Fifteen minutes into the call, I wanted to reach through the phone and give this girl a hug. A couple years after graduation, the budding designer had a beautiful portfolio to please with a breadth of experience spanning from editorial to digital projects. My new client was a catch, but couldn’t see it following a few too many lost applications and failed interviews. She was exasperated, and I understood why.
As we talked, I heard myself say, “I know how you feel,” and “I’ve been there.” What she didn’t know, I was being entirely sincere. At 27, I have run the gamut from serving the U.S. government to software startups. While on this twisted ride, I had my share of headaches and heartbreak – horrific interviews that left me feeling small; countless resumes shot into vortexes never to be heard from again; believing in an opportunity only to have it all go south at the 11th hour.
There are just as many wins to go with all those face plants. In all honesty, the journey is as valuable as the destination, but there are seven things I wish I knew when starting my career.
The shortest distance between two points is a straight line, but careers are all about curves. Being type A, I am a notorious planner, and, I confess, it has only been in the last couple years that I scrapped this approach when it comes to my career. I know now that if you are so focused on the next step, it is easy to miss the opportunity around you. Do not mistake me, it is crucial to set goals and stay focused, but also keep your head up and mind open. You never know when a casual chat over coffee may lead you to your next venture.
Interviews are a two-way street. If you are sufficiently prepared (…we are on the honor system here), but feel like you’re on trial for murdering kittens – run, don’t walk! Interviews may be stressful, but when you find the right fit they should thrill and inspire you. You are meeting your potential mentors, so you ought to really dig these people. I also believe a solid interview should leave you confident about what you could bring to the team and excited about your potential for growth. If not, it’s all right to respectfully bow out.
Be cautious about “cool” cultures and understand the difference between perks and benefits. Predominantly in the tech industry, there is a trend of bucking all things structured and corporate – wear whatever, bring your dog to work, free beer and Nutella in the break room. I am all for challenging standards and building a blissful work environment, but a flag football team will not fulfill you. What will make you want to show up once the honeymoon is over? Be honest with yourself about what you need to be successful in your current role and future endeavors.
Put it in perspective. Ideally, every new candidate hopes they are entering into a long-term relationship, but the thought of signing your career away to one employer may be overwhelming. On the other hand, loyalty is still a big deal, so a resume that shows job hopping every six months is going to be a problem for you. This point is all about finding the balance between commitment to a new role and realistic expectations. I like to look at every new venture as a grand project to be reevaluated seriously after two-years – enough to get a comprehensive view on potential without wasting too much time if I hit a wall.
Get by with a little help from your friends. As an undergrad, I felt some kind of way about people who used connections to get places (those kids who were flunking out, but called Dad to get a big internship with his golf buddy…) I have learned that networking is not all bad if done mindfully. Consider how you want to be perceived and manage your reputation accordingly. For example, I hesitate to accept a recommendation or introduction unless someone has worked with me directly as a client or employer.
Just ask. It never ceases to amaze me how willing people are to help and encourage. If you are in a rut or need some guidance, make a list of people in your community who have the job you want or are doing something that intrigues you – then, ask them to share their story. Craft a lovely note requesting a 15-minute phone call or send an invitation for a cup of coffee on you. You will be delightfully surprised at how willing people are to connect, share nuggets of wisdom, and possibly more. The key here is to go into the meeting with no expectations other than to learn, but be ready to ask for something specific (introduction, informational interview, freelance project, etc…) if the conversation goes well.
Trust your gut. If you take nothing else to heart, please hear me on this one. I have ALWAYS (true story) regretted ignoring my intuition. If you feel that urge to fight or flight, leave. If you are drawn to someone, introduce yourself. If you get a nagging feeling that something is wrong, it is. Instinct is one of our best advantages as animals, so listen to it.
In the end, I am grateful for every step on my career path – even those few that sprained an ankle. If nothing else, I believe the journey helps me serve my clients as I can better empathize with where they are, and work with them to build the confidence to put their best selves forward.