17 Essential Career Lessons I’D Give to My Younger Self; Insights for Young Women

“I wish someone had told me!” Or “I wish I knew!” How many times have you found yourself saying these words out loud after you experience something? Chances are, if you’re like me, a few.

Two particular unique experiences come to mind when I think of these phrases. The first is breastfeeding my firstborn daughter, and the second is my first layoff as a young 24-year-old professional in the tech space.

As a new mom, I remember thinking as both my newborn and I struggled to figure out this breastfeeding thing, “Why didn’t anyone who had been through this tell me it was going to be this challenging?” “Were the photos I had seen in magazine spreads and TV ads of joyfully breastfeeding moms with their babies looking lovingly in their eyes a fantasy?” Here I was, struggling to get my infant to latch on, and once she did, came the excruciating pain that lasted two weeks! I called my mother and asked her why she didn’t warn me. In her true old-school mom fashion (which I should have expected), she casually said that she didn’t think it was necessary. “In her time,” she said, “they just did it and didn’t complain.” Fair enough, I thought. But at that moment, I vowed that no expectant mom I knew would go through this experience unprepared.

While my first layoff experience did not cause physical pain like breastfeeding, the mental and emotional anguish was just as palpable. I was stunned when it happened. “How could someone as dedicated as I was to my job and company be let go?” “Didn’t I perform at the highest level?” “Wasn’t I special?” “Hadn’t I shown my loyalty?” “Didn’t we have a great relationship?” Why didn’t anyone warn me that this was possible? I thought to myself. Again, I promised I would never allow any young woman to be caught off guard by a similar experience.

“No one should have to go through or jump through the same hurdles as you did in the name of learning or character building.” – gapmuse

With all the tech layoffs happening around us – some in the most callous way possible (think via Zoom, email, sudden laptop lockouts) – and with graduation season recently wrapped up, I couldn’t help but think of this first layoff and the graduates about to embark on their career journey.

I imagined, just like me, many of these young women, fresh out of college, were filled with joy, gratitude, ambition, and excitement over the prospect of taking this journey and achieving their dreams. It’s an unpredictable journey similar to every other ride we take on in life.

Is it possible to make this journey more predictable (short of looking at a crystal ball)? I asked myself.

I am a firm believer in passing along wisdom; no one should have to go through or jump through the same hurdles as you did in the name of learning or character building. I want the younger generation, especially young women, and my daughters to have the tools and knowledge they need to make the right career and personal choices and to have a smoother journey than I did.

Motivated by the desire to pay it forward to these young women, I decided to publish this post.

Here are the 17 essential career lessons I’d give to my younger self:

1. It’s Business, Not Personal.

Remember that work is a transaction, not a personal relationship. Any decision that the company makes always has to do with the numbers. And if they are not adding up – no growth, declining revenue, no profits – they must do whatever is necessary to survive. Part of that survival relies on looking for efficiencies and cutting costs. Since labor costs are the easiest to cut, companies eliminate jobs, making people the first casualties.

2. It’s Not Your Family

Companies make decisions based on the bottom line, not how they will impact you or your family. You are not unique. During economic cycles, companies quickly dismiss you for their survival during downturns and replace you amid recovery. Your family will never expel you to survive. You are irreplaceable.

3. It’s Not the Place to Find Friends

Refrain from looking to your workplace to discover and make lifelong friendships. Look to your family, community, and social circle as your primary source. I’m not saying it’s not possible. You might be lucky to meet a friend, but it’s not guaranteed. I have been fortunate to find six people who have become incredible friends in my 10+ years career journey, including a former boss. I wasn’t looking for them to become my friends. It happened because we had a natural connection and chemistry.

4. Align Company Goals With Yours

Advance company objectives while also advancing your own career goals simultaneously. Keep sight of your long-term career goals. Consistently evaluate if what you’re doing is the right fit for you. Are you in the right industry? Are the company’s values aligned with yours? Is the company’s mission aligned with yours? Is there a growth path?

5. Always Be Learning

Always seek knowledge about your craft, industry, the latest technology, and how it will impact your career trajectory. Leverage free resources, such as podcasts, e-newsletters from your industry and profession, online portals and communities from your discipline, workshops, webinars, Slack channels, meetups, Google alerts, etc. Take courses and relevant certifications whenever possible and if your budget allows. Many companies subsidize learning activities, so take advantage of it. Attend both virtual and in-person industry events. Again, many businesses will pay for it. Feel free to ask for what you want. The worst that can happen is that they say no.

6. Plan for Kids [If You Want Them]

Include family planning in your long-term plans, just like you would for finances, retirement, house buying, or other major life decisions. There are different paths to motherhood. The goal is to pick the way that works for you and to plan for it.

7. Build an Emergency Fund

An employer can eliminate your position and let you go instantly without warning. Ensure your financial security and independence with a three to six-month emergency fund. And if you can afford to stash away more, even better! You can use your larger cushion not just for emergencies but also as what Ellevest calls a F*ck You Fund. Unlike your emergency fund, the latter allows you to escape unhealthy situations, including abusive personal or professional relationships.

8. Know Your Self Worth

You are NOT your work. Separate your self-worth from your work. Your personal life defines who you are when you’re away from work, your values, and what brings you joy and fulfillment. Remember, when you pass on (and we all will), no one will remember you for your incredible presentation at work. They’ll reflect on the impact you made in the world – on your family, community, and society. Your job is essential, but it should not define you. Prioritize it without compromising the things that matter most to you.

9. Prioritize Your Family

Never sacrifice quality time with family for your work. Unlike your work, family is irreplaceable. The precious time you lose with your children is not retrievable. When deciding to reduce headcount, companies do not look back at your sacrifices, such as missing a significant life event for your child. They look at the bottom line because, as aforementioned, your relationship is purely transactional.

10. Keep Receipts [You’ll Thank Me Later]

Record and maintain a paper trail of critical conversations or incidents to protect yourself and avoid misunderstandings. Write it down if it’s vital. It eliminates the game of “he said, she said,” which you are most likely to lose depending on the power dynamic.

11. Keep a Running Brag file

Maintain a record of your most notable achievements and projects, including taking screenshots of accolades from your peers, managers, and leaders. They come in handy during performance reviews and for updating your career profile – resume, LinkedIn profile, portfolio, interview prep, etc. Your brag file should be easily accessible from your drive, not your work drive. Remember, when you leave the company, either voluntarily or involuntarily, they lock your laptop, leaving you with no access to it. The brag file can also boost your confidence, elevate your self-esteem, especially when you experience self-doubt, and remind you to celebrate your successes.

12. Advocate for yourself

Toot your horn, but do it tactfully and with humility. It gives you and your team visibility and shows how you add value to your organization. I learned the importance of championing yourself and your team the hard way. Earlier in my career, I believed keeping my head down and allowing my exceptional work to speak for itself would be sufficient. It didn’t work. The squeaky wheels got the attention. Here are some examples of how to give your contributions visibility:

  • Share positive feedback from your colleagues with your manager. I often take screenshots and slack them to my boss. Your one on ones is also an excellent place to share.
  •  Give props to your team after you complete a significant project. You could do it via a “props” Slack channel or email.
  •  Announce major wins that impact the organization. In my line of work, this could be a significant product launch, case study, customer testimonial from a core customer, a successful product campaign, or anything else that adds value to the company.
  •  Share assets you’ve produced that benefit a specific team in their channels to raise awareness and adoption.

13. Protect Your Mental and Emotional Well Being

Never sacrifice your mental and emotional health for money. It is better to leave than to subject yourself to a toxic work environment. Remember, we spend a big chunk of our time in the workplace. Staying can damage your mental and emotional health, such as excessive stress, depression, anxiety, burnout, fatigue, and more. It’s just not worth it.

For Black women prioritizing mental and emotional well-being means doing even more:

Learn how to recognize and respond to microaggressions. Understand that you’re not afforded the same privileges as everyone else where emotions and how you present yourself are concerned. How?

  • Never exhibit anger or frustration. It will help you avoid the angry Black woman trope.
  • Be diplomatic in how you deliver your opinions and ideas to avoid being labeled “aggressive,” “angry,” or “threatening.” People may view your passion as aggressive, pushback as attitude, and cursing as classless.
  • Work 100 times harder than everyone else to be noticed and to garner respect. People will often assume you need to be more qualified, even when you’re the most qualified person in the room.

It’s common to feel othered and lack belonging because you find yourself the only one or one of two or three in the room. Join professional groups that support Black women. I belong to one called Sista Circle: Black Women in Tech, which has been a game changer for me.

14. Be Cautious With HR

Recognize that their loyalties are to the organization. Bringing issues to their attention may only sometimes lead to a positive outcome for you. I had some experiences earlier in my career where talking to HR worsened the situation. So where should you go for help? Your peer networks outside of work, best friend, partner, or counselor. You’re looking for objective guidance and to talk to someone without conflicting interests and who has your best interests in mind.

15. It’s All About Trade-Offs

I learned earlier, especially after I had kids, that there is no such thing as work-life balance. Instead, it’s a delicate balance of determining when and where you can make trade-offs and what you should prioritize at any given time. Recently, I had to decide whether to pull my daughter out of school to attend a company event at the New York Stock Exchange. While the allure of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was substantial, I opted not to go for two key reasons: 1) my daughter urged me not to pull her out this late in the semester because they had too much going on, and she didn’t want to miss out; and 2) I was well represented by my colleagues, meaning my not being in attendance did not hurt the team.

That was different when we had a company offsite in Arizona a year prior. Because I was part of the core team presenting at the offsite, I opted to pull my daughter out of school for a few days to be there.

16. Build Your Professional Network

You will organically establish your professional network as you navigate your career. You will pick up meaningful relationships through your work, grad school, professional events – conferences, workshops, meetups, etc. – professional social media networks, such as LinkedIn, Facebook groups, and professional Slack channels. Sometimes introductions might even come from family and friends. Remember, the quality matters, not the number of people you have in your network. Also, spend some time nurturing your relationships, at least where you have strong connections. Relationships are reciprocal. You cannot tap into your networks only when you need something.

17. Negotiate Your Salary

Negotiating salary can be uncomfortable, especially for women. Here are a few rules to make the process easier for you:

  • Never take the first offer on the table.
  • Do not share your previous salary. It is illegal in some states for companies to request salary history.
  • Do your homework. Resources such as PayscaleSalary.comand Glassdoor are good starting places. You can also tap into your network to find out how much your peers in your role earn (if they’re willing to share.) Increasingly, people share their salaries on social media platforms, such as Tik Tok, Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter.
  • Ensure your base salary falls within your targeted range, even though your compensation package includes an equity offering (stocks, options), bonus, and compensation types. Equity and bonuses are not guaranteed to pay out. They are essential during the negotiation phase, though. You can negotiate for a sign-on bonus if the base salary falls slightly short of your target. You can also bargain for more equity.
  • Check job postings for salary ranges. Pay transparency legislation across many states has mandated that companies post salary ranges in job descriptions. 
  • Take the whole package into consideration – benefits, flexibility, perks, etc., without short-changing yourself on the base salary.
  •  Stay positive.

While these career lessons will not make your journey foolproof (because life is unpredictable), they will likely help you have a softer landing. Recognizing that your work relationship is transactional, that it’s not your family, and that it’s not your social network is a significant first step. Ensuring the company goals are aligned with yours; maintaining a curious mindset; family planning; keeping an emergency fund, and negotiating salary will help you secure your future. Setting the right priorities, recording critical conversations and achievements, advocating for yourself, protecting your emotional and mental well-being, exercising caution with HR, and understanding the art of trade-offs will afford you much-needed peace of mind. I hope that with these lessons, you will get to say less of “I wish I knew” or “I wish someone had told me” and more of “I’ve got this” or “I’m prepared for this.”

What are some career lessons you would give to your younger self? Please share in comments to inspire the young readers in our community.

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