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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Secret to Climbing Up the Ladder When No One's Telling You How to Do It

Congratulations to Erin Olander for her winning essay on “What Career Advice Would You Give to Your Younger Self?” The runner-up essays will be published in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for more terrific career advice from a few of our readers.

I wish someone had warned me that when you get your first job, no one is going to tell you what to do. (Well, OK, in some positions they will—they’ll have specific training sessions for you to attend, or assign you to a specific rotation for a year). But if you’re like I was four years ago, armed with a liberal arts degree and no relevant experience in the industry you’re about to enter, then the following words are for you.

There are no midterms or finals anymore. There’s no syllabus that outlines when papers are due or suggests additional reading (as you can probably tell, I was always very good at doing what I was told). At work—whether you’re starting a new job, you just got promoted, or you’re making a career change—you have to figure out how you can contribute. Being proactive is key.

But when you don’t have any experience or the right kind of experience, being proactive can be challenging. And what I wish I could go back and tell my 22-year-old self is this: Ask questions. Ask so many questions that you start to annoy your manager (because genuine curiosity and enthusiasm will never actually annoy your manager). The beauty of being new is that no one expects you to be an expert.

Asking questions however, requires some measure of vulnerability. It means being willing to admit what you don’t know. This is something I’ve always struggled with. I spent the first year-and-a-half of my job right out of school asking zero questions because I was working for incredibly smart people, and I didn’t want them to think I was stupid. That was stupid. I lost out on 18 months of learning and building skills that probably would’ve propelled me to where I am now in my career a lot sooner.

Because here’s the hard truth: No one is going to take you by the hand and tell you how to move forward on your own career path. My managers were too busy doing their own jobs to think of extra tasks or projects to assign me that would help me grow. During the 18 months in which I wasn’t asking questions, I was executing everything within the scope of my job description seamlessly. But that’s all I was doing, and I was so, so bored. Turns out that the best way to prove you’re ready for more responsibilities is to just actually take on those responsibilities.

When I finally realized I wasn’t going to move up the ladder at my company by doing only what was expected of me, I started to proactively look for ways to help my team. When my manager said “Wouldn’t it be nice if we had a report that...” or “We don’t have research on those competitors...” I jumped at the chance to fill in the gaps. And my supervisor noticed.

I wish I could tie up this anecdote by telling you that asking questions and being proactive led to a promotion and that I’m now doing exactly what I want to be doing. I’m not, and I can’t even sweeten this story by telling you that I got promoted. I work in an industry that’s facing some pretty complex challenges right now, and unfortunately the opportunity to move up within my old department didn’t pan out. But I can tell you that I’m kicking butt in my current role and recently received an “exceeds expectations” rating during my year-end review, which is pretty rare at my company.

And while I’m not exactly where I’d like to be, I did learn this: The most successful people I’ve met throughout my professional experience know what they don’t know, and aren’t afraid to admit it. They are inquisitive and enjoy figuring out how they can help their teams, regardless of what their job title is. They are thinkers and problem solvers, and most importantly, they don’t sit around and wait to be told what to do.

For the past year, for example, I’ve been fortunate enough to work for someone who fits this exact description. My current supervisor joined my company last year after having spent 12 years in a completely different industry. On her first day she probably asked me 30 different questions about our distribution processes. Now just one year later, she’s led and executed several projects that have resulted in significant cost savings for the company and improved processes for product shipments. She’s successful because she’s curious and thoughtful and enjoys figuring out how she can help our company move forward, which, in turn, has inspired me to do the same.

So while school is over (and may have been for quite some time now), learning doesn’t have to be. And if you want to continue to move forward, your education will never be finished. But just how much you decide you want to learn and grow is completely up to you. Judging from the few years that I’ve been out in the real world, I can tell you that limiting yourself or stopping when you finish the assignment won’t get you anywhere that matters.

Photo of woman working at computer courtesy of alvarez/Getty Images.