of different things. That can mean taking classes to build some skills you’ll need to level up at work, or finding a new hobby that lets you build up skills outside of work. The goal is to become someone who can apply skills across a number of different disciplines. Now, more than ever, companies are looking for flexible employees who can solve problems in many different areas.
13. Don’t be a lone wolf.
Being a good team member is one of the top things hiring managers and recruiters look for in a job candidate. Someone can have all the awesome job skills and experience in the world, but still be a horror show to work with. Companies are looking for people who fit in harmoniously, because conflict is usually a drain on employee productivity, morale, and all the other factors that companies rely on to keep their business moving.
14. Make time for things that make you happy.
This doesn’t mean playing Candy Crush in the middle of the work day, or quitting your job to follow your favorite band on their European tour. It does mean finding a work-life balance where you have time to volunteer instead of answering emails after hours, or work on creative projects that you just haven’t had the time to do lately. Having outlets other than work can not only help your stress levels, but can also help you become more creative about professional matters while your brain is busy thinking of other things.
15. Tearing others down won’t build you up.
So when people ask what my favorite movie is, I usually say Caslablanca or another Official Classic. Off the record, my favorite movie is Mean Girls. Why? Because Tina Fey’s truth bomb of a movie held a lot of wisdom about how we interact with people, and how we navigate relationships at all stages of life, not just high school. One of my biggest takeaways from the movie was that your own success and peace of mind are our own, and aren’t helped along by being vicious to others out of a sense of competition. Your colleagues are your team members, they’re not standing in the way of your success. So it’s important to make sure that you’re not trying to get ahead by slagging others, or making them feel bad. Being a positive team member will get you much further than being the one who throws everyone under the bus.
If you’ve found any other bits of wisdom on your career journey, we’d love to hear about it!