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The Best Career Advice

Best Career Advice

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten? I’ve shared 10 things I’ve learned in my career (be gracious! ask for raises!), but I’m always curious about the words other people live and work by. Here, nine smart people share the advice that has stuck with them…

Keep Things Compelling
“Ed Kosner was the editor of New York Magazine, and you lived in fear that he would write ‘MEGO’ in giant block letters on a draft of your story. It meant ‘My Eyes Glaze Over.’ But it taught me that you have to think of things from the readers’ point of view. Just because you put words on the page doesn’t mean people have to read them. It’s your responsibility to draw people in. Everything you write should be tight and compelling.” — Alex Williams, newspaper reporter

Take a Moment
“‘Don’t just do something, stand there.’ My ob-gyn training director gave me that advice about reacting during an emergency. In obstetrics, things go from copacetic to disastrous in a blink of an eye. When a baby or mom is in trouble, each second passes as though it’s an eternity. It can be hard to give yourself permission to take a deep breath, collect your thoughts, and make a considered decision. But if you do, it’s much easier to avoid a wrong reaction that could be difficult to recover from. Now I use this advice in all aspects of life.” — Abigail Ford Winkel, ob-gyn

Figure Out Solutions
“When I was getting started, my boss would tell me to come forward with solutions, not problems. She didn’t want us complaining about what wasn’t happening or who wasn’t working well together, but wanted us to put forth ideas on how to address issues. This is a small but profound perspective shift for anyone at work. It paved the path for me to become a solution-oriented boss (and parent!) myself years later.” — MZ Goodman, digital product executive

Be Concise
“My mentor and editor — the late John Tierney, winner of thirteen Emmys — would turn around in his chair and give me the death stare. ‘Lisa, you can’t fit ten pounds of shit in a five pound bag.’ Which meant I needed to simplify and make bold choices, not try to squeeze every idea into one project, in this case, a 30-second promo.” — Lisa Rubisch, TV commercial director

Find Your Speciality
“On my last day of Criminal Law class, the professor gave us this advice: be an expert. He said our generation is often too focused on keeping career options open, and too scared close any doors, so we remain generalists. I’ve seen how my peers who became experts in specific areas have risen to the top of their fields. Others who are broadly accomplished generalists have been hard pressed to stand out in job interviews. I give this advice to younger people all the time — even if you have many interests, it’s advantageous to pick one to pursue professionally (keep the rest as hobbies!) so you don’t become a mile wide but an inch deep.” — Lucy, entertainment lawyer

Communicate Face-to-Face
“My boss Wendell Jamieson at The New York Times always told me if I really need to communicate with someone about an idea or problem, I should make the effort to go talk to them in person. Don’t just send an email or voicemail, because things can get lost in translation or misunderstood. A real conversation is 1,000 times more effective. ‘Always overcommunicate,’ he would say.” — Lexi Mainland, editor

Embrace Your Point of View
“You can’t be all things to all people. When I first started Linda & Harriett, I would get a lot of unsolicited feedback. ‘You know what you should do?!‘ ‘Oh, you have to do x, y and z!‘ It’s hard not to take those things to heart (and sometimes, regretfully, I did). But it’s important to develop a very strong, clear opinion. Some people just plain won’t like it, and that’s fine because others will be head over heels in love with it.” — Liz Libre, designer

Sit Down and Do It
“At a photography talk, Sally Mann said: ‘Stay home and work.’ In the past, whenever I was feeling unsure about a project, I would put off starting it, waiting for inspiration to strike. Finally I realized that inspiration comes from sitting down, focusing and putting in the effort.” — Stella Blackmon, editor

Know Your Path
“‘Skate your lane.’ It’s a motto my old boss used about comparing yourself to others. Whenever I feel overwhelming anxiety about my writing, my ‘path,’ my whatever, it reminds me that those thoughts are distractions and I’ll refocus my attention to the task at hand.” — Alexis Cheung, writer

By Gemma Correll

What’s the best career advice you’ve ever gotten (or given)?

P.S. 10 pressing questions for an ob-gyn, and 15 career tips from smart women.

(Photo of Barbara Walters in 1965 via NBC NewsWire. Illustration by Gemma Correll.)

  1. Anna says...

    As a designer, I’ve come up with three mantras:
    1. You don’t get what you don’t ask for.
    2. You don’t get paid for what you don’t invoice.
    3. Deliver.

    My business relies a lot on my network, relationships, and personal recommendations, so I strive to deliver the highest standard on every single project, because you never know who that client might recommend you to!

  2. Hajni says...

    My best career advice is actually from this blog: no matter how passionate you are about your work in the end it’s still a job and there will be moments or parts of it that you might not like doing all the time.

  3. Ramona says...

    I had a teacher who always used to say, “No job too big, and no job too small.” He meant that we should rise to the occasion when challenged to do something that might seem beyond us, and that we should not feel too important to do more basic tasks, too. This philosophy has served me so well in my career. By both being the one who can take on bigger projects or added responsibility and being the one who can take care of the basic stuff that keeps everything running, you make yourself indispensable to your workplace. I swear I held onto my job in publishing through endless rounds of layoffs during the recession not just because I’m a good editor, but because, thanks to having started out as a receptionist, I was the only person in the office who knew how to un-jam the copier and reload the postage meter. A related piece of advice from my grandmother comes to mind: “Nothing we learn is ever lost to us.”

  4. Brandi says...

    I loved the advice about being concise. I am always looking for inspiration that sometimes I overwhelm myself! Great advice! #KISS

  5. Keri says...

    I once told my Grandpa that I wasn’t good at math – he looked straight at me and said “Get good at it”.

  6. Great tips! I especially like finding your specialty and communicating face to face. Nowadays its common to hide behind our screens and people email even when they sit in close proximity to each other but talking face-to-face adds a professional touch and gives you credibility instantly.

  7. I love your post. It’s so encouraging. Its time to put down that inner voice of doubt and get things done. Thanks

  8. e says...

    I can’t say that I always follow this advice, but it’s often on the back burner of my mind. Growing up, my parents always told me that when I visited someone else’s house, I should leave it better than I found it. This usually pertained to situations when I spent the night in a guest room or something, but I’ve always remembered it.

    Also, someone else recently told me that when they see a mess and think – “Someone needs to clean that up!” – they’ve decided to be that person. Now when I see a mess and think it needs cleaned, I tend to clean it up and not wait for someone else to do it (even the janitor!)

  9. Polly says...

    Man I love when you post things like this! So encouraging! Thank you!

  10. Kirsty says...

    As a junior lawyer, I worked for a very harsh partner who would not stand for a single wasted word. I once gave him a letter to a client for his signature. It was just a cover letter for some documents we were posting and said “Please find enclosed….”.

    He came back to me, crossed out “please find” with a big red pen and said to me “it’s not a f***ing treasure hunt”.

    After recovering from my terror, I couldn’t help but laugh and it has stuck with me my whole career. Don’t waste peoples’ time with unnecessary fillers.

    • Hajni says...

      Haha I love this! I will never be using it again from today on

  11. katie says...

    An early mentor told me 2 really great things. First, he said “You get hired for your resume. You get laid off for your personality”. Second he said, “A great engineer is not measured by never making mistakes, but how they handle themselves when they do.”

    My advice is to be as responsive and helpful as possible. Become known as the person who helps whenever they can…both up and down the leadership chain. If I have to set aside a pet project to help an intern figure something out, it’s a worthwhile investment.

    • katie says...

      Oops…I just re-read this and realize that the layoff comment may come across insensitive/glib…I apologize. The heart of the sentiment was that one’s personality and behavior is really important and can be more important in the long run than accomplishments on paper. Please forgive the judgey way this was originally written. We engineers are not known for our expertise in communication…

  12. Caz says...

    These are great!
    One thing I’ve learned (through a lot of error) is that you can’t always achieve everything you want/need, even if you’re 110% sure that you’re right. I think it’s important to ask yourself “is this the hill you want to die on?” – if it’s not really worth the battle, let it go and spend your energy elsewhere.

  13. Caroline says...

    Abigail Ford Winkel’s piece of advice hit home for me as a student nurse-midwife. It can be so easy to press your own internal panic button, but taking a moment to breath and focus produces much better results. Thank you for sharing!

  14. I really liked Stella’s advice! So applicable, especially for creative careers. Reminds me of one of my favorite quotes, allegedly by Jack London: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”

  15. Katherine says...

    I had just started grad school and was interning for a real powerhouse of a woman at a major publishing house. The interns were invited to join a pitch meeting and observe/participate. Afterward, she called me over to where she was sitting at the table look at some materials. I crouched down and took a knee so as not to tower over her while reading. She looked down at me and said, “Get up. Don’t ever do that again.” Practically speaking, yeah, don’t kneel down on the floor in front of important people, you dumb kid. But also, don’t make yourself smaller because you feel like a nobody or insecure or “just an intern.”

  16. Such a fantastic post. Each & every tip is practical & so useful.
    One of the best pieces of career advice I have received is to raise the ‘red flag’ before it is becomes a crises, ie before you have missed the deadline. Often you need to just sit down, plan & reprioritise with someone.

    x

  17. Zoe says...

    In a world where everyone is specializing (especially in academia and consulting), it can be useful and rewarding to be a generalist with strong EQ and communication skills. Often experts struggle to synthesize ideas or work with people from different backgrounds – there is a role for people who can speak different ‘languages’ within their area of work, and help others to collaborate and communicate with each other. A professional mench, if you will, with broad interests and abilities, able to create new ideas out of this messiness. Long live the generalist!

    • I’m with you, Zoe! I’ve seen this with children in sports, too. Kids specialize earlier and earlier these days and “pick” one sport so young that it often leaves them ultimately burnt out, or, if it doesn’t work out at a collegiate level — crushed. But often, the ones who are open to try a whole bunch of sports in high school can really discover an area to excel collegiately. (Obviously, for most, a sport isn’t a career, but my sport paid 100% of my college tuition, down to the books. I didn’t specialize until much later than most of my peers.)

      There is a beauty in broadening our abilities.

    • Rachel says...

      Yes. I think some people are meant to specialise, while others need to be generalised. Maybe each of us need to do what we really feel passionate about? I think one of the reasons my hubby has kept his job over several others when they cut staff, was because he’s very much a Jack of All trades and great problem solver plus good with people. He actually hasn’t done as much of what he trained in and got his degree in, as others.

  18. Karin says...

    So much great advice in this thread! 2 more:

    1) Be nice to everyone on the way up – you never know who you’ll meet on the way down. I got laid off from a magazine editor job 9 years ago (industry was crashing) and had to start over freelancing. Pretty much all my co-workers got laid off too. They got new jobs and since then, I have worked for at least 6 people who used to report to me….glad I was nice to them when I was the boss!

    2) Just apologize, don’t explain. Man shows up late for a 9 a.m. meeting: “Sorry I’m late.” Sits down and joins in the meeting. Woman shows up late: “Oh my gosh, I’m so sorry. I couldn’t get the kids moving and then I got stuck in traffic and BLAH BLAH BLAH (5-minute explanation).” When you do this you are drawing negative attention to yourself.

  19. Elizabeth says...

    My best advice I ever got was, “Don’t be recognized as a pretty face or for being nice. Be recognized for being good at your job.” It’s a piece of advice that was passed along to me from a coworker. It’s so simple, but for some reason I find myself chanting it every day, almost like a mantra. I can be so intimidated by others’ perceptions of myself that sometimes I forget what’s most important is doing my job well.

  20. This was never direct advice, but I’ve worked for several women who always expected me to anticipate their next suggestion. And do it before they asked.

    So as a rule, I never present a problem to my boss without a solution already in the works.

    My other steadfast rule: Always make your boss look good.

  21. Karin says...

    Aside from “Find a solution,” which is mentioned in the article, by far the top advice I got is “ASSUME makes an ASS out of You and Me.”

    Never assume – ASK and clarify. This advice applies in life as well as work.

    P.S. I NEED A T-SHIRT OF THAT WORRIER POSE CARTOON! OMG!

  22. Such a wonderful compilation of advice! The advice to “go deep” from Lucy really hit me hard. I do think I’m going deep — I’ve finally started a business that’s totally aligned with my passions — but somehow focusing on going deep feels like a really great way to “skate in your lane.”

    Does that make sense? Sometimes it’s hard to stop comparing yourself to others, but when I tell myself, “just go deep in YOUR thing. The rest will fall into place,” it feels a lot easier.

  23. Alex says...

    Take responsibility for the work you do, and shine a light on the work of your colleagues. As a woman in a male field, I’ve had to figure out my own way of doing things–my male supervisors all have their own style but none of them would have felt right for me. Ive found my strategy of consistently giving credit where credit is due has fostered trust and respect on my team, especially among my male subordinates.

  24. Mirella says...

    Also, re specializing. I like to think of that one as “following your bliss” a la Joseph Campbell. As a therapist specializing in women’s issues, I can do my best work because I’m deeply passionate about it. So love that one!

  25. Mirella says...

    “It is what it is.”

    I had a boss who would give himself 10 seconds to freak out (scrunched up face, deep gasp, hands covering his eyes – he was a real character!) about bad news (team missed a deadline, etc), sigh, then say “Ok, it is what it is. We need to make a plan for what to do next.” That has always stuck with me. Such good work AND life advice! It’s so helpful to give yourself a bit of time to experience shock, disappointment, anger, grief, sadness and feel it intensely and passionately if need be… then move on and build from it. It’s always helped me get up from failure and keep going. And it helps me with perspective – why deny or wish away something that can’t be undone. There is freedom and relief in acceptance and being present. Who knew my old boss was such a mindfulness guru?

    • Alice says...

      I love that!

    • Janna says...

      In law school, one of my professors said- after a bad final, or knowing you’ve messed up in some way, you have 15 minutes to feel sorry for yourself, and worry, or cry- however you’re going to process that mistake. And then you’re done, and you have to move on.

  26. AR says...

    Something I learned from a class in junior year uni that still keeps me going is as long as you’re taking “baby steps” toward the right direction/the direction of your goals, then you’re ok, keep at it.

  27. Lamah says...

    I do not agree with the speciality one.

  28. Ellie says...

    “Nobody cares about your problems”. I received this advice about 25 years ago in management training. This means don’t make excuses or try to explain why things aren’t done, or why you or someone that works for handled something the “wrong way”. Simply say what you are going to do to fix or take care of the problem. Another piece of advice I got was from my husband when things really got tough was, “keep your head down and your hand on your sword.

    • Anna says...

      I like this one. :-)

  29. It wasn’t so much direct advice as it was something I learned from one of my former bosses. There were times when I (or someone else) would ask him a question and he took a moment to consider his answer before immediately responding. Before I caught on to this pattern, there were times when I wondered if he hadn’t heard me or if he didn’t understand. After I caught on, I realized he was just gathering his thoughts in attempt to give a conscious, truthful response. I really admire and try to emulate that. Often we’re so quick to begin speaking that we end up rambling or not making much sense. His words were always carefully chosen, clear and to the point: thinking before you speak has never rung truer.

  30. Rebecca says...

    “How much has the time you’ve taken over x cost?”
    It sounds basic, but I’m a massive perfectionist. I was once struggling to find a missing fifty pence on an invoice, and eventually my big boss came over and asked me how much I was looking for. I told him and he asked how long I’d been looking. I told him, and he asked me what that time “cost” in terms of my hourly wage. The answer, of course, was more than 50p; I’d spent more of the company money on my time than I had been looking to save us by finding the missing 50p.

    It taught me to think about things differently; to assess what a task, or even part of a task, “costs” (in money, in effort), and then to decide what the task is “worth”. If they don’t add up, then it’s time to ask whether it’s a necessary action.

  31. Carol says...

    This is great. Maybe this could be the basis for a series of interviews with successful women in different fields?

    I hated almost every moment of being a young lawyer at a big corporate machine of a law firm, but one of the things that stuck with me and has helped me through my career (and life) is this very simple advice I received: BE PREPARED. For example, if I’m going to a meeting, I mentally walk through that meeting in the other person’s shoes (maybe another lawyer at the firm, or a client) and try to anticipate their follow-up questions/their next needs and think of the answers/solutions beforehand. Bring everything relevant with me if an in-person meeting, or have all the docs open on my computer if a conference call. I’ve realized it’s not necessarily about how smart you are, but how smart you work. Being prepared often gave me much more “props” than having the right answer or sending a well-drafted document. I think that’s because it shows your attitude towards your work–it shows that you take ownership and that you care. This is an important lesson for everyone, but I think it’s particularly so for young people just starting out in their career.

  32. AJ says...

    Great list! Defo adding a few of these to my bank. My manager told me something a couple of years ago that really altered my perspective. In my appraisal, I was telling her about things I find hard and that I thought I was struggling with – like leading group meetings (basically I HATE public speaking). I said ”I’m just not confident enough to be good at these things”. And she said “it’s not confidence, it’s experience”. That tiny shift was so helpful! It made me realise that rather than being hung up on my ‘lack’ of confidence, I just needed to accept that it’s ok to not feel great at something to begin with, but if you focus on getting the practice in and ‘gaining’ experience, it’ll seem less overwhelming and the confidence will come.

  33. Oh how I love this all these are so helpful!! You are amazing Joanna!

  34. liz says...

    My father would encourage me to try things and he would say “Hey, even if they fire you after one day, you have one day’s more experience than you had before”. I have many times encouraged myself and my friends with that thought if things didn’t work out like I/they thought they would.

  35. I love Cheryl Strayed’s line in her book Tiny Beautiful Things and think back to it often:

    “Don’t lament so much about how your career is going to turn out. You don’t have a career. You have a life. Do the work. Keep the faith. Be true blue.”

    • Maggie says...

      I love that line so much.

  36. Jasna says...

    Early on in my career, I was interning at one big NGO and had a really great woman as a mentor. One day, I was walking into her office for a bit of a chat, smiled and said, while entering, so others heard me as well: “Such a slow day, I have nothing to do”. She smiled back and closed the door of her office and told me, in a motherly manner: “You know what, as you are here to learn things, here is an advice for you – never seem like you have nothing to do at work! Even if you really don’t have anything to do that particular day – pretend! And especially don’t let others know that you have nothing to do.”

    I got a lot of great advice since then, but somehow this seems like the best one…

  37. Roxana says...

    Know your limits and learn and/or don’t be afraid to say “no,” or to set boundaries.

    If you know your limits then you know what you need to learn, where you need to grow and how to push yourself. Additionally, if you know when to say “no” you can give yourself the room to do your work excellently, and it implies that you know what you’re doing. After learning this I was so much more respected at work and was able to excel.

    This advice was never given to me, but I learned it the hard way (the VERY HARD way). I messed-up gloriously at my first job after college in large part because I said “yes” to everything and didn’t know what I was doing. I was dogged by my mess-up for the remainder of my time at that firm (i.e. another flour years). To this day (fifteen years later) I wish I could go back to that group of people and somehow show them that I really was not and am not a moron! Live and learn :).

    • Roxana says...

      “four” years, not “flour years!” If it matters, I was not a copy-editor :).

  38. Anne says...

    If you never fail, you’re not trying hard enough. It’s kind of what my dad told me when I found a job easily – he told me that it’s just normal statistics that my application will be rejected.
    And I just heard something similar in a rock-climbing podcast, which totally applies to my job as well: fear of falling and failure paralyzes. Learn to rightly estimate risks. And if it’s not risky, climb step by step, and if you fall, or fail to do the route, great, good try, you’re brave. And enjoy :)

  39. A says...

    Best advice was a decade back – I was in my mid-20s in a new career and was getting attention for being sharp and competent; doors were starting to open. An older and very successful woman in another organization [unrelated to mine] praised my aptitude and said: “I’m going to give you advice that no one else will: be careful not to move up too fast.” It sounded funny to hear at the time but I’ve thought about it so many times for myself and also in watching the career paths of peers – many whiz kids in certain fields get promoted too quickly, and then they can’t keep up. They end up being less successful than if they had steadier rises where they were actually capable of the responsibility they were assuming. and had time to learn. This is especially true in management roles — if you ascend to power and management of others too quickly, you may be more likely to feel insecure and feel like you have to prove yourself, and then you assume a defensive/aggressive posture because you feel like your authority is hollow, and it’s hard to be a sound leader from that stance.

    Many people focus on moving up, moving up, moving up. Sometimes it’s smart to get really good at things that are your size, so to speak, and be the tortoise and not the hare, and rise to new heights that way.

    • Roxana says...

      This is so true!

      In my early twenties I took a promotion for which I was not ready and ended-up paying for it big-time. I assumed that because I was being promoted, I must have been ready for it. Wrong. If I would’ve looked around and been a little more humble, I would’ve realized that I had a lot to learn.

    • Agreed I once took a promotion I shouldn’t have… it turned out okay in the end but it wasn’t for me at all.

  40. I just read this entire thread and it is sooooo good! So much lovely and, most importantly, useful advice!

  41. Leanne says...

    My first professional job was as a book designer for a publishing company. My boss told me something that I have never forgotten.

    You never know who your boss will be someday or whose boss you will be someday.

    It really makes you keep yourself in check at work and to helps you draw a professional/personal line. I have thought of this many times over the years. It’s a little thing, but it helps keep things professional and on the up and up!

  42. Kate says...

    About 5 years ago, I was 28 and fretting to my mentor about where my career was going, and if I was making correct decisions and if I took on this project, would it mean that I couldn’t do this other thing etc etc etc. And my mentor, a very wise woman on the verge of retirement and an absolute power-house in our field, told me, “You have to remember that you have plenty of time. You have a long time to work, and it’s a marathon. In the meantime, focus on pursuing the projects and work that you feel passionate about. That will keep you relevant in the field, keep you from burning out, and will bring you the opportunities that you want.” And she was right. It’s been 4 years, I’ve followed that advice, and I find joy in my job and I’ve also gained new opportunities because of that joy and passion.

  43. I was told a few things. I was first told that I do not have to change me to be what I want. Changing aspects of how I think of what I want is changing. I have been told that so many times. I finally got it. I took that to heart. I was also told that I can do whatver I want in life. Have a foundation which mine is spiritual and the rest is all me. Last I was told to have a partner who supports me. Also support them. If they do not then stay clear. They do not care for my well being. I once told my late aunt that I wanted to be a karate princess ballerina 👸🏾 and you know she said I am smart and have a lot of sense I can do whatever I aim to do and to always do what I love not what others want.

  44. Cynthia says...

    My university theater teacher taught us, “The world is not interested in excuses, only results.” I think of this often.

  45. My boss once said to me “When you’re on the phone, you should always sound like you’re smiling.” (I work in communications, so we’re on the phone a lot!) It’s stuck with me ever since.

    Advice I recently gave to a colleague was even if you don’t know the answer, never reply with “I don’t know” to a question! I like to say “That’s a great point, I’ll look into that and let you know” (or something like that).

  46. Sarah says...

    I work in lending and was told early on to never just present a problem to superiors as if they should solve it for you. Always combine it with a proposed solution even if it isn’t the path they think you should take. Eventually, you learn which path to take.

  47. Hillary says...

    1. Make you boss’s life easier. I got this advice young and thought it was total bs, but then I learned that your boss controls your destiny in an organization. If you can make their life easier, they will fight for you.

    2. As others have said, take ownership when you make a mistake. Clearly say it was your fault and what you will do to fix it (this is different than apologizing for having an opinion.) Everyone is also trying to shirk blame but you can really get respect by owning it and making it right.

    3. Don’t complain. Frame things that you want to change as opportunities for the organization to be better and do so in a positive way.

  48. The best advice I ever got in art school was to always be honest in my work. It has continued to guided me in my art career and kept my art on the right path.
    https://www.instagram.com/elyceabrams/

    • It has continued to *guide* me…ugh, I hate when I type too quickly and make mistakes.

  49. EL says...

    I won an early career award that had a small cash prize attached. An older friend said to me, “Did you pay bills with that prize money?” Yes. “Next time,” she said, “buy yourself a really nice coat.”

    • freya says...

      love that :)

    • oh, i love this. wise bird!

  50. My advice is, despite all the “don’t say sorry” advice out there today, when you make a mistake, own it. You likely are a hard and competent worker, so when you do make a mistake, let your boss know what you did right away and how you propose to fix it. And if it’s bad enough that an apology is warranted, apologize. Meaning: say you’re sorry, that you’ve learned and that you will try not to do it again.

    I once misinterpreted some language that it was my job to understand. My mistake had very real financial consequences for my company. As soon as I discovered the error, I ran to my boss and explained what I did wrong and what it meant. I told him I’d come up with a proposal for how to prevent such mistakes going forward. (No need to come up with something on the spot – communication earlier is better if you need time to figure out a solution.) He told me he really appreciated my honesty, speed and clarity. In the end, this mistake had no effect on my job or my career.

    • Tyler says...

      Yep. My biggest pet peeve in the workplace is drawn out excuses and apologies. We all mess up and procrastinate. Its fine. Just own up to it and tell me how you’re going to get it done.

  51. Lara says...

    Without a mentor, you don’t have momentum. Your skills and insight grow as your relationships do, so truly invest in relationships and your career will keep pace.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      great advice, lara.

      and i also think it’s great to remember that a mentor can take a lot of different forms (not just the wise older person within your industry who takes you under their wing — someone i’ve never actually had). but i HAVE had a scary volatile boss who would toss off great advice especially when angry, or people whose careers i really admire who i don’t know well but follow from afar and think of as “far-off mentors,” or people who were my age/level at work (or younger) who just did an awesome job and who i picked things up from.

      xoxo

    • Astrid says...

      You are, or cupofjo is, one of those “far-off mentors” Joanna.

  52. Nina McCammon says...

    My husband Ross’s book “Works Well With Others” was published last year and has tons and tons of funny and insightful career advice! Some of my favorites:

    -Never “float” an idea. Launch it, push it into the stream, yell at it with a bullhorn until it scowls at you.

    -Hugely important rule: Everyone is weird and nervous. No matter how famous or important, everyone is just really weird and really nervous. Especially the people who don’t seem weird or nervous.

    -Embrace your mistakes. Success is about being a human being, not a drone.

    -In business, you must assume that everyone is rooting for you. Are there sometimes people in the room who wish you would fail? Yes. Can you ever confirm that this is the case? No. Then assume the best and move on.

    And my personal favorite:

    -Do not give out business cards before a meeting begins. Because it makes you look like a blackjack dealer.

    Ha!

    Sorry for the shameless plug. I’m a longtime reader of Cup of Jo and I couldn’t help but find his writing relevant to this particular topic!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      “No matter how famous or important, everyone is just really weird and really nervous.” = omg haha i LOVE this!

    • Ava says...

      So funny to read this post– I looked for your husband’s book when it first came out but couldn’t find it. I went to my library a few times and they didn’t have it. I wish I could have read it!

    • Jess says...

      Nina I just wanted to let you know that I bought your husband’s book as a gift for my husband recently after reading this comment and when it arrived (shipping to Australia took ages!) I read the whole thing before he did (oops) and absolutely loved it. It made me feel better about my life and myself as a person generally…and how my hubby’s recommending it to his work colleagues!

  53. When I left for college 150 years ago, my Mom had snuck a note into my wallet. It said “Go as far as you can go. From there you can see farther.”

    • Julie says...

      I love this!

    • Anna says...

      This is wonderful!!!! Gosh, I love all these reader comments!!!

  54. LOVE! I always tell my son “be a solution kid, not a I can’t do it kid.” I think it will be our family motto. And YES about things getting lost in translation. Jesus, people always read the written word wrong…sometimes (if people are friends) I tell them ok, you need to read my words with me laughing as I write it. My advice it to people going to graduate school – go where you are the smartest. Employers ONLY look at grades and no one cares (or even knows) what rank your law school had but they can compare YOUR personal rank and GPA to their other 200 candidates and that might be the only thing that distinguishes you. If I had to do it again, this is what I would do rather than going to the highly ranked law school. Finally, don’t confuse having a career with having a life. My only goal – career-wise now, besides having a job where I am HELPING people is that my job lets me have the life I want. only.goal!

    • Laura says...

      Interesting point, but I’d say the opposite. I’m not in law, but I find that there is value in a name brand undergrad / business school degree. It’s that “ok at least your competent” assumption. Once you get that far people aren’t going to care about your GPA, what will stand out in the job interview process is the experiences you had and a good GPA isnt going to help you speak with enthusiasm and passion

    • Jen says...

      I am a physician, and I would have to disagree. I tell the medical students I precept to go to the best residency program that will accept you. You want/need to be challenged so that when you are out and working alone, you have the experience and aptitude to be confident in your work. Struggling for 3 years in residency is better than struggling your entire career.

    • Anna says...

      I’m in academia and the arts and even in my field the prestige of the university that you attend for both undergrad and grad school is MUCH more important than your GPA. The advice that I give to people is actually to work the hardest in high school, sweat the grads in undergrad, and take it easy on yourself in grad school (unless you’re planning on PhD, and then work harder and faster than you ever have). One of the bigger mistakes in my career was not aiming high enough for undergrad and missing out on the connections and open doors that attending a really good school provides. You can do well coming from a mediocre state school, like I did and many others do, but you do it in spite of the school that you went to and not because of it.

  55. Ha! That cartoon is totally my brain, all the time!

  56. S. Herron says...

    Amen, Alex. Amen.
    -from a grantwriter

  57. This is such a helpful list and a great reminder of things some of us may have forgotten!
    Shelley

  58. Katherine says...

    My favourite advice is to establish clear guidelines! I think it’s really tempting to be like “I will totally intuit what my boss wants and when they want it by and what they want it to look like and then I will be a psychic and magical worker like Rory Gilmore,” but only madness and frustration can come from that. It’s way better to just ask for specifics.

    Whenever I’m given a task, I try to ask “okay, so in an ideal world what would you like the end product here to look like? And when would you like it done by? Do you want updates from me throughout the process or do you just want me to send it to you when I’m done? What would you like me to do if I run into problems as the work progresses?”

    ALSO. My other favourite advice is just to go easy on yourself when you mess up. EVERYONE messes up, and in really big ways sometimes. You can’t skip that part of learning how to do something! Try to learn from it when it happens… but also, give yourself a little moment to be like “yes ok, I knew that this would happen someday, and here it is, it’s happened now. I’m not a weird incompetent alien, this is part of the process”

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      you sound awesome at your job, katherine!

    • my current boss and I often seem to be on different wave lengths so I always say “so the final result should be X” and sometimes I have to say it like 5-6 times because what I thought X should be is not what she thought X should be…or she goes into unnecessary explanations and doesn’t really know what X should be so this helps her to define that.

    • Katherine says...

      I forgot to mention a good piece of advice someone gave me that was a real game changer–which is that when someone compliments your work, instead of shooting down the compliment or undermining yourself, just say “Thank you. I feel good about that work, too.” OR “Thank you! It took a lot of work but I’m happy with the end result.”

      You gotta own your accomplishments publicly! Then when you want to ask for something there’s already a bit of a known narrative that you work really hard and know that you’re valuable.

    • Nancy says...

      I once saw a framed quote on the wall of a medical research lab that said “Failure is not the opposite of success. It is part of success.”

  59. MaryMargaret says...

    Be proactive and own your work! Nobody likes a complainer or a blamestormer. Something not go right? Project not on schedule? Does something need to be fixed? Be forthright about the issue, take ownership, and give a solution for making it right!

  60. Melissa says...

    “Find Your Speciality”

    JOANNA. You just helped me answer an application essay question for an LLM I’m applying for. I’ve been struggling for months on how to answer it.

    Bless you.

  61. Amelia says...

    This is sort of career / general life advice, but another perspective on apologizing: reframe your instinct to apologize into an opportunity to express gratitude. So, instead of saying “Sorry that meeting went so long,” you would say “Thank you so much for staying engaged for a full hour.” Instead of saying “Sorry for making so many requests” say “Thank you so much for taking the time to share this information with me,” etc…
    There is a great cartoon about this here: https://brightside.me/article/stop-saying-sorry-if-you-want-to-say-thank-you-a-seriously-insightful-cartoon-57255/

    • Natalie says...

      Love this!

    • Katy says...

      Awesome cartoon – thanks for sharing that!

    • Recently, I read that instead of apologizing for a delay, you should say “Thank you for your patience,” so now I use that phrase instead and I feel like it elevates the conversations, and inspires kindness. (Actually, it might’ve been on this blog that I read it… LOL)

  62. Karen says...

    I think this ties to one’s career, from my mom: Always have your own bank account. Then you can go to Nordstrom whenever you want, no questions asked.

    • HAHA! Love that. Maybe not career advice, but good advice regardless :)

  63. “Work smarter, not harder.” It’s a good reminder to evaluate what you’re doing and find solutions to do what you’re doing more efficiently. I’m a scenic painter (I paint scenery for theatre) and I’m constantly telling employees and students that; it’s so easy to get lost in what you’re doing and continue a process that’s just not working! I think the advice is applicable for other jobs, though.

    Also, don’t undervalue yourself or sell yourself short. If you quote someone a number they think is too high they’ll negotiate.

    • Kash says...

      While I understand “work smarter and not harder quote” and generally follow the same principal. But I find it wrong when people give this advice to young kids in school or just starting their careers. Not someone who was a super bright kid, I have always learned through working hard and repeatedly doing the same thing over and over until I discovered the smart way. As an older woman in the job scene, I have noticed many youngsters get lost and loose way or adopt shortcuts, trying to figure out the smart way of working. For many of us, It comes with experience and time until then just work hard and hard and hard. In short, working hard or smart is not mutually exclusive. Pick what comes naturally to you but remember as long as you get the job done intelligently on time it doesn’t matter.

  64. Seraphim says...

    Identify overwhelming things as good problems to have. A job, too much work, a family who wants to see more of you, high expectations, challenges… these are all good problems to have. Imagine if your life didn’t include these things. It’s easy to become stressed by work and life, but if you shift your thought process from ‘OMG, I can’t handle this’ to ‘I’m so lucky to actually have these problems’ it helps change perspective.

    • Ariana says...

      Words cannot express how life changing this is for me. Thank you so much for sharing!

    • Jen says...

      This is golden.

  65. As a creative person who often has to hustle to keep the income flowing, I’ve learned to ask myself “Will this serve one of my goals?” It’s hard to say no to an offer, and it’s tempting to stay in a position for the stability, but choices either serve your goals or they don’t.

  66. I fully, wholeheartedly agree with everything on this list, and I share a lot of this advice with mentees and direct reports. Some of my other favorites: 1) Prepare for your boss not to be there; in essence, disaster preparedness. What if your boss couldn’t make this meeting? What if something happened and you had to lead everything? Could you make it happen top to bottom? It establishes full accountability and a proactive sensibility and lays the groundwork for being indispensable. 2) It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it (note: work AND life advice). Sensitivity, thoughtfulness, empathy, attention to detail–every action you make can be improved by just taking some extra care and intention vs. just phoning it in. 3) Don’t forget the humanity. Everyone you work with is a human being behind their title, and when I finally applied this to client meetings and networking events, it made small talk approachable–people love to find common ground in pop culture, relationships, and humor. Don’t be afraid to share a little of what makes you an individual in a conversation because it will stand out in a sea of corporate speak.

  67. Same Sweet Song says...

    A more experienced colleague told me once to always come to a meeting with something to contribute. Never go to a meeting just to be there and listen; your job is to add value. And a political tip, even if you know someone is a hopeless slacker, deal with them as if they were working hard. You can sometimes shame them into making an effort.

  68. Rosie says...

    Always go into your bosses office with a writing utensil and a pad of paper. Always.

  69. jenni says...

    this isn’t exactly career advice so much as it is life advice, but it came from my boss so, here goes. people aren’t all good or bad. she told me this when a former employee came after my company in arbitration with some aggressive and greedy and largely unwarranted claims about due compensation. things got a little ugly and i was struggling with how to view this person whom i had really liked and respected, when all of these nasty facts came to light about him. i think my job made me focus on painting him as a bad person, when in my personal life i wanted to believe he was a good person. something about the way my boss said it so matter of fact, it just hit me and stuck with me. i try to remember this when i work with a difficult colleague or even just get cut off in traffic. one off bad acts don’t mean they are bad people. and i’ve found it important to keep reminding myself of that.

  70. Meg says...

    Get some perspective! When my boss could tell I was getting nervous or timid walking in to a big negotiation, pitch or whatever, he would say, “Just remember, they can’t kill us!” It always lightened the mood which was great – but even more than that, it helped me to take a breath, be bold, and not get so timid/worried that it robbed me of doing my best work.

  71. Kim says...

    Be patient. Everything is a process and good things take time. Oftentimes, we fall into the trap of expecting things to happen quickly or to unfold in a certain way – so we get frustrated and quit too soon and miss out on developing depth. Commit to doing your best in every moment. And when you don’t know what to do – get silent and still until clarity comes. Everyone has a voice that we tend to drown out. Then when you’re ready, do the next right thing.

  72. Carol Wayne says...

    MEGO….love it…but can’t use it with my students….

    • Maggie says...

      I don’t know how old your students are, but my senior year English teacher used to circle whole paragraphs and write “this says nothing.” After 12 years of receiving praise just for writing coherent, grammatical papers that met the page requirements, this was a huge lesson for me in writing more cogently. I think it made me a better writer!

    • hahaha in law school we had a professor who would write “fluff fluff fluff” on anything that didn’t answer the question or was unnecessary. I never had her do this to my stuff but one of my good friends did, a good friend who was an english undergrad, it was quite a learning curve going into law.

    • Lauren says...

      I had a creative writing professor write at the end of short stories, “SO WHAT?” I never forgot that. If you’ve written something great, no one should be asking, “So what?”

  73. Don’t wait to be invited to a promotion. Ask. The guys are never afraid to ask.

    • Mara says...

      YES to this. I stewed for 4 years waiting for a promotion. When I finally worked the nerve up to ask my boss, she looked shocked and said, “You haven’t been promoted yet?!?” Bosses are busy; you have to be your own best advocate. Just make sure you prepare a script of sorts detailing major accomplishments, an ask, and back that up with some data with comparable salaries (go to salaryexpert.com for instance).

    • Carol says...

      Yes. And say it as like you deserve it, not sheepishly, not apologetically!

  74. Yukie says...

    I am a graduate student transitioning to a professional workplace, and my favorite advice is: make your default response “I will get it done”. I tell it to my boss, my colleagues, my significant other. Frankly, no matter the issue, it’s usually and ultimately the answer people want to hear from you. Hearing it said out loud motivates me to get things done and has made me a reliable person (and my favorite part as a sociopath, people leave you alone!).

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s a great one.

      i also love when i send an email about something to do, and people on our team write back a quick note like “of course!” or “done!” or “great, got it!” it only takes a second but makes me feel like they’re totally on it and everything is under control.

  75. Lauren says...

    I will echo the comment below about “sorry.” I’ve been training myself for years now (ever since that fantastic Pantene commercial came out) to stop saying “sorry” at work. I found myself beginning every email, “Sorry, but could you tell me…” and “Sorry to pester, but could you send me…” I’m doing my job and the person on the receiving end of my email/phone call should be doing theirs. No apologies.

  76. Madie says...

    In nursing, the best advice I got was “don’t stop asking questions”. The experienced nurses always knew to look out for the new nurses who weren’t asking questions. When you’re a novice, you can’t possibly know everything you need to know to get through your day without asking, so you must be messing something up. Ask!

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      that’s a great one!

  77. Linda says...

    A degree does not entitle you to anything in the job market. Being willing to do what is expected of you (and more, without being asked), getting along with others, and having a good attitude are what will help you rise to the top. It is also very important to be teachable.

  78. This is seriously awesome advice! I feel way too young to offer any compelling career advice to others but I soaked all of this up!

  79. Mara says...

    –Skip the preamble; get to the point quickly.
    –ONLY say “I’m sorry” when it’s warranted. SO important for women especially.
    –As a woman, don’t become the office baker/note-taker/coffee-fetcher/party-planner because that reinforces the stereotypical role of women in the workplace. Let the guys take their turn.
    –It’s none of your business what other people think of you. (Still trying to get this one myself! I care way too much)

    • Perry says...

      I’ve heard that advice before, about not saying “sorry”, and while I’ve at times heeded it, I also (respectfully) disagree.

      Ann Friedman wrote a thought-provoking piece about it, and I agree with her:
      http://nymag.com/thecut/2015/07/can-we-just-like-get-over-the-way-women-talk.html

      I’m confident at my work – I think that comes across, and that I seem confident, no matter how many times I use “just” or “sorry”. I don’t like that so maybe people equate saying “sorry” or being polite or using a certain style of speaking with being hesitant or a pushover – they are not one-and-the-same.

      If not saying “sorry” helps someone feel stronger at their workplace and serves as a kind of confidence hack, then sure, why not use the tip.

      Otherwise, I think everyone – especially women – should be able to use whatever polite vocal ticks they want.

  80. Therese says...

    Be relevant, and don’t be afraid of awkward pauses.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      YES TO AWKWARD PAUSES!!!!!! especially when negotiating. sometimes on the phone, people will say a rate, and i’ll just be quiet, and they’ll start negotiating against themselves and bringing the rate down without my even saying anything. silence can be really powerful and strategic.

  81. Whitney says...

    Make yourself indispensable. My dad told me this when I was younger and just starting out. It’s served me well both professionally and personally.

    • Totally agree! and knowing when to say No to jobs!

  82. Oh I love the advice from Liz and Lucy! I am a counselor and really want to specialize in working with pregnant women and new moms. Lots of people say, “oh, what about new dads? don’t they need help too?” or “what about couples/families?” That’s not the work that I feel compelled to do. It’s hard to basically say, nope, that’s not for me (because I don’t want to come across as ‘screw all the dads/kids/families’) but that’s not my passion, and that’s okay! We cannot be all things to all people.

  83. Jessica says...

    Find your specialty. That one is a gem. All of these are so good. Chuckled when I saw “Don’t just do something, stand there,” because every medical student has heard it at least once and yet it is THE HARDEST thing to do.

    The best piece of advice I’ve heard, “don’t be scared to say ‘I don’t know.’ Saying it is honest and it gives you permission to go find out. Finding the right answer is so much more powerful than BSing your way around the question.

  84. steph says...

    My best boss ever often encouraged us to “use an economy of words” and to stay mission-based. Another piece of advice, especially when giving bad news or correcting actions, is to start and end with a positive.

    One of my faves came from an old professor when writing my thesis and couldn’t get motivated, mostly due to my perfectionism. She said “there are two kinds of papers; those that are written and those that aren’t.”

  85. L8Blmr says...

    Some of the best career advice I received was from my 10th grade Sociology teacher in high school. She said not to let anyone compare me to anybody else. This goes across the board for raises and talent. The other piece of advice was that there are a million ways to say the word “no” without actually uttering it. Sort of like, “well, what I can do for you is…” You aren’t left holding the bag and the other person doesn’t walk away empty handed. I’ve carried her advice throughout my life and it has served me well.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      those are both great pieces of advice, thank you!

  86. Lily says...

    I checked this today as a break from writing cover letters– probably because I get so overwhelmed by anxiety I instinctively open a new browser tab of something more relaxing! How did you know? Thank you for this– I am now going to go back to skating my lane and filling this five pound bag with five pounds of the best bullshit I can find.

    • Joanna Goddard says...

      hahaha you’re the best, lily!