A Conversation With The Past: Career Lessons For My 20-Something Self

When I was 20 years old, I interned at a well-known advertising agency. It was my first taste of a professional gig, and the first time I traded my college summer waitressing job for an unpaid work experience. I made sure that I looked the part with a wardrobe of new business attire, and even a leather briefcase. Everything I learned during my freshman and sophomore year coursework was fresh in my mind. I was ready to work on the biggest and best projects.

As I strutted into the posh lobby of the downtown high-rise building that housed the firm, I knew my moment had arrived. When the elevator doors opened for me to enter and take my ride up to a new beginning, I could feel the adrenaline. Ready or not, I had arrived.

You may be struck with overconfidence in my recollection of personal thoughts leading to my first taste of the business world. You are right. I felt a sense of entitlement to work on the best projects next to the seasoned executives. I was arrogant about my level of knowledge, and really annoying.

That internship was the beginning of my evolution into a working professional. There are nuggets of wisdom I would share with my younger self if I could go back in time. My twenties were definitely filled with a lot of wins, near-misses, and complete flubs. Here are some of the things I learned:

Lesson 1 – John F. Kennedy was right.

During his 1961 inaugural address, John F. Kennedy famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.” This notion is applicable to your career. Too often, when we’re early in our careers, we focus on finding a job that can offer us everything we think we deserve; high pay, ample vacation time, bonuses, rewards, recognition, fast-track promotional opportunities, etc. This entitled mindset leads to resentment which can result in impulsive decision making and bratty behavior. Instead, try walking into an interview or new job with an attitude of service focused on how you can benefit their operation. Earn their trust in what you can do for them. Once you have their trust, the doors you want opened NOW will begin to open when you are truly ready to walk through.

Lesson 2 – Learning is continuous.

When I think about my plan to settle for a starting salary of nothing lower than $60,000 upon college graduation nearly 15 years ago, I cringe. I truly believed my degree meant I learned everything I needed to know for my profession, and that my first employer would expect me to know everything. The truth is, nobody knows everything at any stage of their career, and lifelong learning is what successful people embrace. Staying open and receptive to new knowledge will keep you fresh and adaptable in any situation. In case you were wondering, I did not make anything close to $60,000 for my first job.

Lesson 3 – Don’t compromise your values.

I’ve worked for some doozy bosses, and early in my career, I was put into unfair predicaments where I had to make a choice between my values and my job. Fortunately for me, I never chose to sacrifice my values; thanks to my upbringing at home and church. However, I saw many of my peers who sold their soul through poor decision making. It amazes me that so many people will stay in a highly dysfunctional work environment to avoid unemployment. Your values are your rock, and need to be at the core of every decision you make throughout the span of your career. Stay true to them always, and you will develop a reputation as a confident, strong leader who can be counted on to do what is right. There will be some doozy’s who don’t appreciate your conviction, but don’t give into the temptation to question your values. It will always be worth it in the end.

Perhaps the biggest lesson I’ve learned is to be appreciative of my failures. I can honestly say that I don’t regret one decision I’ve ever made, because it has helped me to develop into the person I am today. Bitterness and regret will hold you back. Just keep doing your best; even when you don’t know what the best is.

Elizabeth P. Cipolla, SPHR is a regional director and senior consultant with JL Nick and Associates Inc. She is a business communications professional specializing in the areas of leadership training, creative recruitment strategies, employment branding, professional development and executive coaching for nearly 15 years. Her leadership experience comes from various industries including marketing, mass media, apparel, education, manufacturing, nonprofit agencies and insurance. To contact Elizabeth, email her at ecipolla@jlnick.com or visit JL Nick and Associates’ website at www.jlnick.com.