What I Wish I Knew When I Was Starting Out My Career

Life in my twenties seems so distant now. I graduated in the Great Recession, my government internship was cancelled, and I dove straight into a mountain of student loan debt to go to graduate school. It was either that or go back home and live with my parents (I love them dearly, but that was a no-go for me).


I was so excited when I had an internship at the Department of State, I loved my graduate research assistant for the Department of the Navy, and then I thought I hit it big when I landed my post-graduate internship at the Defense Intelligence Agency.


Excited. Naïve. Unprepared. Entering the real world can be tough, can’t it?


I work hard, I love challenges, and I volunteer for the stuff nobody wants to do. Recipe for success, right? Wrong. Lesson #1: hard work doesn’t automatically mean recognition, success, or advancement. It’s not enough to do your job and be good at it. All my life I had been told to work hard and I would be successful. That’s it. Imagine my disappointment when I worked hard, and was recognized and won awards, but it wasn’t enough to earn that promotion or leadership role. I volunteered for shift work because no one wanted to do it, and my boss got mad at me. I didn’t think about how me leaving the team, even temporarily, would affect him or the team’s workload.


Lesson #2, from my late grandma Lorraine: people matter most. It’s true in life in general, and it is especially true in your career. This is really two parts. First, how you treat people matters, and having self-awareness about how you impact others is critical. The second part of that statement is the hard part. It can take focus and practice to notice how your style lands with different people. You may think you have a good relationship or made a reasonable request, but it was not received the way you intended. There has to be relationship and trust for people to be honest with you. Ultimately, your work relationships make you, the team, and the mission more successful. Your career isn’t all about you (okay, it’s mostly about you) – it’s about the mission and how you support mission success. 


Second, building and maintaining your network are what really advance your career. Start early, make meaningful connections, and keep in touch. These relationships are extremely valuable. They bring you opportunities now, in the future, and when you least expect them. Find 2-3 mentors, and within your organization, find 1-2 people who will advocate for you. Mentors and advocates are must haves for your career. The research also shows that people who have best friends at work are happier, and I can vouch for that. I wouldn’t survive without my work friends!


Lesson #3: if you are unhappy and things aren’t working out (which, let’s face it, almost everyone has experienced at least once), the best thing you can do is to keep your head down and find a new opportunity. This advice might be controversial, but I promise I have stories and experience to back this one up. You may stand up for yourself and others to a toxic colleague or bad boss, or you may advocate for changes to make the organization better or improve the mission. But you will upset people, some people will feel threatened, and they can make life very uncomfortable for you. You need to realistically assess the chances that someone, some people, or an organization will suddenly change – the odds are usually low. The truth is that it’s not worth the stress or the toll it takes on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. Find an organization that aligns with your values and will appreciate you. This is not your hill to die on.


Lesson #4: Being right doesn’t mean you will win. Sometimes, people don’t even care if you are right. Leaders disagree, they make decisions, and that’s that. Learn to accept it, let it go, and move on. Again, is it worth the stress to fight? (If you can’t tell, being right was really important to me.)


Lesson #5: You need to have a plan for your career. For my first few moves, I was still in “if I work hard I will advance” mode. Obviously if I worked hard enough, people would recognize it, and one day I would be the Director of an agency or even on the National Security Council. We’ve already established that’s not how it works, and sometimes jobs don’t work out. The first few transitions I made were upward, but I simply took what seemed interesting without any thought to what experience, skills, training, job duties, or job titles I needed to intentionally and strategically be advancing my career. If you do not know what you want or where you want to go, then you’re just going to float around from job-to-job. I found a great career mentor who made me think realistically about where I wanted to be at the end of my career and what it would take to get there. That changed my perspective and the jobs I pursued. In short order I advanced to project leader, program manager and division director, PMP certified, business development and proposal writing experience, professional coach certification, and am now a VP leading a new strategic initiative connected directly to a mission I love. That meeting with my career mentor was 4 or 5 years ago.


I was going to cap it at five lessons, but there’s a final one I must share because it’s a mistake I, and many of my friends, have made: Lesson #6: don’t take the first job that comes your way when you are desperate to escape. (Yes, there are exceptions to this one, but most of the time I think this advice applies.) The odds are that you end up just as unhappy as you were at the previous job. Hopefully you’re at least making more money, but I’ve seen people make lateral moves or even take pay cuts to get out, and they ended up completely miserable. The job either wasn’t what they expected, it wasn’t fulfilling, or they didn’t do enough research and moved into a bad environment. It is so tempting, believe me I know. Do. Not. Do. It. Have faith, and trust that the right opportunity is heading your way. I took a job offer that did pay me more and gave me better flexibility, but I was far-removed from mission and I was SO BORED. Painfully bored – trying to fill my time and not commit timecard fraud bored. I was tempted to take the first offer to get out of that, but I resisted and held firm on what I needed out of my next job. It was the best decision I’ve made in my career because I got something so much better.


So, in summary:


·       Hard work doesn’t equal career success or advancement

·       People matter most: build strong relationships with your colleagues, build your network, and find good mentors and advocates

·       If a job isn’t working out or you’re unhappy, keep a low profile and move on

·       Being right doesn’t mean you will get what you want

·       Have a plan to guide your career decision making

·       Do not take the first job offer that comes your way when you are desperately trying to escape


What advice would you give yourself as a bright-eyed entrant into the workforce? I would love to know!

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