As much as high school and college attempt to prepare you for the “working world,” there’s still a severe lack of career advice. And what advice you do get is mostly about how to get a job, not how to build a successful career.
Recognizing this, I put together this collection of career advice I wish I’d known the day I graduated college. Some of this I learned through experience, but much of it came from people much wiser.
Whether you’re just beginning your career or are several years in, the advice below will help you take your career to the next level.
Career Success Isn’t Instant
We live in a society that values instant gratification. We love to read “overnight success” stories and feel jealous when we see a 17-year-old Instagram influencer who’s already a millionaire.
But for every overnight success story, there are just as many untold tales of people who labored in obscurity for decades before gaining recognition.
Take Steve Carell, for instance. Due to his prominence as star of The Office and countless movies, it’s easy to forget that he was already in his 40s when The Office began. But no one thinks of him as somehow less successful because he rose to prominence closer to the middle of his life.
When evaluating your career success, you should keep such stories in mind. There will always be someone younger, more successful, and just luckier. But you shouldn’t let this make you feel inadequate.
Instead, you should focus on the aspects of your career and work that you can control. And you should recognize that it can take years or even decades before you reach the level of success you desire.
Focus Your Early Career on Learning, Not Earning
In an interview with Business Insider, author and entrepreneur Tim Ferriss cautions people early in their careers to “optimize for learning, not earning.” This is one of the best pieces of career advice I’ve ever heard, and I’ve used it extensively throughout my career thus far.
When you graduate college (especially if you have lots of student loan debt), it’s tempting to pick jobs that will pay the most money.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with having a well-paying job, it’s a mistake to choose one at the expense of opportunities to learn.
Instead, it’s better to spend the early phase of your career acquiring skills and gaining experience that will compound over the long term.
Apprenticeships are a classic example of this advice in action. When you spend 3 to 5 years working under someone else and learning a trade, you do sacrifice potentially higher earnings in the short-term. However, this short-term trade-off is worth it to learn valuable skills that will massively increase your earning potential and overall opportunities through the rest of your career.
Define Your Version of Success
“Don’t let life randomly kick you into the adult you don’t want to become”
– Chris Hadfield, astronaut and author
What does success look like to you? The answer may seem obvious, but have you ever sat down and thought about it?
Defining your version of success is crucial, because otherwise, you’re likely to default to whatever society considers “success.” Generally, this means making as much money as possible, having fancy possessions, and gaining power over others.
While there’s nothing inherently wrong with increasing your income, buying nice things, or rising through the ranks of management, be mindful of your path. Otherwise, you could end up achieving “suck-cess.” This is a situation in which you’ve succeeded at your goals but hate the life that success creates.
For instance, you might end up making lots of money at the expense of your health and relationships. You achieved your goal, but was it worth it?
Ultimately, this is a highly personal choice. The key is to consider what success means to you so you don’t end up inwardly unhappy despite being outwardly “successful.”
Consider the Lifestyle Implications of Your Career
In a similar vein to avoiding “suck-cess,” be sure your career matches the lifestyle you want to have. Even if the work you do is interesting and fulfilling, it won’t matter if the job requires a lifestyle that’s out of sync with your desires.
For instance, a job that requires a lot of travel may sound exciting, but there will be tradeoffs. Being on the road for days or weeks at a time means less of an opportunity to build relationships in your community. And if you ever want to start a family, a high level of travel can make raising children a lot more difficult.
Likewise, beware a job that offers more money but requires a longer commute. While a short car commute can be fine, long commutes can seriously harm your physical and mental health. They’re bad for your heart, your back, your spine, and your stress levels. Not to mention, time you spend commuting means less time to spend with friends or family.
And these are just a couple of examples. As with all things in life, there will be tradeoffs with any career. It’s up to you to decide if those trade-offs are worth it. But be especially cautious of careers where success comes at the expense of your relationships or health.
Be Mindful of Your Company’s Culture
When choosing where to work, it’s natural to focus on salary, benefits, and the company’s prestige. While these are logical things to consider, be sure to consider the company’s culture as well. If you pick a company whose culture doesn’t align with your values or goals, then you’re likely to be unhappy.
For instance, if you value living a balanced life, then you don’t want to work somewhere with a workaholic culture. At best, you’ll be the one who doesn’t fit in because you value balance. At worst, you’ll pick up your coworker’s unhealthy habits and end up burning out.
Conversely, you don’t want to work somewhere with a culture that’s too lax. If everyone is disengaged from their jobs a la Office Space, your coworkers may put down your attempts to excel. Or, even worse, the culture of laziness may rub off on you and hinder your overall career progress.
To see if a company’s culture is right for you, ask about it in interviews. In addition to protecting you against a job you’ll hate, asking about company culture also shows the interviewer that you care.
It shows that you’ve put some thought into why you’d like to work at that company specifically, not just the position in general. And if an interviewer seems perplexed when you ask about company culture, that’s a sign you should apply elsewhere.
Seek Feedback (and Learn to Accept Criticism)
If you want to get better at your work, you must seek feedback. Otherwise, you’ll have no idea if you’re on the right path. But what’s the best way to go about this?
To start, ask your boss or manager what you can do to be better at your job. If you’re concerned about a particular aspect of your performance, you can start by asking about that. But also be open to what your supervisor suggests. They likely have suggestions you wouldn’t have considered.
Not only is getting feedback essential for improving, but it’s also a critical part of getting a raise. Asking for feedback at all shows your manager that you care about doing your job well, which is sure to impress. And once you’ve acted on your manager’s feedback and improved your performance, you can point to that as justification for a pay increase.
Of course, getting feedback can be uncomfortable. You have to learn how to take criticism constructively. A good manager will make this easier, delivering objective feedback without criticizing you personally.
But even then, you need to remember that any criticism you get is about your job performance, not your worth as a person. Otherwise, you’ll end up feeling bad about yourself on top of never improving.
So far, I’ve talked a lot about how to do well in your current job. However, you shouldn’t get so focused on excelling in your job that you ignore other opportunities. You should always consider where you want to be next, and whether or not your current job or company is helping you reach that goal.
If you discover a better opportunity elsewhere, then pursue it! Of course, you shouldn’t burn bridges in your current organization. But you should also know that we no longer live in the era of working at one place your entire life.
Managers expect that people early on in their careers will switch to a different company if a better opportunity arises. So don’t let misguided ideas about loyalty dissuade you from making a job change if it’s sensible for you.
Don’t Plan Your Career Too Far in Advance
“Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” is a popular interview question. And while your answer to that question can tell an interviewer a lot, you shouldn’t necessarily plan your career 5 or 10 years in advance.
This doesn’t mean you should have no plan. Rather, you should be cautious of planning too far ahead. While 5 years isn’t really that long in the scheme of an entire human life, it’s still too long for you to make accurate predictions. This is especially true when you’re early in your career and still trying to figure out what you want to do.
Just looking at my career journey, 5 years ago I had no idea I’d settle in Denver or head up content for this website. I assumed I’d be freelancing and switching countries every few months. But priorities change, new opportunities arise, and life throws you curveballs.
Therefore, you should make only enough of a plan to guide you in the right general direction. Beyond that, remain open to opportunities and accept that there will be setbacks.
If you plan too much, you can cut yourself off from new opportunities that require you to change your plans. Similarly, too much planning can make you less resilient against setbacks that require you to change course.
To get ahead in business and life, you have to network. Few deny that fact, but many go about networking the wrong way. If you think effective networking is only about shaking hands and exchanging business cards (or the virtual equivalent), then you’re doing it wrong.
This way, you win no matter what. If you make friends with an interesting person and it never benefits your career, you’ve still gained a friend.
But if it turns out you can help each other professionally, then starting from a place of friendship is much better than some perfunctory LinkedIn messages. People want to help people they like, and nowhere is this truer of friends (except maybe in the case of family members).
Don’t Be Afraid to Change Careers
What if you get a few years into a career and decide you hate it? Are you stuck that way for the rest of your working years? Is it too late to change course?
Absolutely not. While it can be scary and even risky, changing careers is sometimes a smart move.
Of course, you have to weigh the pros and cons carefully. You have to decide if it’s really the career you hate, or just the specific place you work. And you have to develop a concrete plan for transitioning into your new career, making any necessary preparations along the way.
Overall, though, it will be much better for your happiness (and society as a whole) if you don’t spend every day at a job you hate. This doesn’t mean that you can (or should) turn your passion into a career. Nor does it mean that you’ll love every minute of your new career; all jobs involve some amount of unpleasant work.
But you shouldn’t resign yourself to a career that drains and destroys you; life is too short for that.
For a detailed look at how (and when) to change careers, check out these tips from a professional career coach.
More Education Isn’t the Only Way to Advance
Whenever the economy turns bad and layoffs loom, many people panic and contemplate “going back to school” to ensure job security. And in good economic times when a promotion becomes available, many people wonder if they should get a more advanced degree to move up.
This is understandable, but more education isn’t always the answer. At least, not more formal education that costs tens of thousands of dollars. While going back to school can make sense in some situations (discussed below), those situations are rarer than you might imagine.
Pursuing further education, after all, comes with major costs. There’s the literal cost of getting the degree, of course. But there’s also the opportunity cost of spending a year or two taking classes.
If your goal is to advance, there are many other ways you could use that time. You could spend it networking, potentially opening yourself up to better job opportunities. Or, you could spend it improving your current job performance in preparation for requesting a raise.
And even if a lack of knowledge or skill is holding you back, getting a degree isn’t the only way to fix it. You could also take online classes on a specific skill you want to learn through a platform such as Skillshare.
Or, you could pursue an industry-specific certification such as those offered by CompTIA. In many cases, your company might even subsidize or fully cover the costs of this additional training.
Mind you, there are still some specific cases where more education is the answer. If you want to teach high school, you’ll need at least a bachelor’s degree (and likely a master’s). If you want to climb the executive ranks of a corporation, you probably need an MBA. And if you want to practice medicine, there’s no way around medical school.
However, these cases are exceptions, not the norm. Unless there’s a compelling financial or career reason, getting another degree usually isn’t the answer.
Keep a Journal
Day-to-day, it can be hard to tell what you think of your job and broader career. You may have convinced yourself that you dislike your work, for instance, when the issue is really your mean boss. Or that a busy schedule is affecting your work performance when it’s actually poor sleep habits.
The only way to realize these truths is to do some kind of self-reflection. While there are lots of approaches, the cheapest and most reliable we’ve found is to keep a journal.
Now, I know journaling is a difficult habit to build. I struggled with it for many years, starting and stopping. In many cases, it felt so boring as to be pointless. However, I later realized that much of my struggle with journaling came from the way I was doing it.
I thought I had to write pages and pages each day like the great diarists of the past. But while that approach can be great for some people, it’s also effective to write a sentence or two each day.
The main value in journaling comes not from what or how much you write on a specific day, but rather in the patterns you notice when reviewing your journal over the long-term. You might even find yourself saying things you didn’t realize you thought.
This process is valuable for your overall personal development, but it’s also valuable for your career specifically. Regular reflection can help you decide if you need to have a conversation with your boss, improve your work-life balance, or even change careers entirely.
Need help starting a journal? Check out this post.
Turn Career Advice Into Career Action
The pieces of career advice in this article should give you lots of ideas for developing and advancing in your career. However, as we often say, the best career advice in the world is useless if you don’t put it into action.
Therefore, I recommend picking one piece of advice that seems relevant and work to apply it over the next few weeks or months (some will take longer than others to implement). This way, you’ll turn your inspiration into action.
Looking for help with other aspects of your career? Check out our collection of career resources.
Image Credits: hand holding compass