Lessons from 5 Years of Adulting: Part 1

On being a worker bee.

My 5 year work-iversary came and went in a blur. In 5 years I’ve held 5.5 roles, worked for 3 companies and reported to 10 managers. I’ve weathered shit storms and champagne celebrations, client freak outs and countless “restructures.” Basically, I’ve learned a lot of stuff. Sometimes, painfully.

These are 5 of the lessons I’m grateful to have learned early on. Sometimes you have to learn stuff the hard way but once in awhile, you can benefit from other’s mistakes and experiences. I hope you can learn from mine!

Over-prepared is the new “regular” prepared.

When I was in client services, I was going into a meeting with my boss and the CEO of our company. We were going to be discussing an upcoming integration with a client. I knew who we would be talking to, what we were talking about and my boss and the CEO were going to be leading the discussion. I was going to sit, listen and take notes. Sweet.

10 minutes in, the CEO mutes us and asks me for the latest numbers for this account — number of users, number of interactions, etc. I stared back with a deer caught in the headlights look. Let me tell you, not a good look.

I thought because I wasn’t going to be an active participant in the discussion, I could just show up and sit down but I was so wrong. The humiliation from being unprepared on that day has stuck with me, over a year later and thankfully I don’t think I’ve ever made that mistake again.

Go into every conversation over prepared. That doesn’t mean that you need to have all the answers — it just means that you need to have a solid understanding of the who, what, when, where and why and anticipate questions that might come up. Gather any supplemental research or data and be ready with any important highlights.

It’s a really, really small world.

People will remember how you made them feel. They will remember whether you were kind or rude, whether you took time to be helpful or if you participated in office gossip. Think hard about what the people you work with and interact with would say about you.

Because, the truth is, what people think of you does matter and it matters at the most crucial times — when you’re up for a promotion, when you need a reference for a new job or when you need help with something new.

In other words:

Seriously, don’t be an asshole.

Double down on your strengths as soon as you can.

With every available resource we have today to learn new things, it can be easy to try and do too much. The most probable outcome of this (unless you’re a genius with infinite time) is that you’ll end up being mediocre at a bunch of things. EEK. You do not want to be in that place.

Instead, figure out what things you’re really good at and what things you actually really enjoy and then double down on those. By doing so, you’ll position yourself to reach “expert” status much faster and make yourself indispensable.

Learn how to be mentored.

Knowing how to ask for help and advice is a skill that requires development. If you’re asking people if you can “pick their brain” or “hear about their experiences doing XYZ,” chances are, you’re not going to gain much from that conversation. Be specific, be clear and do some leg work ahead of time.

Bringing an idea, a project or a problem to the conversation and asking for feedback is a much more productive way to way ask for help. Doing this lends some structure to the conversation and allows someone to offer concrete ways to learn or improve, rather than offering vague career advice.

If you want advice on how to break into a different field, don’t find someone in that field and say “how can I get to where you are?” Instead, do your research first. Here are some questions to get you started:

• What skills do you need to be successful in this field?
• What projects were the most impactful in helping you gain the right skills?
• What does the day-to-day work entail? 
• Based on my experiences, in which areas can I stand to gain more depth?

Make a plan. Be clear about your intentions and asks in order to maximize your time with this person. Make it as easy as possible for them to help you.

• I’m going to develop these 3 skills by doing these 4 things. I would love your feedback along the way. 
• Do you have any suggestions on what resources I can leverage to accomplish my goal?
• I have done this project to demonstrate my learnings about [ux design], I’d love to hear your feedback on what I can do better.

Attitude is everything.

Chances are, the roles you hold and the work you do in the first 5 years of your career aren’t always what you wanted or expected. It’s okay. How you handle these roles, what you learn and how you rise to the challenge will say leagues about you and will contribute or detract to your success and reputation. If you’re working on a shitty project, sulking the whole time and doing the bare minimum, you probably won’t be the top choice the next time a cool opportunity rolls around. Imagine if instead, you knock it out of the park and turn it into an awesome experience for everyone involved. Boom! Who wouldn’t want you on their next awesome project?

People believe that the first few years of work define the rest of your life and the rest of your career. But let me tell you, 5 years does not make a career and definitely not a life. Those first few years are great for establishing a solid foundation of skills and relationships. Spend time figuring out what you’re good at and what you enjoy.

Look out for Part 2: Lessons on being a human, coming soon.

Thanks to Chris Glick, Jessica Owen and Kinjal Shah for the feedback!