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…
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.
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.
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.
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