Career Advice For My Younger Self (Twenty Years In The Making)

If I could offer my best career advice to my younger self, these words of wisdom would probably seem pretty cliché to that independent young woman. Learn from your mistakes. Network and find a mentor. Broaden your experience. Go the extra mile. Speak up! 

Yet, throughout my 20-year career, the most meaningful lessons were the basic ones I didn’t truly appreciate until I encountered them myself. 

All these nuggets of career advice can prove valuable no matter what profession you’re in. The trick is to be intentional in your career and implement these tips when you can.

Let me share some of my firsthand professional experience and best career advice so you can be on the lookout for these opportunities in your professional journey.

Learning is key to growth

One of the best ways to progress in your professional (and personal!) life is to always keep learning.  From first-hand experience, books and podcasts, professional seminars or conferences, and even the lessons from your missteps — all of this knowledge will guide you on your career path to success.

Mistakes are a blessing

Most of us grew up thinking mistakes and imperfections were negative.  Everyone hates making mistakes, yet we all do it.  

But what if you reframed that mistake as an opportunity for growth?

Mistakes can be a great blessing in your career. With each blunder, you learn a lesson (the hard way) that you will be more conscientious of in the future.

I still remember my first big mistake as a young analyst;  I think about it all the time.  Whenever I get the urge to type something less than professional in an email, I catch myself.  Yep, I committed the worst professional email snafu — I sent a snarky email to the wrong person.  As in, the wrong person was the VP of Contracting being referenced with said snark.  Oops.  Needless to say, that catastrophic mistake taught me the importance of proper email etiquette from that moment until the end of time.  

If you do happen to commit a similar email crime, significantly misrepresent data in annual financial statements, or completely delete an entire folder from the network (all of these I have actually witnessed myself), give yourself a moment — Then take a deep breath, apologize for and own whatever “oops” you made, and find a solution to resolve it.  Trust me; you won’t want to make that mistake again.

Go for well-rounded rather than expertise for long-term potential

If you are looking to succeed in your career and have opportunities for growth in the future (even if you’re not sure what that looks like yet), my best advice is to focus on developing a wide array of skills.  Being laser-focused on one primary area or skill set can limit your opportunities in the long run.

For example, let’s say your background is in Accounting and you aspire to work in a manager-level position someday.  Yes, by all means, do quality accounting and work hard in your role!  But to pave your way to a leadership role, you should also work on your oral and written communication, presentation skills, and confidence.  Make connections and pay attention to what’s happening outside your direct team to understand better how other parts of the business function.  Understanding the broader business gives you an advantage as a future leader to see how your team impacts the overall organization.

Someone with a variety of skills and knowledge, in addition to that of their role, will always have more opportunities to progress in their career. 

Become self-sufficient and do your research

The motto “always be prepared” is just as applicable in the professional world as it is for the Boy Scouts.   A key attribute of high performers is that they provide value to their superiors, not extra work.  Self-sufficiency is crucial to success in the professional world.  

Turn in your assignments (without a reminder!) on time.  Come prepared for your weekly check-in with responses to the questions you know your supervisor will ask.  Walk into each meeting with an understanding of the topic, how you can contribute, and what questions you may have.  

If you have a question or don’t know the answer, try to figure it out yourself.  Doing your own research will not only help you retain that information better, but the proactive initiative is sure to impress leaders.  It’s a little extra effort but will result in significant rewards in the long run.

Communication & confidence are your greatest assets

While not everyone is blessed with the gift of gab, effective expression comes in many forms.  Knowing your strengths and practicing where you need to improve will help you feel more confident in every situation.

Fake it ‘til you make it (the humble way)

Fake it ‘til you make it —there is something to be said about this old cliché.  Embracing this mindset allows you to confidently take on new challenges and learn as you go, which is an excellent approach to handling new, unfamiliar situations no matter your career stage.

Remember, though —there is a fine line between faking it and downright deception that you don’t want to cross.  Presenting yourself as self-assured can be an advantage, but lying about your experience, knowledge, or skill set will always bite you in the end.

I’ve seen it way too many times before, especially in interviews.  A candidate overstates their skills or experience with something, only to get hired and ultimately unable to perform the required job functions. This never ends well. The candidate will find themselves out of the job with a damaged reputation, while the hiring manager has to start from scratch to find a qualified candidate again.

The best approach to any ”fake it ‘til you make it” scenario is to be honest about what you do and don’t know but express enthusiasm and interest in furthering your knowledge.  It’s the enthusiasm, not the skill or experience, that will work to your advantage and provide you with more opportunities.

Practice both written and spoken communication

Communication comes in many forms, so make sure you’re practicing all of them.  Whether crafting a persuasive email or nailing that nerve-wracking presentation, your ability to articulate your thoughts can make or break your career. 

Growing up, I hated writing.  H-A-T-E-D writing.  Now look at me.  After years of writing emails, internal company memos, responses to government agencies, inquiries to external vendors, and contract terms (so scary, I know) — I found I actually enjoy writing, and (I hope) I’m relatively decent at it.  But I only learned this after years of “having to” and a lot of practice. 

While you may prefer one form over another, strong communication is critical in every type of profession out there.  Being able to convey your thoughts and ideas clearly is a learned habit that comes with time and experience, so keep practicing all types of communication, and you are guaranteed to see improvement.

Speak up (the right way)

Being vocal in the workplace is a surefire way to get recognized by the higher-ups.  Of course, be smart about the speaking you actually do.  No one wants to be known as the “Complainer” or the “One Who Repeats Everything,” so keep your contributions positive and valuable.   

If you have the opportunity to speak up or present on a topic you are familiar with, take it!  Yes, talking in front of others is scary, but the more often you do so, the easier it will be.  

I remember my first attempts at public speaking back in high school and college. PAINFUL. Sweating through my t-shirt, shaky-voiced painful. So when I had to do a monthly presentation at my first job, I was freaking out for days before the presentation every

month. But, month after month, I showed up and spoke to the crowd. After a while, it felt more natural, and after a long while, I enjoyed the opportunity to contribute my knowledge and connect with the audience.

By speaking up formally or informally,  you automatically make yourself more credible and memorable within your organization.  People will recognize you in the future, making you more approachable when someone has a question or request for your department.  This also helps you make more connections and network, providing more future opportunities (more on that in a minute).

If you can provide value with your contribution, always speak up.  I promise it gets easier the more you do it!

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know

Relationships matter in your career.  Make an effort to nurture new and existing connections — you never know where that connection will lead.

Build your network

Networking in the professional arena and your personal life is one of the best ways to prepare your career for long-term success.  Why?  Because the best advertising and information you can’t buy is word of mouth.  

Think about it this way.  If you interview two candidates with the same credentials and experience, but a trusted colleague recommends one of them — which one are you most likely to hire?  You will always value someone’s opinion over an eenie-meenie-minie-moe tiebreaker.

When you meet and interact with new people at work, conferences, and even social gatherings, make a point of staying in touch with them.  Say hi to them in the hallway, send them an occasional email to check in, or invite them out to lunch.  One easy yet effective way to maintain and evaluate your professional network is by using LinkedIn.  This professional social media platform can be a great resource whenever you want to move to a new role or hire someone.  Check LinkedIn to see if anyone in your network has firsthand experience with that individual or company, then, reach out for their feedback.  It’s like having insider information in your back pocket. 

Find a mentor and a sponsor

As you build out your network, look for more tenured or experienced contacts you admire.  A professional mentor or sponsor can be a great asset to support your career goals.  

What is the difference between a mentor and a sponsor?  A mentor serves the role of a teacher, sharing insights and lessons they have acquired during their career.  A sponsor is more of an agent, vouching for the individual and facilitating new connections or opportunities.  A mentor and sponsor can be the same person in the right situations.

Over the years, I have been so fortunate to have had so many brilliant, strong women in my career corner. The support, knowledge, and inspiration these mentors and sponsors shared with me were integral in my professional development.

Having both a mentor and a sponsor can be highly beneficial in your professional career, putting you on the “inside track” for growth you may not have had otherwise.

Stay in Tune with Yourself

One thing I write about on my blog all the time is staying in tune with yourself and what you truly want. Don’t worry about disappointing loved ones or what other people will think. Don’t let yourself go on autopilot and stick with a plan you’ve outgrown. Don’t ignore a truth you feel in your soul just because it’s scary.

These lessons are the hardest ones to master but also the most worthwhile.

Embrace your Intuition

Your Intuition is your greatest gift in navigating your way through your career (and life). She will be your guiding light when times are dark, and you’ve lost your way —if you’re willing to listen. (And yes, I do capitalize her name to give her the honor a trusted advisor deserves.)

Sure, you may not always like what Intuition has to say. She may be telling you to do something scary or hard or that you just really don’t want to deal with right now. But—that doesn’t mean she’s wrong.

It wasn’t until I was in my mid-30s that I learned to embrace my Intuition. After so many years of ignoring her call, hearing her took a lot of soul-searching reflection. But when I did listen, I could finally live my most authentic and fulfilling life. 

As you make decisions in your career or personal life, acknowledge that little voice in the back of your mind. Intuition knows the key to your long-term happiness more than anyone or anything in this world. Listen to her and heed her advice like the BFF she is. 

Don’t be afraid of change

“The only constant in life is change.” – Heraclitus

Change is always a little bit scary and unsettling for everyone. Humans are programmed to seek consistency and familiarity as a safety mechanism, dating back to the survival instincts of our prehistoric ancestors.

In the present day, this translates into general feelings of anxiety and stress when we venture outside of our usual routine —for example, getting flustered when asked to take on a new assignment or starting a new job.

The good news is change gets easier the more you encounter it. Over time, the worries lessen and fade away, allowing you to see change as an opportunity for growth.

I remember the scariest transition I ever made in my career, like it was yesterday. I had the rare opportunity to head up a new team managing a critical process in the business. While I was excited about the work and the chance to make an impact, the stakes were high, and I was terrified of failing.

Fast forward over a decade, that career transition was the best chance I ever took in my professional life. Through that role, I made new connections, developed new skills, and cultivated my passions as a leader and mentor. 

The best decisions in life are often the scariest. Listen to your gut, push through the fear, and welcome those changes for the excellent opportunities they can provide.

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Make the most of your career

If you’re looking to create the career of your dreams, I hope you take these pieces of advice to heart. By acknowledging the lessons within each experience and interaction, you will be amazed at what you can learn and accomplish over the years.

Whether you’re looking to find a better work/life balance, climb the corporate ladder, or monetize your passion project, your career is what you make of it. Do what you can to make the most of it.

Author bio:

Tara Brewster, founder of the women’s empowerment blog Breakthrough Loading, is on a mission to help modern women challenge the status quo and create their best lives.

After nearly two decades in various corporate leadership roles, Tara walked away from her safe career to pursue her passion of empowering women.  After launching the blog, Tara used her corporate background and experience in the online business world to start a consulting firm supporting other creative entrepreneurs looking to scale and optimize their businesses.

Breakthrough Loading provides inspirational articles and actionable advice to help busy women make the most of their lives. From personal development and career advice to productivity tips and family time, you can find the tough love you need to tackle whatever obstacle you’re facing at Breakthrough Loading. Are you ready for a breakthrough?

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