August 25th, 2020

"What I Wish I Knew When I First Started Working"

This article is part 1 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. 

Imagine being able to go back to the start of your career and tell yourself what you know now. 

Will it help? 

Will it make this challenge-ridden journey easier? 

Or are some things only learned through experience?

I can’t help you go back in time because movies have taught me time paradoxes are dangerous things. 

But I can do you one better - zero risk involved. Instead of messing with blue boxes, phone-booths or Deloreans, I asked this question:

If you could go back, what career advice would you give yourself based on what you’ve learned now? 

The answers will give you something to think about, regardless of what stage you’re at. Let’s start with K. 

“There’s this whole new world and you can do whatever you want”

How often do you wait for the right time? The right job. Feeling “ready” (whatever that means.)

I don’t know about you, but I’ve spent more time than I care to admit waiting to do what I really want. I’d get stuck in this “can’t do x until y happens” even when x and y weren’t remotely related. 

While K. spends considerably less time waiting for the stars to align, she does have some excellent advice for her younger self - or anyone out there waiting.

I really think we live in a time where things that weren’t possible before are possible now. When I was younger I didn’t know that. So I think I’d tell my younger self: 

“Hey. There’s this whole world and can do whatever you want. And your parents aren’t giving you this advice because it didn’t exist when they were growing up. 

So there’s new stuff now you didn’t know growing up that you can discover. Just go try out that world. Learn about some people and see how you feel.

There’s about to be this renaissance of freelancer everything and you don’t have to have a job if you don’t want. 

And I know this sounds crazy right now, but your world view is about to change in a few years and you’re going to find out that a ton of people don’t have bosses and you’re going to find out you have that choice.

“Don’t take things personally”

If B. could go back, she’d share a piece of timeless advice that all of us have to (at least try to) learn as we grow and build careers: 

I would tell myself to not take things so personally. That business is business and that it’s not you.

And to have more fun because things are going to change a lot down the road so enjoy the corporate life while you still can. 

That’s what I would tell myself. But whether I would listen or not… That’s a different story. 

“Go work at an ad agency”

L. is both practical and specific with her advice to her younger self:

I would tell myself “Go and get a job at an ad agency in London or New York, see how it all works. Be a part of an agency team and learn… just never mind the journalism. Just go straight in the copywriting.”

But I don’t know because I learned so much from the journalism.

I can’t really imagine going back and changing it but I didn’t know the job copywriter existed. It wasn’t like I thought about being a copywriter but didn’t. Had I known that, I would have liked to get the opportunity to get a big copywriting job and then go freelance rather than learn on the job which was quite challenging. 

I don’t know about you, but when I was in college I had no idea copywriting - let alone conversion copywriting - existed. I’d have laughed anyone telling me to go into marketing out the room. 

That’s why L.’s advice resonates so much. Because a lot of us end up in careers we never thought about, doing things we didn’t know were possible. 

And maybe we needed the time - and experience - to find them. 

“I feel I had to go through the whole journey”

If N. got into a time machine, she wouldn’t dispense bite-sized wisdom:

It’s interesting because I feel I had to go through the whole journey. I feel if I told myself a piece of advice, I would have been like: “Yeah, whatever.”

But I think it would have been around pricing myself. So yeah, it doesn't work. In order to price yourself better, you need better marketing. And to get better marketing, you need to spend some time doing marketing. And… I feel like it really was a journey that had to happen. 

I wonder if it would have helped to hear it a few more times. Because I still struggled with pricing a lot and I think a big part of it was because I wasn’t doing work that gave ROI. 

You’re not always going to feel ready asking for things at the start of your career journey. And that’s ok. There’ll be tumbles and errors and hard times. But by going through that valley, you’re setting yourself up for success. And you’re getting ready to ask for the things that may be hard. 

“You own your destiny more than anybody else”

A. isn’t sure if things could have been different, but there is one piece of advice that she shared:

One thing that comes to mind - which is super basic and doesn’t really relate to a lot of the things we’ve talked about today - is this: 

You own your destiny more than anybody else. Of course you’re playing within the parameters of the world that you live in.

My first job, I just picked a thing off of a website and then they gave me a job. I wasn’t searching within the parameters, I wasn’t thinking of what I wanted to do with my life, I wasn’t optimizing for geography or a career path or anything…

Now I have a little bit of a better sense and sometimes feel like the first many years of my career were just wasted time. So I do wish I’d just taken the time to think about it. 

There are so many decision trees in your life and maybe you get offered a role on this team or that team… how do you decide?

 And I think a lot of my life I was like “Sounds good. I’ll do that.” 

And maybe I should have considered what I’m optimizing for and do I have clear goals that I’m trying to land. So that’s probably the biggest thing. Trying to be more intentional about choosing the things that you do. 

You’ll hopefully feel better for it by having made the choice and not having it made for you. 

What would I say?

I’ve been thinking about what I’d say to myself. 

Would it be “Don’t go to college?” Or maybe… “Move to London.” Or “Study computer science. I know it sounds weird, but you secretly love data and tech so much, you’ll end up teaching yourself a few years from now anyway.” 

I really don’t know. Like N. I think I needed the journey. I needed to go through everything including:

  • The two years where I struggled to get my business off the ground and make it profitable,
  • Teaching myself marketing, conversion optimization and all the other skills my degree in Archaeology did not cover,
  • Moving to a brand new continent without a “career” plan.

While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend this as the way to start a business and build a life, it’s what I had to go through to start internalizing some of the lessons we talked about. And, to be fair, I feel I would have been way too stubborn to listen and take my own advice at 19. 

What about you? What would you tell yourself if you had that power? What would you tell other young people starting their careers right now that can ease the burden of this exciting and excruciating journey just a little?

P.S Enjoyed the article? Share it with a friend who’ll get something out of it. And you can catch the rest of this collection, check out the links below.