This is going to be honest career advice so if you can’t handle the truth, stop reading!
This is my first blog post in, I don’t know how long, so allow me to be a bit dramatic. Anyway, quick story. I was chatting with a new member of my team at work the other day and as I was explaining to him where I used to work and what I used to do, I ran out of things to talk about and said “Well, I’m pretty early in my career so…”
Later that day, I had to stop and think about why the heck I said that. Obviously, it’s because I’m awkward. But I guess you can say I’m still early in my career – I graduated college just 7 years ago and graduate school 5 years ago. But I am not new to working. I’ve worked since it was legal to do so here in these United States of America. I’ve worked since I was 14 years old at various jobs. Maybe my “chosen career” didn’t start until after I left higher education, but my career in terms of working started over 15 years ago.
I’ve seen a lot and done a lot. I’ve worked in too many retail stores to count, the food industry, in a college admissions office, in research labs, in a few radiology clinics, not-for-profits, and in healthcare administration. I may not be of retirement age, but I’ve been around the block.
When I was 16, I said to my boss (after being scolded for wearing the “wrong” kind of pants), “fuck this, I’m too young for this shit” and walked out of the place forever (looking at you, ColdStone). I once told an attending radiologist “don’t talk to me like that” after he was nastily rude to me. On the other hand, I’ve been a fearless leader and have been publically recognized for my work.
Now that you know that I’m qualified to write about this, here are 11 things I’ve learned throughout my career – the good, the bad, and the practical.
1. It’s on you to learn new things
When I was really early in my career, I made the classic mistake of looking at my job in the same light as an internship. I thought I was there to learn all there is to know about healthcare. I did learn some things about healthcare, but only if it was within the confines of my work or the company itself. Eventually, this got pretty limiting.
I learned that if I wanted to become an expert in some aspect of healthcare, I’d have to put the work in to do that. Your job isn’t going to serve as a continuation of your education. Sure, some companies offer trainings and such, and bless your heart if you have the time to complete them during working hours. I barely have time to do my timesheet. The point is, if you’re interested in something that lives in the outer landscape of the services your company offers, your boss isn’t going to hand you personalized training on a silver platter. You’ve got to seek out the information.
2. Your boss isn’t automatically your mentor
When your boss says they care about your development, they mean in your role (at the very least), not your career as a whole. They want you to become really good at your job so they don’t have to worry about you anymore or train you as much. There’s even the hope that you’ll serve as a mentor to others. It’s pretty self-serving and doesn’t really have much to do with you.
Obviously, there are people out there who have a vested interest in the people they oversee. But mostly everyone you work with or for isn’t going to take the time out to mold you. And please, don’t ask them to. Requesting a mentorship is a lot to ask of anyone. If they are generous, great. If not, find someone who is.
3. Your coworkers don’t necessarily like you for who you are
But your coworkers do like you for what you can do. This was a hard lesson for me. You can think you’re the coolest person on the floor, but your abilities will reign over your good looks and charming personality. When people say they like working with you, it’s likely because you take initiative and are easy to work with, not because you make everyone laugh (though, being funny is definitely an added bonus).
4. Yessing people to death is a clear path to burnout
I used to think that I couldn’t say “no” at work. And there have certainly been times when I said “no” or expressed my concerns about doing something only to end up doing the thing anyway. I would be annoyed but would do a damn good job anyway because that’s just in my character. And before I knew it, requests would come in for the next project, and so on. Saying “no worries!” and “happy to help!” are the biggest lies ever in the workplace. Don’t “no worries!” and “happy to help!” your way to hating everyone and everything. I’ve done this too many times to count.
Here’s a hot take: people will push you. Your boss will push you. Your coworkers will push you. You will probably push yourself. But you don’t have to continue being pushed and rolled down the road. When people push, they’re learning about you. Seeing how many times they have to ask before you put your foot down. Learning about how to ask you to do the thing they don’t want to do so it sounds like an “awesome learning opportunity.” You can teach them where your line is. And for the love of God, don’t keep moving that line. Stand firm.
5. No one cares that you stayed late, came in early, or worked on Sunday
So just, like, don’t do it. I distinctly remember being in the office at 7:30pm and my boss walking out saying “wow, you’re still here?! I must be working you hard. Don’t forget to turn off the lights when you leave.” LOL. I was hoping she’d be like “wow, you’re still here?! I really appreciate that. Let’s figure out how to prevent this in the future.” The truth is that she didn’t give a damn that I stayed late. But she did give a damn that a polished newsletter was in her inbox the next morning.
This is especially true when you stayed late, came in earlier, and worked all weekend and have nothing to show for it. If your work is crappy or half-assed, no one’s going to care about how long you spent working on it.
6. You’ve got to be already be doing the job you want to get promoted to
When you’re brought onto a new role, it’s likely because you’re able to jump in and get the work done with relative ease and speed. Rarely will someone who’s in a pinch hire a person who needs MONTHS of training. The same goes for promotions. No one wants to promote you to a role that you cannot already do (or have not shown any capacity to do). So, you need to already be doing the work in some shape or form. Yes, that means working above your pay grade. Yes, that’s messed up, but people are often too busy to spend their productive time training you. I guess that’s how the cookie crumbles.
Here’s some bonus tea: going above and beyond sucks when you’re doing it solely for someone else’s approval. But it doesn’t always have to be about proving your loyalty to your boss and/or the company. It can be about YOU. It can be about your advancement and cultivating opportunities for yourself both inside and outside the company. This is the perfect time to be selfish.
7. Don’t get too personal
I personally find it repulsive when people refer to their team as “family.” Like, you get hired, and everyone’s all “welcome to the *insert team name here* family.” LOL. I find it to be a very performative term to make people feel more comfortable than they ought to be, given the fact that coworkers will look at you sideways for taking time off or sharing your opinion down the road. My opinions aside, your coworkers are not your family or your friends. They don’t need to know the happenings of your personal life or what keeps you up at night.
As a millennial, I know firsthand how difficult it is to refrain from over-explaining my decisions. In the past, I’d tell my boss “I need to take the whole day off because I need to go to the doctor, then get bloodwork done at a different facility and therefore won’t be able to get back in time to sign back in.” Like, whoa. Too personal, Mel. No one needs to know your business to that level and telling your boss that you need the whole day off doesn’t need to be justified. If they ask, tell them you’re not comfortable sharing the details.
8. What you say can and will be used against you
This one goes hand-in-hand with number 7. Have you ever had a coworker word-vomit all of the office gossip to you without you asking them to? Me, too. Whether it’s your “work bestie” or just Susan wanting to vent to the next person who walks by, you should know that your name absolutely comes up in office gossip. So be careful of what you say. I once told a coworker who I considered a friend that I was thinking about applying to another position within the company. The next day, the manager that would be supervising that position told me not to apply because she felt I wasn’t ready.
LOL. I asked her how she found out and she told me she heard through the grapevine and advised me to be careful about who I confide in. I didn’t learn my lesson right then and have had things I said to coworkers come back to me like a boomerang. I know better now. Trust me, the things you say will travel through the grapevine way faster than it takes Windows to update your computer.
9. Be yourself and do you
It can be difficult to be on a team or work at a company whose values differ from yours. The moment I started working in a traditional corporate environment, I knew it wasn’t for me. I’m not really competitive and I don’t get much out of trying to outperform everyone else. I’m not keen on passive aggression or pretending to know what I’m talking about and talking over people in meetings to sound smart. I care about advancing the goals related to causes (such as public health) more than I care about advancing the goals of corporations. I’ve been told I’m too quiet in meetings. Truth is, I only speak when I have a value-add, not to get a participation trophy.
Over the years, I’ve learned to just be myself. Because that’s all I can be. Trying to be other people’s ideal version of me is exhausting. As I’ve learned more about who I am, I became more comfortable just being that chick. When you know yourself, it’s easier to be yourself. When you don’t know yourself, it’s easier to conform. I say, do the things that make you feel good. If you like to organize, organize. If you’re quiet, be quiet. If you like to take your time, don’t let people rush you. And always do a pulse check of the team/company values before you join, if possible.
10. There’s no rule on how long to stay at a job
If you don’t like your job, leave. Yeah, I said it. Oh, you haven’t been at your job for more than the two years that seem to look good on a resume? Who cares? I quit my first job out of grad school after 3 months because I didn’t like it. People told me I was bugging out and I needed to stay and “earn my stripes.” To hell with that – I was miserable. Did the world end? No. Was my career ruined? Nope. I just moved on to another job that I liked and was better suited for. If you can swing it, do it.
Here are some truths. Nothing in this world is forever. Life is short and fleeting. We could all be sucked into a black hole tomorrow. You don’t owe anyone anything – especially the company you work for. People leave jobs after 20 years and it puts a strain on the company. People leave a job after 2 months and it puts a strain on the company. If someone’s going to draw conclusions about you and dismiss you based on the length of time you’ve been at a job, you probably don’t want to work for them because they’re judgemental AF.
11. Use your damned benefits
I’ve known plenty of folks who rarely ever took a day off. I know folks who never took advantage of health insurance or retirement plans. Even if you LOVE your job, you’re going to need a break sooner or later. And you’re going to get sick and need to retire someday. I used to feel guilty for taking a lunch break or taking a vacation. Honestly, I thought coworkers would like me better if I was always present and eager. It’s not a badge of honor to never take time off. It’s not a badge of honor to work yourself to the bone. No one will like you more on a personal level because you didn’t take care of yourself.
Use your sick time. Use your paid time off. Contribute to your 401K (or equivalent) and have your employer match your contributions. Use your employer-sponsored health insurance. Use those wellness perks or commuter dollars. Use whatever else your employer offers you as a benefit. Don’t hold back. Your time and talent are worth much more than any of those things (plus your salary) combined.
Those were some hefty lessons.
Those were the most important lessons I’ve learned in my career so far. They’ve been hard. There have been many tears and vent sessions. But when the ah-ha moments came, I felt lighter and freer. I know now more than ever that I am in complete control of my career. Being passive is a sure way to end up in the same, potentially miserable, feedback loop for years until retirement.
I also know now more than ever that I need to treat my career as part of my personal brand and think of taking a job as a business transaction, rather than me signing my life away only to get nothing out of it. If you’ve been struggling with any of the things I mentioned above, I feel you. Employers value loyalty because it saves them time and, most importantly, money. But who’s gonna save YOU? Who’s gonna care more about you and your career? The answer to both of those questions is: YOU.