What Career Advice Would You Give Your Younger Self?

Friday, March 15, 2019

Me at work, circa 2008

I've worked for the same organization since I graduated from college, with the exception of a few months, when I worked elsewhere... & then came back. Bear with me, though: Yes, I've been at the same place for a long time, but things change, people change, & growth still happens.

I'm 34 now, more than a decade out of college (yowza!), & when I look back on my career, sure, many of the faces look the same, as does the employer on my pay stub - but I have learned so much. There are so many things I wish someone had told me... or that I'd figured out for myself just a liiiittle bit sooner.

Here are a few of the lessons I've learned & that I'd impart to my younger self, if I could.

1. Be yourself.
This isn't to say you should be the wackiest, loudest, most inappropriate version of yourself. Like, this is a workplace; tone it down on that front! Don't be afraid, though, to be a human with personality.

I feel so fortunate that my first job was in our D.C. office, which has a comfortable, casual, work-hard/play-hard vibe. I told bad jokes & was honest about some of my lack of knowledge about politics & wore bright clothing in an office full of folks in black suits. And yet, working there marked one of the first times in my life that I felt like I was truly myself - & that my coworkers really liked me anyway/because of it/whatever.

Young folks so frequently think that being "professional" means being completely devoid of personality - when so often, the opposite is true. When you allow people to see who you are, to understand you, & to get to know you a bit, they're more likely to enjoy working with you - & vice versa.

2. Make allies in the office.
"Allies" may be too cold or cordial a term, & I originally wrote "friends." But I know that not everyone's workplace - or work style - is conducive to real friendships, nor are they always necessarily appropriate. What I mean is, bond with some people.

Again, I was fortunate that my first office was a place where friendships were encouraged & appropriate, & in fact, they became vital to our everyday survival. We worked long hours & late nights, & being able to do so with our best friends made it that much easier to manage. They're still some of my best friends to this day.

Even if you're not comfortable truly befriending your coworkers, make some close professional acquaintances; how's that? Identify folks you like & eat lunch with them, or talk about The Bachelor with them, or run on the treadmill in the office gym next to them. The more you like the people you're around all day, the more you'll like your job.

3. Find mentors.
It took me way too long to understand the concept of mentorship - or, more accurately, to see its potential value in my own life. Mentors should encourage you, teach you, guide you, & genuinely care about bettering your life & career. They're not just cheesy professional relationships; they are relationships, period, & having a good mentor can enrich your work life so much.

The first person I ever considered a mentor was Rabbi Lynne Landsberg, who died just over a year ago. Lynne truly believed in me & saw in me potential I'd never seen in myself. She even wanted me to become a rabbi! (Sorry, Lynne.) Her insistence on high-quality work, I've since realized, was not just for her own sake but for mine, because she knew I had it in me & she wanted to see me achieve that potential.

At this point in my life & career, quite honestly, I don't feel that I have enough mentors - & I'm still not entirely sure how to go about finding them. Especially in Lynne's absence, this is an area of my professional work where I could be doing better.

4. Be a mentor.
The older I get, the more I realize that I, too, can be a mentor. I had it in my head you had to be, like, 60 to be able to be a mentor - which is sort of absurd. But a mentor is anyone who has lessons to teach, wisdom to impart, connections to make, ways to help those who are younger and/or less successful than they are.

Since realizing this, I've started to try to act as a mentor to women in my field who are younger than I am & in whom I see a lot of promise & think I might be able to help. Even when I'm not explicitly acting as a mentor to someone, I try to raise up the other young women I work with, in particular, to make sure they feel valued, that someone is looking out for them, & that they receive helpful feedback & guidance that they may carry with them beyond their current work.

5. Know your value.
This doesn't necessarily apply to money, though certainly, you should recognize (& fight for) your financial worth. No, what I was thinking of is the fact that, as young women new to the workforce, it can sometimes feel like we're on the bottom rung of the ladder, with no way to climb higher. And sometimes that feels crummy.

I wish someone had helped me, when I was younger, to remember that I am a good person, a hard-working person, a valuable person - even on days when the higher-ups feel disdainful & the work is a slog. Social media was brand new when I graduated college, & it wasn't nearly as easy to find a supportive online community or to find a like-minded women online to build you up or help you out.

Tap into those communities & relationships, as well as your real-life, in person-ones, so that when you feel down on your professional self, you have safe spaces to turn to to lift you up & remind you how great you are.

6. Do work you love.
You know that inspirational quote, "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life"? Yeah, that quote is bullshit. You can love your work & still feel exhausted or overwhelmed by it, period. Work is work.

But here's the thing: When you love your work, those negative feelings are a lot easier to deal with.

I feel so lucky to have found a job I love with an organization I care about - & while I may not always work there, well, my feelings toward both the work & the workplace have clearly gone a long way (12 years, to be exact) in keeping me there. When you love your work, the good days are great & the bad days are, at least, balanced out by the others - & that's pretty damn important.

So tell me: What advice would you give your younger self - or a young woman you meet today? 

More-recent me, circa 2018

If you're in the CLE & want more words of wisdom about navigating the workplace in your twenties & thirties, attend Engage! Cleveland's 2nd Annual Next Generation of Women, presented by The Sherwin-Williams Company & designed to provide professional & personal advice to help guide Cleveland's up-&-coming young women. It's Thursday, March 28, 2019, at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo - & I'd love to see you there. Learn more about the event & register to attend.

Disclosure: I am serving a media partner for this event & received a complimentary ticket in exchange for online event coverage. As always, all views (& advice!) are my own. 

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