August 20, 2018

10 Important Career Lessons I Wish I Knew in My 20s

Looking back on my career.

Looking Back on My Career

I don’t know how you are, but early on in my career, I was very focused and driven. I thought if I kept my head down, nose to the grindstone, worked really hard, and demonstrated my intelligence, I’d get ahead. In a way, I looked at the path to career success much as an equation I could solve – and boy do I like solving mathematical equations! However, the path to success is actually better compared to an art form. There are seemingly simple, yet profound, truths I learned along the way. I only wish I had learned some of these important career lessons sooner.

10 Important Business Lessons I Wish I Knew in My 20s

Without further delay, here are ten simple, yet profound and important, business lessons I would impart to my younger self. These are not ranked, but listed only in alphabetical order.

1. Ask for help.

Often early on in my career, I would have this internal dialog with myself that went something like this… Should I already know the answer to this question? Am I going to be looked down upon for not already knowing this? Does everyone else around me already know the answer to this? Can I get by with pretending I know the answer?

There is a misconception floating around in the business world (particularly in highly competitive companies) that asking for help is a sign of weakness or deficiency. But this mindset can be so completely destructive to professional growth!

Instead of focusing on the microscopic moment, step back at look at the big picture. Asking for help and asking questions can actually increase your chances of longterm success. So, set aside the potential embarrassment and the perceived risks of asking questions, and ask. 

2. Be patient.

No matter how smart you are, how high your grades were, how heavily you were recruited, how many people you know at the company… Very few people go directly from college to the C-suite. CEOs aren’t built over night. You have to put in the work. You have to put in the time.

Particularly in this day and age of instant gratification, we are so accustomed to getting what we want immediately. However, some things in life take time. But along the way, you will be building valuable skills and amassing priceless experience. You cannot learn these lessons in school. You need to learn them by experience. And these experiences and lessons will catapult you into being a great leader – at the right time.

Success takes time.

3. Be your own biggest advocate.

Now, I am not talking about self aggrandizement here. This is not a case of “tooting your own horn”, so to speak.

What I’m speaking about here is owning your own career path. No one knows better what you’d like to achieve than you. No one knows better the path you’d like to take than you. No one knows the work you produce, the strengths you have, nor the skills you possess better than you.

And this personal advocacy is an ongoing process — a marathon, not a sprint. This is where I personally tripped up with this concept. When I started at a company, I quickly built a great alliance of advocates and mentors. I had a strong group of executives who believed in me and told me I was a rising star within the company. We plotted out my career path meticulously.

However, then a setback occurred. As luck would have it, we had an unexpected changing of the guard at the top of the company. In mere months, everyone who advocated for me was gone. And in some ways, I was ill-prepared and ill-equipped to advocate for myself. Lesson learned!

4. Don’t fly solo.

You need to build a 360 degree alliance. Build up a network all around you that believes in you, will vouch for you, can help you. I’ll talk more about the importance of building a network in lesson number eight.

For this point, I’d like to point out the importance of surrounding yourself with great people all around. So, yes, you definitely need a mentor or coach, as I mention in lesson number six. But in addition to that mentor or coach, you need advocates, you need cheerleaders, you need colleagues at the same point in their career as you. You also need to build connections across organizational boundaries. For example, if you’re in accounting, be sure to get to know the folks in sales and operations. Also, build a great team around you of people who are happy and excited to work for you.

Basically, you want to approach your work in a way that, if asked, everyone would have something positive to say about you. Maybe it’s your work ethic, maybe it’s how you treat them, maybe it’s your technical skills.

Bottom line: treat people well.

5. Don’t panic when setbacks occur.

For many of us, setbacks can seem fatal. Particularly if we are perfectionists, any bump in the road can upset our psyche. But you know what? The path to success is rarely ever a straight line; more commonly, the path to success is a circuitous bumpy road with lots of twists and turns in the road.

In fact, we may be better served not to think of success as a destination at all. The journey itself is what matters. Every one of us has experienced set backs. There was one time in particular I got passed over for a promotion I knew I merited. But we have to trust that everything happens for a reason. So, just keep on keeping on! Don’t give up. Or, Sir Winston Churchill put it much more eloquently:

Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.

- Winston Churchill

6. Find a mentor.

Experience matters. That’s somewhat the point of this article. After a twenty year career, I’m able to see some issues more clearly than I could at the time. While, yes, some things can only be learned by experience, there’s nothing wrong with leveraging someone else’s experience!

Mentors serve as great sounding boards, particularly when you are facing a career cross-roads. Because of their years and years of experience, they can provide perspective that you don’t have.

Finding a mentor isn’t easy. Nor is it easy for both parties to stay committed to the relationship. But it is very much worth all the effort!

7. Everyone suffers from impostor syndrome.

Spoiler alert: it’s not just you! Everyone feels in over her head at times. Everyone wonders if she might be a fraud. Everyone feels uneasy, nervous, and insecure at times.

As a young female in a male-dominated role (engineering) in a male-dominated field (oil and gas industry), there were many times I didn’t necessarily feel like I belonged or fit it in. But I powered through, knowing that I did indeed merit that seat at the table.

We must gather every bit of courage we can find, and push forward! For more help with gaining confidence in business, check out these seven methods for overcoming impostor syndrome.

8. Never underestimate the power of networking.

This lesson was a tough one for me to learn. Sure, I had tons of business connections. And I would go to networking events now and then.

But at the core of my being, I held an incorrect belief: I believed that merit somehow trumped the need for a network. In other words, I was such a superstar that I didn’t need anyone. Now, that last sentence was exaggerated to get my point across, but you get the picture.

However, it doesn’t matter who you are; we can all benefit from the power of networking. Indeed, you never know where a simple hello could lead! Networking is a powerful tool.

On a related side note: As you grow your network, don’t just take from that network. But be prepared to give to that network as well! Help others freely. The world is big enough for us all to be successful.

9. Trust your gut.

Early on, I definitely worried about what other people thought too much. I ignored some red flags I sensed internally. And sometimes I’ve held back when I should have followed my gut and moved forward. I gave more weight to what others thought than what my own gut told me.

That voice inside your head is there for a reason. Listen to it. And as you develop that sense over time, that voice will get louder and stronger.

10. Write down your goals – and never be afraid to pursue them.

Finally, dream big! Write your goals down. There’s something powerful about writing down your goals. There is in fact scientific studies to back this up. The percentage of people who achieve their goals skyrockets for those who write them down. Writing down goals makes the goals so much more real and concrete — almost tangible, as if you could reach out and grab them! And you can.

Be a lifelong learner. Never stop pursuing excellence in all you do.

Bottom Line

It’s never too early (or late) to think about these notions and lessons learned. Whether you’re just out of college or many years into your career, never lose sight of the big picture. And, above all, be kind, be respectful, and stay humble.

One more thing: if you enjoyed this article, be sure to check out the rest of my business series!


  1. Jenn Lake says:

    LOVE this post! So many amazing takeaways!

    1. Thank you so much for saying that, friend! Safe travels to you.

  2. Carolyn says:

    This is amazing Carrie! Thank you for sharing. Your takeaways are so helpful. #yougogirl

    1. Thank you so much for saying that! I really appreciate that, Carolyn.

  3. Sarah says:

    Great article with some important lessons. This resonates with me. Thank you.

    1. Thanks so much, Sarah! I appreciate you saying that. If I can ever help you in any way, let me know.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *