10 Career Lessons I’ve Learned So Far

Sometimes it feels like I’ve been in the world of full time work forever, but in reality, it’s only been 6 years. I graduated back in 2011, and ever since I’ve been climbing my way up the career ladder and learning lots along the way.

I was thinking the other day about how so many of the career skills I was taught at uni were totally useless – they were all targeted at specific professions and other than developing a firm handshake, I don’t think I picked up anything that has genuinely helped me in the world of work.

So today I thought I’d show you the things I’ve learned over the past few years – the kinda stuff that comes from making mistakes or lightbulb moments. Here are 10 career lessons I’ve learned so far…

1) Nobody really knows what they want to do when they graduate

This is a biggie that it took me about 5 years to learn, even though it should have been pretty bloody obvious! When I was at uni I felt like the only person who didn’t know what they wanted to do when they graduated, but in reality I don’t think any of us know until we’ve got a bit of experience under our belts. Think about it – you wouldn’t declare that something was your all time favourite food without trying it first, and the world of work is just the same. I wish I’d have stressed less about finding the “dream” job and just been more grateful for the fact that the job I had was allowing me to build up lots of experience.

2) Most careers happen by accident

Leading on from point number 1 – from spending the last 6 years talking to people who have been forging their own careers, I’ve realised that most people fall into what they’re doing by accident. It can be easy to assume that everybody else has this big, detailed career plan while you’re just flailing around from day to day, but it’s usually not remotely true. For example – I had never even heard of the industry I work in now while I was at uni, and if it wasn’t for being given a random placement during my graduate scheme, I would have almost certainly not ended up doing what I do today.

3) Hard work always pays off

So if having a career plan doesn’t really work, what can you be doing to make sure you’re successful at work? It’s simple – work bloody hard. I don’t mean staying in the office until stupid o’clock or replying to emails at 9pm on a Saturday, I mean doing the work that matters, really well. Get stuff done on time, muck in with jobs that help everybody succeed, and always think about what else you could be doing to add value to your team. You probably won’t get daily praise for it, but it’s that sort of stuff that gets recognised when there are secondments available or promotions to be had.

4) You can’t be successful at something you’re not passionate about

I really wish somebody had told me this while I was at university. I think the early years of my career might have been a bit different if this little pearl of wisdom had been really drummed into me. The truth is, you can blag your way through an interview and you can get on well with your colleagues and you can turn up at your desk everyday and plough through the list of tasks that you’ve written in a pretty notebook, but unless you are crazy passionate about something, it’s gonna be very difficult to be at the top of your game. Sure, you might be able to trick yourself for a year or two that it’s what you really want, but eventually your brain will suss you out. Even if you can only afford to work on your passion as a side hustle, do it. It’s worth it. This is a lesson I’m still learning, and something I try to remind myself of every bloody week!

5) Having a side hustle will keep you sane

Which leads me onto my next point pretty nicely – having a side hustle will keep you sane. Before I started this blog I would find myself bringing my work home with me – even if I wasn’t physically logging on from the sofa, my mind would be preoccupied with whatever challenges and problems I’d faced at the office. Having something else to focus my mind on when I get home has been invaluable, and definitely helps me return to work the next day with a fresh head. I’ve also found that having something in my life that I have complete creative control and autonomy over helps me to accept those situations in my day job that are often completely out of my control.

6) It’s okay to screw up

One thing I learned pretty early on in my career is that everyone makes mistakes. I’ve certainly had my fair share of screw ups, from emailing the wrong details to a customer, to missing important dates or deadlines that had an impact on a big project. At the time it feels like the worst thing that could ever happen – I can still remember that horrible, sweaty palm, twisted stomach feeling even know as I type this – but in reality, it’s totally okay. We all get things wrong, and so long as you learn from your mistakes it’s fine. One tactic I like to use is asking myself “will I still care about this in 5 year time?” – if the answer is no, take the learning, brush it off and forget all about it.

7) Try not to compare yourself to anybody else

The thing I find most interesting about careers is that no two are exactly the same. I love hearing about people’s paths, how one job led to the next or how chatting to that random person at an event led to the opportunity that made them. Mostly because I’m nosey, but also beacause it reminds me that everyone’s experience is different and there isn’t just one route to the job you want. It’s so easy when you’re first starting out to compare yourself and your progression to everybody else – old classmates, colleagues, siblings, friends – but it’s totally pointless. We’re all totally unique humans with totally unique experiences, often in very different industries. Focus on what you’re doing and how you can get better, rather than worrying that everyone else has been promoted and you haven’t.

8) Attitude is more important than experience

This is probably the most cliche piece of advice on the list, but it’s also the one that is most true. Other than the graduate scheme I started my career on, I have been wildly underqualified for every job I’ve had since. That’s not imposter syndrome talking – I’ve been missing a lot of experience on the job description for most of the roles I’ve had to date. But do you know what I do have? The right attitude. I’m enthusiastic and passionate and a team player and willing to be thrown in the deep end and figure it all out as I go along, and that means more than any experience.

9) It’s more important to be respected than liked

One thing I quickly realised going into the world of full time office life is that it is absolutely impossible to keep everyone happy. There will always be teams that you have to put pressure on to hit deadlines, or lazy colleagues you need to be stern with, or unrealistic bosses who want everything yesterday. This can be really difficult for a people pleaser like me, and I often find myself torn between being nice and getting the job done. One of my first bosses gave me a piece of advice that I’ve always remembered – she asked me whether I’d rather be respected for doing a great job, even if that meant being tough now and then, or liked for always giving everybody an easy pass. If you want to get on in your career then you have to choose doing a good job everytime.

10) It’s okay to change your mind

Another lesson I wish I’d learned a lot earlier – it’s okay to change your mind. I was so convinced in my early twenties that once you’d set out on a certain path, you had to stay on it, but that couldn’t be further from the truth. Careers are long and most of us will be working for at least another 40 years yet, so if you want to change direction 4 or 5 years in then that is totally fine. In fact, if your current path is making you miserable, then it makes bloody good sense to get off it as soon as possible! Be open to new opportunities, and don’t let your ego convince you that you’re too important to start from scratch again.

Blazer – Zara | CulottesZara | T-shirtZara | Bag – H&M | Sunglasses – Celine | Shoes – ASOS

So there you have it, 10 career lessons I’ve learned so far. Do any of them resonate with you?

*All images by Matt McCormick 

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  • Laura Emilia

    Completely agree with these, especially number one! I think it’s crazy that we’re expected to know what we want to do with our lives at such a young age – I imagine so many people are pressured to choose a university degree that will be completely wrong for them, just because they just weren’t sure at that point what they wanted to do. I’m 28 and I’m still kind of figuring it out! xx

    Laura // Middle of Adventure

  • These are great Sophie, gosh I’ve completely changed what I want to do within the space of a year!

  • Sophie, I can’t even tell you much I agree with everything you’ve written here! Particularly about people falling into their careers, about not being successful at something you’re not passionate about and that it’s absolutely okay to change your mind! YES gal. I’ve been a ‘career gal’ for 5 years, so just a little less time, but these are definitely some of the most important lessons I feel like I’ve learned too. ♥️

  • Such great points, I left my “dream” job last year in PR which I thought was everything I wanted until I realised it just wasn’t right for me. If I hadn’t done that I would have probably never had the time to start blogging which I absolutely love. I think sometimes you need to have a bit of faith that things will fall into place x

  • Couldn’t agree more with the last statement! Both me and my better half have been working hard since we were 16 so nigh on 11 years (tell you what, holding down a full time job, university and a social life made me dead fun at Uni!), we are both qualified, with great jobs and fantastic benefits and it’s taken us a long time to finally get to where we both are.

    So what are we going to do with our successful careers which both of us are good at but not necessarily enjoy? Well, we’ve taken a big leap and in the new year we will leave our jobs and go on an adventure we never thought we would have, but have always wanted to go on. In the time we have left in Leeds, we will continue to run our (fun) side business away from our careers, spend weekends visiting family, eating good food and exploring the home which we have made in West Yorkshire.

    Careers come and go (like you quite rightly said, we’ve got a good few years ahead of us in employment and my pension pot isn’t going anywhere!), but happiness is paramount as such a young age, and we plan to put happiness first on this occasion.

  • I love this post! It’s so true that once you’ve completed your degree and graduated, the job/career you actually go into is often something you didn’t consider! I also massively agree with your point on gaining peer respect over being liked. I would much rather be known for being ace at my job as that’s ultimately what we’re there to do, making a good group of work friends is just a bonus!

    I also love this outfit – your pink blazer is life!

    Ruth //

  • Perfect timing for this post – I’ve just graduated and I have absolutely no idea what I’m going to do for a career, so thanks for the reminder that I’m not the only one who has felt this way!

    Rachel —

  • This is fab timing, I have honestly gone through each and every 10 points, thanks so much for this 🙂 Frankie x

  • This is such a great post Sophie and I can relate to SO many of the points!

    For the first year after graduating I felt so lost and had no idea what I was doing before stumbling into marketing and feeling like I’d found my passion!

    Jess | Jess Who

  • I love the pink and the black combo in your outfit – it looks fab! These are such great pieces of advice that I’m sure so many people will find helpful. I love that you’ve included that it’s okay to make mistakes and the examples you’ve given of the mistakes you’ve made – I’m the kind of person that feels terrible when I make mistakes, so it’s always nice to be reminded that everyone else makes them too and that it’s okay! x

    Jenny | LuxeStyle

  • I’ve actually just started my career so I all of these tips are really helpful! I would say I’ve experienced a few of them, including the screw ups! It’s all a learning curve!

    Emma |

  • Agree with all your points but particularly 2,3,4 and 5! My career happened by accident and, after a few years, I finally figured out what I’m passionate about. I’ve been freelance two years now and I’m getting much better at only saying ‘yes’ to things that I know I’ll be excited about. It’s ok to say ‘no’.

  • How fricking amazing do you look?! These photos are beautiful and I love the outfit (especially the pink blazer and the tasselled earrings!). It took me a long time to realise number 1 – I panicked for the longest time that I had no idea what I wanted to do, but now I’m doing something I enjoy and it seems silly that I worked myself up over it for so long. So much yes to number 8 too – whenever I am involved in hiring someone attitude has beaten experience every time! xxx

    Sophie | Sophar So Good

  • The North Left Blog

    100% agree with every single one of these! And it’s something that’s been on my mind a lot recently, too x

  • Emily Frances

    Having literally just started my graduate job, this post could not have come at a better time. I’m excited to see where my career goes from here and where I’ll be in 6 years too! x

    Emily |

  • One/four/nine I am so into these at the moment!
    I am graduating with my phd this autumn and after 13 years of academic studie and 5 University degrees I am still a tool not knowing what I want to do-possibly because I havent found my passion yet 😛 Boo!

    Thanks for sharing Sophie!

  • Given I lived and breathed my civil engineering degree background whilst at uni, and then with my first grad job, I believe it’s OK to change your mind entirely.
    My career WOULD have gone well, but I knew long term it wasn’t going to keep me forever, so sometimes you have to go with your gut too…
    Love this post – blazer is awesome on you!

  • I definitely agree with all of these, especially the one about people finding careers by accident. My friends and I are all in completely different careers to the ones we expected to be in when we started university, and they all happened by accident.

  • Abi Street

    I’m honestly so glad to have read this! In the past week I was fired from a job I absolutely hated for doing nothing wrong (a very long complicated story), and although I am mega mega stressed because I have rent and bills to somehow pay. I’m so glad I’m not sat in an office 5 days a week doing something I hated. At least now I can push myself to get a job I will hopefully enjoy and progress in. Everything happens for a reason as they say, and I will definitely be taking your tips on board x

    Abi | abistreetx

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  • This is such a good post Sophie! I totally agree that hard work & taking chances pays off in the long run … graduated about 11 years ago now (eek where does time go) and it is only this year that I have found my calling after trying differnent paths and adventures.

    It doesn’t always go to plan first time but it’s how you handle it that makes you who you are I think.

    Emma |