Throughout high school and college I was the consummate perfectionist: detail-oriented to the point of obsessive, with a need to be in control at all times. If something did slip through the cracks, I would never admit to it, and one poor grade on a paper was unacceptable. Once I graduated and entered the workforce, I was quickly humbled, and had to learn very quickly that one mistake did not equal the end of the world. There are even some career mistakes everyone should make in their 20s, because it will turn you into a better human and employee in the long run.
I know, I know, if you told me that sophomore year I would have laughed in your face — but hear me out.
No matter how many awesome internships you had during college, the real working world is a different beast. Once you get on the payroll, the stakes and the standards are higher, the hours are longer, and people can tell when you show up hungover. If you can make it through your 20s without bungling something up in your career, more power to you. But for most of us poor humans messing up is unavoidable. No matter how painful or mortifying dealing with a mess up is in the moment, mistakes can have unexpected beneficial outcomes that will help you grow personally as well as professionally. Just remember if people didn’t make mistakes now and then we would never have the slinky, Penicillin, X-rays, or potato chips. That's right — potato chips. So next time you make a mistake, don't be too hard on yourself. Who knows? It could be the potato chip moment of your career.
1. Blowing An Interview
You don’t have to be late or unprepared to have a bad interview — sometimes it just happens. You’re not going to walk out of the conference room feeling great every time, but the more practice you have at it, the easier the process will become. Over time you will learn which of your strengths to highlight, what questions to ask, and the importance of eye contact. But at the end of the day, interviews are conversations, and having a good one depends as much on the interviewer as it does the interviewee. It sucks to have a bad interview when you really want the position, but blowing this step of the hiring process may teach you a valuable lesson for when your real dream job comes around.
2. Messing Up An Important Assignment
Realizing that you goofed up an important assignment at work is pretty rough, but how you deal with the aftermath says more about you than the mistake itself. Instead of sweeping your mistake under the rug, take ownership of it. Tell whomever is going to be affected by the slip-up, but try not to be overly apologetic. When you go to explain the problem to your boss, acknowledge that you have learned from it and posit a couple of solutions to the issue at hand. After damage control is over, let it go and forgive yourself — it’s okay! Only by messing up a few times will you be able to handle the situation with panache.
3. Upsetting Your Boss
There is not much to do when your boss is angry with you besides apologize. If you notice you're not being invited to certain meetings or given assignments then you may have been unofficially demoted. Assess your performance at work lately, and if you can't think of what could be making them mad, ask to have a talk, and get feedback on your performance. Only then will you know what you can do to get back into their good graces, and this is the kind of determination and self-advocacy that will help you in your longterm career no matter how your boss feels about you.
4. Staying In a Job Too Long
Most of us make this mistake in our 20s, but it's better to learn this important lesson when you're 23 rather than 33 or 43. The truth is that you don't have to stay in any job more than a year — especially if you hate it. Staying at a job you're not thrilled about could keep you from applying to gigs that would be a better fit. If you are depressed and complacent it will hurt your career in the long run, so don't be scared to hand in your two weeks notice and get out of there!
5. Not Negotiating Hard Enough For A Good Starting Salary
When you're just starting out, it's easy to accept the first job offer that comes your way. You may be worried that negotiating your salary would offend the recruiter, but make this mistake one time and you'll quickly realize that you are expected to fight for your value. Feeling underpaid can hurt job performance (and make you feel all-around crappy and resentful). It is important to make sure before accepting a position that you will be compensated for what your time and skills are really worth. It's hard to get a substantial raise once you start the job, so it never hurts to ask for a little bit more during the initial hiring. It's a lesson we all learn the hard way, but thankfully it is one that we never forget. Get that money!
6. Burning Out
Creating a good work-life balance is a tricky thing. You may be tempted to not take your vacation days and constantly stay late at the office, to impress your boss and colleagues. But if you overwork yourself, burnout is inevitable. Once your productivity ebbs and you start having trouble dragging yourself into the office, you will quickly learn to protect your downtime. Experiencing burnout in your 20s is totally normal in high-pressure offices, but this kind of mistake is what helps you learn the importance of self-care and taking personal days when you need them so you can come back refreshed and ready to tackle any challenges thrown your way.
7. Ignoring Your Personal Projects
If you pay the bills doing a nine to five, it can be exhausting. After a long week at the office, all you want to do is curl up on the couch with a glass of cabernet and stream the entire season of Stranger Things. Balancing a full schedule is tough, so we end up cutting back on some of the things that are most important to our happiness and creativity. Successful people find the time to devote to their passions, so if it has been a year and you haven't touched that draft of your sci-fi novel, get crackin'! Sometimes it takes that year of ignoring it to remind you just how much you love it, and give the project all the more passion.
8. Getting Emotional At Work
We try to keep our emotions in check when on the job, but sometimes a high pressure situation or a piece of harsh criticism can bring us to the point of tears. Once you lose your cool in the office, you'll learn that keeping things bottled up can lead to a meltdown. If you're feeling overwhelmed talk to someone before it's too late, and try not to take any criticism too personally (because crying in the bathroom isn't an option!).
9. Pretending To Know What You're Doing When You Really Don't
Whenever you try something new, whether taking on a new role or environment, there will always be a learning curve. Of course you want to come off as capable and smart when starting a new job, but falling prey to the "impostor syndrome" may cause more problems over time. It will be hard to get in a good work groove if you don't ask questions or speak up because you're scared to admit ignorance, but you will, inevitably, do it a few times — but once you get over that fear and see how receptive people are to questions, you'll laugh it off and realize there's no reason to put yourself in that position again.
10. Not Going After What You Want Hard Enough
If you don't go after what you truly want, you will always feel a little regret. A missed opportunity will teach you that it's better to try and be turned down then to make no effort at all.
11. Ignoring Feedback
When we are in your 20s, sometimes we think we know better than our bosses, but this entitlement and over-confidence can get in the way of personal growth. Performance reviews are there for a reason, so if you shrug off the feedback a few too many times, you'll soon learn that it can have unexpected repercussions — which will motivate you later in your career when the stakes might be higher to listen, listen, listen.
12. Taking Too Many Risks
Your 20s are a good time to learn how to balance when to go big and when to hold back. It's always better to take too many risks in your career than to wonder, "What if?"