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September 22nd, 2020

Challenges Can Define Your Career (But Not in the Way You Think)

This article is part 5 of our “Women in the workplace” collection. In February, I had the opportunity to interview professional women from different races, backgrounds, ages, countries,  experiences and industries. 

We spoke candidly about our challenges, frustrations, failures and successes - and how they can help you on your career journey. 

We made the editorial decision to anonymize each woman so that they didn’t have to worry about self-editing. This helped us bring you the rawest response to each question. Each article is focused around a theme: you can read it as a stand alone or as part of the collection. 

Think about your life today. The decisions that got you here. The mistakes and successes that helped you reach this exact spot. 

The challenges we experience, the failures we deal with… They influence our career trajectories. Our circumstances. If you look at your great successes, you’ll find they’re built on top of mistakes. On top of challenges you faced and overcame. 

This is why talking about failure - and about how to use it as a way to grow - is essential in any conversation about career growth. That’s why I asked our interviewees this question”

What was a career failure or an apparent failure that set you up for success later on?

C.’s answer hit a little too close to home:

“You’re so smart. But the train is leaving without you.”

So many failures. Jeez. 

My first job… I was extremely reserved. Like people said, “G. you’re so smart but the train is leaving without you.” And I would get that feedback because I was such an observer. I really wanted to take everything in. It’s like a weird safety personal preservation thing.

I remember coming in and feeling like I should be guided. I should be guided because it’s my first job. But actually, I was supposed to come in and add value as a marketer. It wasn’t about me, it was about the organization. And I think that was my failure in a sense...I think that as an early career person I made it about me and it wasn’t about me. 

That was a big lesson. And now with my business, we always make it about our client first. The early experience helped me so much because I was in so much pain and shock that a corporation can run… without “caring” about your people!? 

It wasn’t that black and white. I was young. 

I also didn’t play politics well in my first few years. I didn’t know how, and there was no one I could trust. You form this blame or something about you. And how that really helped me is that now I know how to give advice to people who go into early careers and feel a little lost. Because I was very, very lost. 

You’ll be so surprised when you start adding value and you stop thinking about you and how you feel. THEN you immediately feel great because you’re adding value and the whole tribe sees that. And that becomes a source of happiness.

I sometimes feel like we run a non-profit here. I feel we help people try to see that: That the happiness source is in giving value.

C. took the struggles that defined the early years of her career and used them to guide the way she set up her business.

“I have no marketable skills!”

When you’re stuck in a moment, it’s hard to see the bigger picture. To see the possibilities. When I asked A. about pivotal career failures, this is the story she shared:

My first job… this is the one where I met all these great people and had all this great personal development. Coming out of my shell and having a really good mentor.

But I still don’t think I’d reached the level of assertiveness and ownership of my role as I have now. And the company ended up really not doing well. In particular, I was an account manager. I did a couple of things but I never really gave… I never gave my all. So even though I’d done a couple of different jobs I never really received like a proper promotion. So I think my resume didn’t feel great.

And I was having a hard time in Silicon Valley, trying to find a role that I was really interested in. Because of that I was like “I have no marketable skills. I don’t know! This is really horrible.” 

So I ended up applying for grad school because it felt like my only option and it turns out that actually though my skill set wasn’t setting me up for the one kind of job I thought I was looking for, it actually made for a really good business school application. I was able to tell a lot of stories from my experiences and coming out of business school I was essentially able to get the jobs that I wasn’t able to get before.

It just gave me what I needed. But all of that to say… What I thought was a failing in my career because it wouldn’t get me to the one next job that I was so focused on actually still set me up to other cool opportunities. I just really needed to be more open to that. 

That’s probably the best story. 

You can’t always see your future

The life you want when you’re starting out won’t always be the life you live. Things change. Our preferences evolve. And sometimes, circumstances beyond your control affect your life. This is what happened to T. 

My biggest failure? I would say investing my whole life in the US when I moved there and thinking that the possibility of ever leaving was not going to happen. And then it did. 

I always say to everyone, moving to the US and leaving the US was the worst and the best thing that ever happened to me. Because I wouldn't have been as much of a global citizen/global executive as I am now if I didn’t move to the US and I didn't leave the US.

Because when the global financial crisis happened in 2009, I had a job but didn’t have a choice but to leave [when my visa expired] because my family was like “You're 27. You’re barely 30.You’re not going to be living in the US illegally.” 

Leaving the life you built behind… it’s not easy. So I asked T. how she felt. How she not only lived - but thrived - in the years after. 

How did it make me feel? Horrible. I had a boyfriend at that time. My boyfriend offered to get married… I had my whole life set. 

It was just one of these things that you know… when you set for a goal, and you say “when I reach this goal that’s going to be it.” It wasn’t. 

The finality of that kind of shot me in the foot without realizing what would have happened afterwards. It was a critical time afterwards because I thought I had my whole life planned out. My whole career planned out but… Life thought otherwise. And it was the worst and the best thing that happened to me.

T. took the challenge and turned it into a personal triumph. So I asked her what advice she’d give someone experiencing such a big shift in their lives right now. 

Keep a network of people that you can talk to, even if they don’t share the same opinion as you. And just keep going even if you don’t know where you’re going. 

Because if you’re at a time when it’s not great, you’re going to get out of it. And if it’s great, if you’re at a time where it’s wonderful, know that it’s not going to last forever so you just need to keep things afloat and make sure that you just keep going. 

The challenges that shape us

Change, failure, challenges… These things aren’t easy. Or fun. But they help us become the people we are. To build the careers we want. 

When I look back on the circumstances that led me to where I am now, every success I’ve had is built on a challenge I went through or a mistake I made (and learned from). These learning experiences are the fuel that powers careers. It’s true for me. It’s true for C., A. and T. What about you?