Career Lessons

I’m writing this post in hopes that my former mentees, younger sister, young cousin, some college student or new college grad will stumble upon it, and, hopefully, learn something from my experiences.

I graduated college almost five years ago, right before the stock market crashed.  It was a very difficult time, not just for me, but for many people I knew, many who had worked extremely hard their entire lives.  Half of my friends ended up going to graduate school, some ended up settling for jobs that weren’t in their field of study, some ended up freelancing/tutoring/teaching English abroad, and some were unemployed for quite some time.  Many who accepted offers in investment banking were laid off before they even started working.  Having a degree from one of the best universities in the world didn’t mean a damn thing.

So, here’s Lesson #1: Stay humble. No matter what a “rock star” you think you are, or how much you have accomplished up until this point in your life, you still need to prove yourself in the real world.  You are not entitled to anything.  Anything.

Lesson #2: Learn to negotiate. Before you accept a job offer, do your research on the salary and compensation.  Even if you’re offered a salary that is more than you think you deserve, make sure that it is market rate, at the very least.  But don’t be afraid to ask for more.  Stay humble, but don’t be an effing doormat.  And in the case that you end up kicking ass and exceed your (quantifiable) goals, ask for a raise.  Spend 3-6 months building your case, demonstrate that you’ve exceeded your goals & ask for a raise. One of my friends did this & got a 40% raise.  I’ve also successfully negotiated raises in the past.  Don’t think it’s impossible.  It is. And don’t think you don’t deserve it, because you deserve to be rewarded for the work that you do.

Lesson #3: Set quantifiable goals.  Always quantify your goals, because when you exceed them, there is no argument that you exceeded them.  You might be young & naive, you might want to do work that “makes a difference”, but you won’t be rewarded for that work if you can’t quantify it. Unfortunately, this is the sad truth.  Also, don’t set goals that are too ambitious, unless you have a direct stake in the success of the company.  Nobody cares how ambitious your goals are or how much you achieve if you can’t put a number to it.  This is something I still need to work on…

Lesson #4: Advocate for yourself.  This is especially important for those who grew up with Asian parents.  You’re supposed to be humble, self deprecating.  You were taught not to brag about your accomplishments.  Your parents did you a disservice. In the real world, you are going to need to advocate for yourself. Take credit for the work that you do.  There is nothing more demoralizing than having someone else take credit for your work, especially for work that they don’t know how to do.  This has happened to almost every person I know, including me.

Lesson #5: Never stop learning. Never.  If you’re lucky enough to work at a company that offers formal training for your job, then great.  But most people aren’t that lucky and nobody is responsible for teaching you anything, so take the initiative to learn as much as possible. Read books, read blogs, take classes, attend conferences, join professional organizations, be a network whore (see lesson #8), try to work with people who are smarter than you & who challenge you intellectually.  Ask to take on new projects where you can apply your learning.  No matter how much of an expert or “guru” you think you are, you can always learn more, or learn to think differently about what you already know.

Lesson #6: Be a leader. Not a boss. I’ve been in positions where I’ve had direct reports, and some of my peers are getting into roles where they’re responsible for managing other employees, so this is especially important.  The people are the most important part of any organization, so invest in your people.  Make sure your employees are happy and that they feel their jobs are meaningful  Provide the resources that your employees need to do their job.  Let them take ownership of their work (don’t give responsibility without authority) – you hired them to do a job, so trust them to do their job.  Otherwise, you obviously made a shitty hiring decision.  Leave your ego at the door. Listen to your employees, be open to their ideas, & provide advice.  Help them develop the skills they need to grow professionally.  And whatever you do, don’t micromanage. Let them learn to ask questions and figure things out on their own.  Give credit where credit is due. Set high expectations.

Lesson #7: Find good managers.  In my experience, your job satisfaction depends a whole lot on your manager, so make sure you find one that you get along with.  This is more important than the actual work that you or the company you work for.  You know that saying, “People don’t leave bad companies, they leave bad managers”? Well, it’s true. And people will stay loyal to a good manager.  Unless the company culture is absolutely toxic or they’re severely under-compensated   My best managers have been the “leader” type and not the “boss” type.  They were accessible, checked in regularly, gave me the resources I needed to do my job, gave career advice beyond my tenure at their company, let me take ownership of my work, and understood that I was human.  They understand that my family & health came first before my job, and they fully respected that.

Lesson 8: Be a network whore. Meet as many people in your industry as possible.  Respond to recruiters and hiring managers trying to recruit you, even if you’re not in the market for career change.  Answer their phone calls (yes, they’ve called me at work before), and let them buy you coffee or lunch.  You may not be ready to make a move now, but you may be ready to make a move a few years down the road, and keeping in touch with your connections will be invaluable when that time comes.  It doesn’t matter how hard you work or how much you accomplish if nobody knows who you are or the work that you’ve done.

Lesson 9:  Do your due diligence. A wise industry veteran recently advised me to “do your due diligence” on any prospective manager before accepting an offer to work with them.  In fact, do your due diligence before making any big life decision.  Before making a college decision, a decision to go to graduate school, a decision to undergo treatment for a health problem, a decision to invest a shit ton of time or money into something, etc.  It will save a lot of headaches and heartache later.  Trust me.

*Lesson #10: Don’t be a afraid to walk away.  Early in my career, I chose to make strategic decisions regarding my career.  I wanted to work in my chosen field and made many personal & monetary sacrifices to make it happen.  I rejected more lucrative opportunities because they weren’t aligned with my interests.  Don’t be afraid to do that.  You will be happier in the long run.

Also, don’t be afraid to walk away from your job, even if you don’t have a new gig lined up.  The company culture at one of my first jobs out of college was absolutely toxic.  I survived three rounds of layoffs, and ended up getting a lot of more senior level work dumped on me without being compensated for it. Talented employees were leaving left and right, in the middle of a recession.  Management was inaccessible at best, or they were in the “you’re lucky you still have a job” mentality at worst.  I had nightmares about work.  I had an anxiety attack, which I initially mistook as a heart attack.  Eventually, I reached a breaking point and made the decision to walk away without having a gig lined up.  Don’t be afraid to walk away.  Nothing is worth sacrificing your health for.  Nothing is worth sacrificing your values and integrity for, either.

*Make sure you’re constantly working to build up your nest egg, so you can do #10.