11 Things I Wish I'd Known About Work in My 20s

I've learned a lot since I failed to negotiate that first salary.

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1. Money matters. When my college internship was ending and I was interviewing for an assistant position at the same publishing company, the editor-in-chief asked me if I had any "salary demands." I laughed and told him that legally he couldn't pay me less than minimum wage. He didn't. He also didn't pay me more. That set the bar low, not just for that job, but for the next job and the next. Before applying to any job, try to find out a salary range for the position and your experience level. Google salary surveys, and ask friends who work in your industry what's fair. It can be tough to get a big salary bump once you're already in place, and you can play catch-up for years.

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2. Imposter Syndrome is a real thing. Everybody has it, including guys, which is something I discovered when I asked one of the male editors where I worked if he ever felt like he was "about to be discovered — and not in the good way." Your crisis of confidence is not unique — and it's not based in reality. You are smarter than you think you are. Whenever you start to doubt that, call one of your college professors, your mentor, or a boss you loved, and ask that person to tell you what you have to offer not only your employer but also the world. That way you can be reminded that, no, you are not a fraud, and, no, you are not about to get fired.

3. But nobody really has any idea what they're doing. This is the biggest secret in the work world, and I am telling it to you now. As a junior staffer, at times I looked up to more senior team members and marveled at how grown-up and knowledgeable they were. One day that would be me! When I was no longer an underling — even as a senior team leader — I still never felt that grown-up, and I realized that much of the time I still felt clueless. When I asked a high-level executive once if she was ever just making things up as she went along, she said, "Yes, every day. All the time."

4. Your ideas and opinions are gold. You might think you are too young or too new, or maybe you're suffering from Imposter Syndrome, but there are no bad ideas (and if you work at a place where people make you feel like there are, see No. 10 on this list). I can't tell you how many times in my early career that I second-guessed an idea out of existence only to hear it proposed by a colleague or see it implemented by a competing company. Your youthful perspective is valuable, so share it. Just don't be a know-it-all, don't assume that your way is the only way, and don't boss the boss.

5. There are no dream jobs, but there are good jobs. Don't let your idea of the former keep you from recognizing the latter. Not every job I've had was awesome, but some of them were. However, even my favorites were less than perfect. As my dad used to tell me, "It's called work for a reason," and even the best job at the best company will have annoying aspects — some uninspiring task, some grating guy one cube over, some HR policy that doesn't compute. So if you find yourself challenged by your position, fairly compensated financially, appreciated by your boss, and friendly with your co-workers, consider yourself lucky. Not everyone can say that.

6. Nobody is going to look out for you but you. Sure, you're a star. It's important to get to work on time, take direction, have a good attitude, share your ideas, be a team player, and kick ass on the daily, but the sad truth is that's not going to be enough to get you ahead. You can't just sit at your desk and shine, with a wish in your heart that someone takes notice and cares enough to give you a raise or a promotion. In business, it's often every woman for herself, and those people who can help you move up the ladder are busy chasing their next rung. Learn to sing your own praises early and often — and don't be afraid to ask for what you want.

7. It could all go up in smoke tomorrow. It probably won't, but you should be prepared. Twice in my career, the company I worked for closed without warning. Most recently, my job at DailyCandy ended after nine years. Our GM called a meeting about a month ago to say the following Monday was the last workday. Eighteen years earlier, I walked into my office one Friday morning only to be greeted by my last paycheck and directions to the unemployment office. Having a backup plan isn't pessimistic, it's smart. Always have an idea of what your next move might be, always have a little money in the bank, and make friends wherever you go.

8. You never know, so network. I have gotten good jobs by answering blind ads, but the best jobs I've had resulted from whom, not what, I knew. That first time my company closed without warning, my next job found me through a woman I met at a press conference. Make business associates at your company but also outside your company, inside your industry and beyond. Don't just hand out business cards at happy hour — that's not networking (and neither is scanning LinkedIn). Attend events for young professionals and break out of your clique. If you're at a conference, strike up conversations. If you know someone who knows someone who works somewhere you'd like to work someday, ask for an introduction. The friend you make today could be your boss or co-worker tomorrow.

9. There is value in longevity. In my 20s, I was a serious flight risk. I would up and leave anything — an apartment, a relationship, a job — at the slightest whim. I could not, would not stay put, and that meant filling out a new W-4 every year or two. The pursuit of next meant I was never anywhere long enough to get a good raise or promotion, and though I'd get more money or a better title at my next job, I was always the new girl, never commanding the authority that history can provide. Though climbing a career ladder or finding the right fit can mean occasionally jumping ship, there's a lot to be said for really learning a role and earning things like more vacation time, an end-of-year bonus, or the respect of your peers.

10. But don't be afraid to leave. I never really had this problem (see No. 9), but I've seen plenty of friends paralyzed by their fear of the unknown, stuck in jobs they hate, with bosses who suck or commutes that cost them their sanity. And though there is value in longevity, life is too short to be unhappy. So while you're free of the ties that can bind you to a questionable situation — mortgage, kids, mountains of debt — leap when you need to leap. Reach out to that network you've built, and trust there is something so much better out there for you.

11. It's going to be easier than you think. Despite the depressed job market for new college grads in recent years, the fact remains that people who dream big and prove themselves to be indispensable assets to their employers get ahead. Yes, you might spend the first year of your career passing out mail, calling in photographs, or answering phones, but that's OK. You won't be doing that forever. Letting things unfold naturally is more fun than complaining to your roommate every night about how underutilized and underappreciated you are. Lots of people feel that way early in their careers. Focus on being the best you can be right where you are, and you'll get your turn to be the boss. You'll be surprised how quickly that time comes.

More Advice for Twentysomethings:


11 Things Every Twentysomething Thinks During a Birthday Dinner


23 Questions Every Twentysomething Asks Herself Once


16 Thoughts Every Girl Has During a Night Out


11 Reasons Twentysomethings Love Brunch

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Photo credit: Getty Images

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