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A Letter to My 20-Year-Old Careerist Self About What Really Matters

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handwritten note

It’s a classic Catch-22—with a careerist twist. When facing big decisions early in your career, you don’t have tons of real-world experience to draw upon. And by the time you’ve actually racked up a decent supply of workplace wisdom, you may feel like you no longer need career advice.

If only career tracks came with fast-forward and rewind buttons. (Or a blue police call box, for those who like to time travel in style.) Who better to guide your career than your future self?

But with no DeLoreans in sight, I decided to write a letter to my younger careerist self. After all, I’ve learned a lot of hard-fought lessons in my 20-year career as a creative director and product developer. Here’s the best of what I know now that I wish I’d known then:

Dear Earnest, 20-Year-Old, Job-Hunting Me:

1. First off, chill out

I know you feel like everything is riding on this next interview. That this is it, the dream job, and blowing it means ruining your life. But I’m here to tell you that there is no magic career bullet. You will ace interviews and flub interviews. You will get dream jobs, lose dream jobs, realize there are no true dream jobs, and life will march on.

So instead of trying too hard to get employers to want you, channel some of that nervous energy into figuring out if this is the best job for you. And if things do go south, remember that how you respond will say more about your character than any pat answer to an interview question. So do your best damage control and show them how you manage a crisis in real-time.

2. Beware of Gossips, Liars and Bullies

On a bad day, some workplaces can seem no different than a glorified high school. And even in the best-managed companies, it pays to keep in mind that no one’s got your back like you do.

Learn how to navigate these tricky waters early on to get a better sense of who you are and what you stand for. Peer pressure is alive and well in the workplace. And if it’s your boss pressuring you to adopt a shady strategy, “just say no” requires a bit more finesse.

3. A bar can be a great place for team bonding or networking—but know your limits

If Mad Men has taught us anything, it’s that witty repartee comes so much easier with a drink in hand. But it can be a short, stumbling walk from social drinking to sloppy behavior for some. Know what’s reasonable for you if you want to stay on your game, and stay well within that range, even if it means not keeping pace with others.

4. Develop your gut instincts, and go with them

We hear so often that hiring decisions can hinge on split-second judgments about body language or grammar, and for good reason. When life (or livelihood) is on the line, these primal instincts kick in to give decision-makers the best shot at success and survival.

Honing those instincts gives your career the best chance of survival, too. Steve Jobs swore by it, as do Oprah and Donald Trump. But going with your gut can take some practice, especially when you’re just starting out. Keep fine-tuning your intuition now so you don’t have to go hunting for it when you need it most.

5. Know when to hold ’em; know when to fold ’em

Now, listen up, Younger Me. After a lot of hard work, you may find yourself in a solid job with a solid company. And you might be tempted to ease up a little. After all, you earned it, right? Sure, things aren’t perfect. But, as we’ve already established, there are no perfect jobs.

If you take nothing else from this letter, remember this: what’s safe isn’t always smart. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that feeling safe is usually a sign that you need to shake things up a bit.

At least ask yourself the hard questions about why you are where you are and how to get where you want to go. Trust me on this one. It’s worth it.

Whether you’ve been on the job market for decades or days, you’ve probably already learned plenty you wish you’d known before you put yourself on the line. Don’t let those life lessons go to waste.

What are some of your best tips to your younger self?

Karen Vitale is a seasoned writer, product developer, creative consultant and cubicle escapee who tries to make sense of all that at www.karenvitale.com.

Brazen powers real-time, online events for leading organizations around the world. Our lifestyle and career blog, Brazen Life, offers fun and edgy ideas for ambitious professionals navigating the changing world of work.

  • Jennifer

    My best tip for my younger self is to follow your passion rather than the money. Seems simple, but if you have no trust fund and college loans to repay, you may feel as if you have no choice. But you do! I will always wonder where my passion would have led me because I now know that doing something you enjoy leads to career and life fulfillment that cannot be replaced with a great salary. Following your passion is a great way to excel at anything!

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    My tip to my younger self would be- “Don’t try to figure your career direction out in your head. Get out into the world and experiment through volunteering, freelancing, or internships.”

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