The career advice I'd give to my 22-year-old self

Tomorrow I'm presenting to a group of college women about my experience as a woman in business, what it was like to transition from college to the workforce, and what they should be thinking about as they prepare to graduate. Loaded topic, right? Thinking about what I wanted to say, I realized that 22-year-old me could have really benefitted from some practical advice about topics people don't really talk about (e.g., staying motivated while sitting still inside of a beige cubicle, excusing oneself from meetings to cry in the bathroom, etc.) She also could have also used some straight talk about how almost everyone in the world would determine her value, how she needs to develop a thick skin, and how to be both fulfilled and successful.

Instead of planning remarks, I decided to write up a list of the key things I've learned in my career to date to share with the group and hit on a couple of them with some stories about the amazing people I've worked with in my career and encountered in my life who have helped me to learn these things. I thought I'd share this list here, expecting that you may relate!

  1. Understand that no one in the entire world, especially in business, cares how nice you are, who your parents are, whether you were a National Merit scholar, where you went to undergrad, or how smart you are. They care about the value you provide to them and how you can make their lives easier, simpler or happier in some way.
  2. Accept that you know literally nothing as a 22-year-old despite what your college degree may seem to suggest. You desperately need experience, and should be doing everything in your power to gain skills and relevance in the market. The first company that hires you is banking on three things that you absolutely must deliver on if you want to move forward:
    1. Your eagerness to gain experience no matter how menial the tasks you're asked to do may be (i.e., order lunch, coordinate meetings, complete mind-numbing PowerPoint formatting tasks, etc.)
    2. Your ability to learn quickly
    3. Your positive attitude and ability get along with others
  3. Let go of the need to have a predictable path with clearly defined milestones that you've enjoyed in your 22 years of life to date. You are in uncharted territory, and the direction your life takes is 100% related to the decisions and actions you choose. It's terrifying, but extremely exciting and empowering. Know that the decisions you make in your twenties will lay the foundation for the rest of your life. ('The Defining Decade' by Dr. Meg Jay should be required reading in college.)
  4. Learn to manage and save your money. Give the maximum amount to your 401K.
  5. Know that the only way to gain responsibility (and more interesting work) is to take full ownership of literally everything that crosses your desk. Think critically about what you're doing, understand every single input you're given, ask detailed questions. If you don't understand the answers, continue your line of questioning until you do. This is how you gain the trust and confidence of the people who have the ability to push you forward.
  6. Do not assume, under any circumstance, that you are the smartest person in the room. You are often quite the opposite. Remember that you can learn something from literally every person with whom you cross paths, and making it your job to figure out what they know will make everything you do more effective.
  7. Be an interesting, dynamic person. Let go of trying to be cool, because you're not. Try new things, often. Stop caring about what everyone else is thinking or doing. Take risks. Have an opinion. Tell stupid jokes.
  8. Invest as much as you can afford into a high quality work wardrobe, and be thoughtful about how you present yourself in a professional environment. Your judgment, level of confidence and attention to detail are reflected in how you dress. Doing this right from the start will make everything else easier.
  9. Be open-minded and a voracious reader. Keep this quote taped to your bedroom mirror: "You will be the same person in five years as you are today except for the people you meet and the books you read."
  10. Surround yourself with brilliant, uplifting people who do remarkable things. Never forget that you are the average of the five people that you spend the most time with.
  11. Stop expecting praise and thanks. Do excellent work, every day, because you hold high standards for yourself. If you let your sense of fulfillment and motivation to continue to push yourself rest with other people, hoping to earn some sort of A plus equivalent feedback, you won't last long.
  12. Remember that almost every job is a sales job. If you can't influence people to take action, you'll go nowhere fast. Know that influencing people requires the most basic steps that many people struggle with, and you can differentiate yourself by learning to do these things:
    1. Ask other people questions about themselves, care about and remember their answers, and reference the things they are interested in every time you see them. Get to know them on a personal level.
    2. Listen to other people's ideas, use their ideas every chance you can, and avoid at all costs negating them or disagreeing with them (especially in front of other people)
    3. Give credit and praise often, generously, and never to yourself
    4. Admit when you make a mistake, and apologize. It has the exact opposite effect you think it will.
    5. Add value to their lives. (See #1 above.)
    6. Develop a thick skin and be resilient. You cannot avoid criticism, rejection, or jerks, so you might as well figure out how to expect and embrace them. You'll look back at the worst times in your career and realize that's when you learned the most. The terrible manager who made you cry was the biggest reason you're a really good one today.
    7. Stick to your values, especially when it feels like there will be consequences if you do. There will be moments in your career that truly test your character and ethics, and you will never regret sticking to your guns on the things that truly matter.
    8. Have a life. Reserve time for things that give your life and career meaning. Pick up a hobby that has nothing to do with your job. Say yes to random requests for dinner dates. Force yourself to meet your friends at that filthy D.C. bar after the longest day of your short career. (You'll meet your future husband there.) Be as good of a daughter and friend as you are a businesswoman. Remember that there are four elements of your life that will give it purpose and meaning: your spirit, your family and friends, your health and fitness, and your life's work. In that order.

What advice would you give to your 22-year-old self? Please let me know in the comments!

P.S. Thank you to Becky Howe for the photo, and to Patricia Green for gifting me those amazing suede heels I'm wearing in it (the most fabulous-yet-comfortable pair in my work wardrobe, a great buy for #8 above).