5 Epic Career Lessons I Learned in My 20s
My 30th birthday is a few days away, and, according to prevailing traditions, I should be making a fuss over it. Milestone birthdays like these call for parties and cocktails and reminiscing and, at the end of it all, realizing that you just can’t drink like you used to.
But instead, I’m taking a look back at the last 10 years and my winding career path. Am I where I expected to be at 30? Not exactly. I thought I would be in academia, and instead I’m in marketing. I thought I would work in an office with lots of plants and free snacks and pencil skirts, and instead I work from home in yoga pants and drink from bottomless pots of coffee.
Nevertheless, I learned a lot about the professional world in my 20s. More often than not, though, I learned these lessons the hard way, and now I want to grab each young woman I meet by the sock bun and scream, “Don’t make the same mistakes I made!”
Since that’s not a legal option, here are the top five career truths I’ve learned since entering the professional world—the ones I only wish I knew a decade ago.
1. Ask Not What Your Company Can Do for You, but What You Can Do for Your Company
My first job out of college was as an administrative assistant at a blossoming ad agency, and I spent most of my energy there trying to prove to people around me that I was too smart to be an administrative assistant. I tried to orchestrate conversations that would allow me to casually mention what I considered my greatest achievements. Meanwhile, I begrudgingly filed expense reports and planned meetings, thinking about how all of my talent was just going to waste. Ten months later I quit and fled across the country to graduate school because I felt like the job just “wasn’t going anywhere.”
Five years later, I recognized this same sentiment in a young man I managed when he complained and later resigned because his position “wasn’t resume-building.” At that moment, I was able to pinpoint what had been so frustrating about working with him and, in turn, what must have been so frustrating about working with a younger me. He and I both assumed that the purpose of the position was to help us, that it was a stepping-stone to a bigger, better job. But what we didn’t understand is that companies don’t exist to help young people grow. They exist to make money. And if people grow in the process, well that’s a bonus.
The best way—the only way—to grow in a position is to channel all your energy into helping your employer succeed, learning as much as you can about your company’s goals, and determining how you can help achieve them. Your “personal development” should be secondary: a result of, rather than the driver behind, the work you do.
2. Every Mother is Not Your Mother (Same Goes for Fathers)
Early in my career, I tended to think that parents I worked with were like my parents—endlessly interested in my life and armed with a never-ending cache of advice to bestow upon me. It took actually becoming a mother myself to realize that these feelings are mostly limited to one’s actual offspring.
While an older colleague could become your mentor, assuming that senior teammates have paternal or maternal feelings toward you can go horribly wrong. To ask for occasional career guidance is one thing, but going to a colleague for advice that you’d typically seek from parents quickly crosses personal boundaries. Not to mention that pigeonholing your older colleagues as mother or father figures who dole out personal advice could be interpreted as a lack of respect for (or awareness of) their professional expertise. And the last thing you want to do is alienate veterans in your field (or highlight the experience gap—professional and personal—between you).
3. Establish a Healthy Work-Life Balance Before You “Need” to Do So
I agree with Sheryl Sandberg’s advice that women should aggressively pursue their career ambitions before they have children so that they’ll be better positioned for flexible hours and a viable salary when they start a family. But, as I wrote a few weeks ago, it’s just as important to set personal guidelines for a reasonable work-life balance before children (or other personal commitments, like illness or caring for an elder family member) make it imperative.
I failed to set this standard for myself in one of my first management positions and quickly became a 24/7 resource for a particularly difficult client. I took their calls late into the evening, responded to texts early in the morning, and flew to their office far more often than the size of their account merited. I mistook this constant busyness and stress for professional success, failing to see that not only was the client barely worth the effort from a financial perspective, but that I was creating this problem for myself by refusing to set reasonable boundaries.
Prioritize the “extra-curricular” activities you love and don’t be afraid to set scheduling expectations with your colleagues and clients. Doing so will help you stay happy, balanced, and sane, but will also show your colleagues and your employer that you’re thoughtful about your time and committed to your passions. Likewise, when a work-life adjustment is necessary later in life, the transition will be less jarring for you and your boss.
4. Identify Your Weaknesses, and Remind Yourself to Destroy Them
We all have two types of weaknesses: those we supply when asked “What are your biggest weaknesses?” in an interview, and our actual weaknesses, the ones we rarely admit to ourselves but readily identify in other people. The latter type of weakness is typically a behavioral habit—like losing your temper or becoming frustrated easily—and it can be detrimental to your career if you let it grow unchecked. And while simply acknowledging the weakness won’t make it disappear, reminding yourself of the weakness and consciously prohibiting yourself from demonstrating it can work wonders.
For example, each time I begin a new position, I remind myself that, as a result of day-one jitters, I can make a first impression that borders on giggly. Pair this with my high-pitched voice, and my new co-workers are already emailing HR about child labor laws. So I remind myself of this tendency and then actively defend against it (my go-to move: Use a mild curse word within the first 90 minutes of the day). I do the same thing before I meet clients for the first time or enter an important meeting. These habits won’t magically disappear, but training myself to be aware of them has helped me control and even overcome a few (like shaky presentation voice or raising my shoulders to my ears when I’m stressed).
5. Oh for God’s Sake, Just Quit Smoking
I quit smoking in January(ish) of the year I graduated college. In other words, I spent two perfectly good years of my 20s trying to knock a few off a later decade, and it still bums me out.
You’ll regret a lot of things you do in your 20s, but quitting smoking won’t be one of them. You’ll be glad that you won’t be part of the shrinking group of employees who huddle 25 feet away from the building’s entrance. You’ll notice that your officemates sit closer to you at the conference table. And you’ll save a big chunk of your entry to mid-level salary.
Overall, I wish my 20-something self had a little more patience and a little more gall. But on my 30th birthday, when I drink two glasses of wine and collapse into bed at quarter after 10, I’ll be wiser for learning these truths, one way or another.
Photo of woman at work courtesy of Shutterstock.
Rikki Rogers is a writer and marketer working outside of our nation’s capitol. When she’s not stuck in traffic, she enjoys writing poetry and running after her son. Since earning her BA from University of Virginia and her MFA from University of Utah, she's served in marketing and communication positions at a number of tech companies in the DC area. You can read more about her obsession with language and culture at www.rikkiwrites.com.More from this Author