As the old song goes, “If I knew now what I knew then / You know I’d do things differently.”
And sadly, there are all too many people who can relate to this in terms of their careers: 5, 10, or even 20 years in the working world will teach you hard lessons that you wish you’d learned when you were just starting out.
In this article, we’ll cover the top five career lessons that far too many of us learn late in life.
For younger readers, this is your golden opportunity to avoid the mistakes that we older folks have made.
But if you’re a more, shall we say, “seasoned” worker: take heart! We’ll show you how you can still make positive changes in each of these areas—even if it is a bit late in the day.
Lesson 1: They don’t owe you anything
Ah, to be young again. That feeling that the world is your oyster! That all you have to do is show up, be your awesome self, and everyone will fall down at your feet in recognition of your greatness.
Most of us get the reality check on that one in our first job—and look back on the naiveté of our youth with a blush. But surprisingly, few of us really internalize the deeper lesson until many years later: You are valued to the extent you create value.
Not to be harsh, but this is business—and the bottom line is the bottom line.
Oftentimes, people who are downsized or find their job outsourced are taken completely by surprise. But if they’d really learned this all-important lesson, they might have seen it coming—and taken steps to prevent it.
That’s why young workers should always be laser-focused on delivering real value for their companies: looking for ways to innovate, drive customer loyalty, increase sales, and make processes more efficient. In other words, to create value for your employer in everything you do.
If you view your job as just a collection of tasks that your manager makes you do each day, you’re a prime candidate for replacement. Why? Because as soon as someone comes along who is willing to do those same tasks for less money, you’re a liability. Makes sense, right? Why would anyone pay more for the same thing?
But if see creating value as your real job, and take that all-too-rare mentality into everything you do, you’ll become something altogether different for your company: irreplaceable.
Miss the lesson?
Good news. It’s never too late to adopt this mindset. Changing the way you think about your work is step one.
Next, take an inventory of all the things you’ve done to add value at your company in the past—you may have already been doing this to some degree without even realizing it. What have you done well that you can build on? And where can you improve?
And lastly, schedule a meeting with your immediate supervisor and talk through ways that you can improve processes, streamline your work, and do the essential work of building customer loyalty in all that you do. Ask her or him what the company’s medium and long term strategic goals are—and how you can align your day-to-day with that in order to add maximum value for the company.
Lesson 2: Skill up or get left behind
Lots of new college grads enter the job market with a feeling of relief. School’s out! It’s time to put all of that study and hard-earned knowledge to use.
News flash: building skills is not a 4-year job. It lasts a lifetime.
Far too many young workers rest on their laurels and neglect the ongoing work of aggressively improving their knowledge and skills. But our fast-paced world doesn’t stand still—and last year’s knowledge can become obsolete in the blink of an eye. Being stuck with an out-of-date skill set is a sure route to career stagnation (or worse).
So what should you do?
First, look for opportunities within your company for ongoing training and development. Make a point of learning something new each month (or at least each quarter).
Read industry publications to keep abreast of the latest trends, so that you can decide where your time should be spent (and what subjects are not so essential).
And lastly, talk with your supervisor and ask her where the company is going—and what sorts are skills are going to be most needed to get there. And then? Go out and get those skills.
Already feeling like you’ve failed the test?
Fear not. The one benefit to constant change and the rapid obsolescence of knowledge is that every time a new technology or trend comes along, nobody knows much about it (at least at first). And that’s actually a tremendous opportunity.
Search high and low for the “next big thing”—and then make it your thing. Take a course, get training from the company, and ask to be put on projects that require this skill. This way, even if your other skills are a bit behind the times, in this one key area you’ll soon stand out as someone on the leading edge of things.
And once you’ve done this, don’t make the same mistake again. Always be looking for opportunities to master tomorrow’s technologies and skills—today.
Lesson 3: Mainly YOU remember your successes
Sometimes work can feel like one crisis after another. When it’s busy, we feel like we’re putting out some new fire every day.
And the crazy thing? Somehow we actually manage to accomplish it all. We land the big account. We debug the code in that new app. We regain the trust of an unhappy client.
On to the next thing.
But after the dust has settled, and a few days or weeks or months have gone by, nobody seems to remember who it was who saved the day.
And this is why young employees are often shocked to find their requests for promotion denied or deferred; or surprised at how small their pay rises are.
But the hard truth is that nobody will really remember what you’ve accomplished like you do.
So what’s the answer?
Very simple. Keep a success journal. Update it every week, with as much detail as possible: who, what, when, where, why, how—and how much. Get the value you’ve created for the company down in black and white. Keep a record of the kind words that customers send you in an email.
And when it’s time for your performance review or you want to walk into your boss’s office to ask for a raise? You’ll come armed with page after page of extraordinarily detailed justifications for what you’re asking.
Forgot to remember?
Don’t sweat it. First, it’s never too late to start keeping score.
But you might also want to spend some of your free time combing through old emails for examples of your best work; or writing down some of your biggest success stories of the past few years in as much detail as you’re able.
And if you have a trusted team member or manager that you work with, you may actually want to ask them for a few examples of times when they feel you’ve gone above and beyond the call of duty—and put it down in writing.
Lesson 4: Everything is negotiable
When most of us get our first job offer, we’re so thrilled to have gotten through the interview process that we forget to ask the most important question of all: “Great, but can you do a little better than that?”
When you’re 22 years old and just out of university, the idea of having the nerve to ask someone for more money just doesn’t enter most people’s minds.
But as you get a little older, and a little wiser, you begin to realize that the offers you get from companies, clients, managers and coworkers are rarely “final offers”. Unless you fail to negotiate, that is.
And unfortunately, this life lesson often comes years later than most of us would like—which can translate into huge financial and opportunity costs over the first decade of our working life.
If you want to advance in your career, be compensated fairly for your work, and achieve a work-life balance you’re truly happy with, then you’re going to have to negotiate for it.
Uncomfortable for most of us? Yes.
Optional? Only if you like being paid less than you’re worth.
Whether you have to take a course, read a book, or practice in your living room with your best friend, mastering the art of coolly and professionally asking for a better deal is the key to more rewarding jobs, added benefits, increased flex time, and higher pay.
But the very first step is really taking to heart the fact that negotiating is not only possible, not only permissible—but that it’s expected. No, you won’t shock or scandalize your boss by asking if you can work from home one day per week, or if she can bump your salary up a bit in light of your recent success.
In fact, if you do it right, you’ll earn her respect (even if she doesn’t say yes!), because you’ll show that you are a professional who knows your value and can articulate it clearly.
Not much of a deal maker?
Don’t worry. You don’t have to channel your inner Donald Trump, or start hanging out in flea markets to practice haggling.
Once you’ve seen that it’s possible to ask for a bit more, the next step is learning how to do it. This may be easier than you think.
If you’ve been keeping a success journal, you already have the cold, hard facts that you need to justify asking for a raise or a promotion. And one of the most basic ways to negotiate is to simply state the facts, ask a question, and let the other person respond. You may be shocked to hear them say yes!
No one becomes a great negotiator overnight, but it’s never too late to start with the simple act of presenting your accomplishments and asking for what you deserve.
Lesson 5: Networking never stops
The single biggest mistake that most people make with respect to networking is to think of it as something we have to do in order to get a job—and something which can then be ignored as soon as we have that job.
Unfortunately, as many of us find out later in life, by the time you really need your network…it’s already too late to build one.
If you find yourself out of work due to economic turmoil, or are looking to change companies because of issues at your current workplace, you may be months away from having the kind of network that you really need.
That’s why career experts (and anyone who’s been in business long enough) encourage people to maintain, nourish, and build their network of contacts throughout their working life—even when things are going great.
Do the basics: keep your LinkedIn current and always look to add people you meet to your network, be certain your resume is up-to-date and reflects your most recent experience, and make sure you update your contacts list regularly.
But even more than that, look to build a high-quality network by providing real value to others. Come across an article or think piece that might be useful to one of your contacts? Send it along, with a short personal message. Have some interesting ideas about trends in your industry that you’d like to discuss with someone? Reach out to someone you want to know better and set up a time to brainstorm together.
When everything is going well, you will have free time, energy, and enthusiasm. So this is exactly when you should be growing your network and keeping up with older contacts.
And that way, when it comes time to look for greener pastures or if the worst happens and you find yourself in the midst of a career crisis, your network will be strong, active, and primed to help you.
Rolodex from 1990 buried in your desk drawer?
Here’s the good news: if you’ve been in business long enough to regret not keeping up your network, you’re probably closer than you think to having a strong one.
Reach out to old contacts and touch base—ideally if you have something of interest or value to send them.
Update your resume and personal portfolio (with the help of a professional if needed).
If you don’t use LinkedIn, start. It’s essential these days, and being new to the site is a perfect excuse to get in touch with people you haven’t talked to in a while.
And if this is all a bit new to you, make yourself a networking calendar to keep track of things—sending out a short message to each of your contacts every month or so. It may feel a little forced at first, but you can always ditch the networking schedule once it becomes second nature.
Whether you’re just starting out or a seasoned veteran, these 5 lessons are essential for anyone who wants to succeed and grow in their career.
If you are young, take them to heart now: you’ll thank us later.
And if you’re a bit older and have to admit that you really haven’t fully learned some of these lessons, remember: there’s no time like the present.