10 Pieces of Career Advice for My 21-Year-Old Self

UPDATED: June 24, 2021
PUBLISHED: June 13, 2016

Surviving in the corporate world is not for amateurs. It’s ruthless, unforgiving and downright brutal for your self-esteem. I consider myself a survivor, escaping before it took the last remnants of my energy, moral standing and sanity. But after 20-plus years climbing the corporate ladder, I am now an outsider.

With a more objective viewpoint, I understand what I did right and what I did wrong. If I knew then what I know now, I would have developed fewer gray hairs, drunk a lot less alcohol and found more balance in my life well before I reached 45.

If I could give career advice to my 21-year-old self just starting out, it would be this:

1. Associate yourself with good people.

You will work with hundreds of individuals in your career. Given the choice, you will never want to work with most of them again. The corporate world is full of mediocre people who occupy office chairs and not much else. Talent in the workforce is a bell curve. The truly awful people tend to get weeded out, unless they are related to someone in management. The middle of the bell curve is where most people are. When you find good people—those individuals who care and want to do honest, good work—stick with them as long as you can. When you work alongside a talented co-worker, boss or employee, never see them as a threat or competitor. Feel lucky to be on the same team, learn from them and share in their success.

2. Leadership is more important than the quality of your product.

You will probably work with some crappy products at some point in your career. But the best products don’t always succeed. Some quality products or ideas will never get out of the starting gate, and less stellar ones will go on to be amazing successes. The line between success and failure is slim and any product will have a set of pros and cons. Don’t be put off by a long list of cons. If you have to pick between a good product and a crappy leadership team, or an average product with a killer team behind it, go with the latter. That team is far more likely to find a successful strategy and you will learn a lot more in the process. You will also be better equipped to deal with less-than-perfect products in the future.

3. Speak your mind.

You were given this job for a reason. You convinced someone you were smart enough to be worthy of a paycheck. Keeping your head down and going with the flow is not your style. Over time, you will gain experience that will give you an insight many others don’t have. You have valuable contributions to make; participating and challenging is what you are there for. Don’t be afraid to go against conventional thinking. Even if your ideas aren’t implemented, you will be recognized as someone who has earned a seat at the table.

4. Know when to quit.

You might think you’re right; you might actually be right, but that doesn’t mean you will get your way. Sometimes you will think your company is making a wrong turn or launching a lousy product. Fight for what you believe in, but recognize when you lose. The moral high ground can be a lonely place. Don’t waste valuable energy and career currency flogging a dead horse. When you lose an argument, dust yourself off, fall in line with the decision and move on.

5. Be prepared to be wrong.

Making decisions is hard and as your career progresses, you will be called upon to make more and more of them. Make the best decision you can with the information you have available to you at the time. That’s the best you can do. More information might become available later, but your position requires a sense of urgency so you don’t have that luxury. Sometimes you won’t know you are wrong until you try, but at least you will know. It’s better to make a wrong decision quickly than to make no decision at all.

6. Respect people who make tough decisions.

People in executive positions have to make difficult decisions all the time. Reducing staff, cutting expenses or stopping projects might seem illogical to you, but you can’t see the full picture. It’s easy to criticize from the outside. Yes, sometimes these decisions are made out of self-interest or bad intentions, but often they are not. You are not in the boardroom and you do not have all the facts. Once you get a seat at that table, you will have a chance to face those difficult choices.

7. Be kind.

Compassion and empathy may not always be rewarded in business, but they will help you live with yourself as you make your way up the career ladder. You may have to make tough calls in your career, ones that affect real people’s lives. You might also be on the receiving end, so remember to always treat people with respect and kindness. Treat them as you would want to be treated yourself.

8. Don’t give someone too many chances.

As your career progresses, you might find yourself managing people, or at the very least being someone your colleagues look up to. Be a good listener, coach and mentor. But remember, it is not your responsibility to resolve other people’s problems. While you might have the occasional success in turning a negative contributor around, most of the time you won’t. Instead, you will become frustrated at the time and effort invested in a losing battle. The best help you can be might be to move them on so they have a chance to find something they are better suited to. You can’t fix everyone.

9. Keep some emotional perspective.

You will find this very hard. In fact, you might never master it. Your rational self will know it is not worth getting frustrated, angry or upset that your boss doesn’t value your contribution or your ideas that you gave blood, sweat and tears to bring to life. But you will still find yourself crying, despondent and defeated. Try and control this and remember you will meet some wonderful people during your career; they will become lifelong friends. They are worth emotionally investing in… the rest won’t matter.

10. If you don’t like the rules, make your own.

There is an alternative to working for the corporate world. At some point you will realize the best way to work and live the way you want means walking away from your comfy cubicle. Don’t be afraid to go it alone. You’ll be surprised how fulfilling and challenging your life can be even when you don’t have a fancy job title and a corner office.

You are smart, thoughtful and ambitious and your career will be important to you. It will bring you great rewards and wonderful experiences. And if you take my advice you just might find that you need to spend less money on hair dye and Sauvignon Blanc. Good luck!

Kate Gilbert

Kate Gilbert is the author of The Happy Camper: How I Quit My Corporate Job and Sold Everything to Travel Full Time. After 20-plus years pursuing the American Dream of working hard, getting promoted and acquiring lots of stuff, she realized that she wasn’t happy. At age 45 she walked away from her executive job, sold her home and started a freelance career. She splits her time between apartment rentals around the world and roaming the U.S. in an Airstream trailer working from wherever she can connect to the internet.