7 Things I've Learned About Work In My 20s

When I was in my teens, having a job sounded like the most amazingly grown-up thing ever. I took any work I was offered because the prospect of making my own money was thrilling, and I didn’t put much thought into it. Now, at 27, my approach to work is very different. I aim to get the work that fulfills my dreams, fighting for the absolute best opportunities.

My first job was at age 14 at a Japanese restaurant. A really cute guy and I were bussing tables. I remember very little from that job besides awkwardly flirting with him and eating rice in the back when I had a free second. God, he was cute. I wonder what ever happened to him.

Since then, my work experience has spanned making pizzas at my college dining hall, organizing books at a store, working as a research assistant in a psychology lab and a robotics program, TAing classes, doing marketing for a tech startup, and working as a freelance writer and editor for the past three years.

Over the course of my 20s, work has (thankfully) come to mean much more than the opportunity to flirt with a cute coworker. Here are some things I’ve learned about work over the past few years.

1You Can Always Negotiate

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I used to think you needed a reason to negotiate. You don’t. It helps, but you can literally just say, “Could you go up to $X?” This line actually works for me about half the time. And the other half? They’ll just say “no” and apologize, no harm done. If you don’t negotiate, you’re leaving money on the table, and that money adds up over time, especially if the rate is for a long-term project. Five more dollars per hour can add up to thousands more per year.

2Kindness Will Help Your Career No Matter What It Is

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Since my job doesn’t involve much interaction with people, I didn’t used to really bring my social skills to the table. But your relationships are invaluable no matter what job you’re in. Mine have allowed me to learn about many of the jobs I have now.

Last time I was in New York, for example, I asked a colleague to meet up for coffee. During that coffee, I casually mentioned (with no motive other than filling her in on my life) that I’d recently lost one of my jobs. A few days later, she emailed me about another job opportunity she noticed on Twitter. I applied for that job and got it. Things like this happen all the time.

Networking aside, being pleasant to work with makes people want to work with you again. So, I make an effort to add nice greetings and closings to my emails, give people feedback in a way that isn’t hurtful, and be understanding when my colleagues fall short of my expectations. This may be a machiavellian way to look at kindness, but it really does earn you money in the long-run.

3Not Working Is Good For Your Work

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I’m a bona fide workaholic. I work 12-15 hours per day, seven days a week. Not working kind of makes me panic. But more and more, I’m realizing the value in doing things other than work.

A few years ago, for example, a friend invited me on vacation with her. I was hesitant to take the time off work, but when I went, I became inspired to travel the world and have all sorts of new experiences. I ended up writing about many of these experiences, which led to thousands of dollars — more than I’d spent on the trip or lost from taking the time off.

The translation of time off work to extra money earned may not be as direct for some, but the point still stands: doing interesting things will inspire you, which will improve your work. I’ve noticed a direct correlation between how much I enjoy the things I’m doing and how much they inspire my work. Plus, taking time off work gives your mind a chance to step back and come up with new ideas.

4You Have To Hear More “No”s If You Want To Get More “Yes”es

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The most valuable piece of advice I could give anyone about work is to ask for things you don’t think you’ll get. If you're not hearing “no” regularly, that means you’re leaving the best “yes”es on the table, because you’re probably not aiming high. The best requests are the ones that will earn you mostly “no”s and just a few “yes”es. Those are the most ambitious requests.

For example, if you almost always get a “yes” when you negotiate your pay, you’re probably not asking for enough. It’s when you’re getting mostly “no”s that you know you’re asking for as much as you could. In my case, I realized I wasn’t being ambitious enough about what publications I pitched when they were all saying “yes.”

I’m consistently surprised by how many opportunities and how much money you can get if you just ask. You need to ask, and you need to be willing to hear “no,” because unwillingness to hear “no” will make you afraid of asking. And the things you’re afraid to ask for are usually the things that will have the biggest impact on your career.

5Everything Is An Audition

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I’m sorry to throw this one in after all these positive ones, because it sucks. But people are always evaluating you. You can’t assume it's safe to slack off because you’ve already snagged a job or opportunity. You could lose it just as quickly as you got it.

I learned this the hard way several times. In college, I got a part-time job and put my best foot forward in the beginning, but once my supervisor seemed happy with me, I got comfortable and put it on the back burner. I ended up getting fired for neglecting some of my duties. Then, just a few years ago, I got invited to speak at a conference. I was on their website and everything, but then during our first call, I was not really paying attention. They took me off the program. Then, a supervisor at another job talked to me on the phone. Once again, I was not on top of my game and totally unprepared for the questions she asked, and I lost that job a few days later.

It took three times for me to finally learn: Everything is an audition — if not to get an opportunity, then to keep it. You always have to do your best. Plan ahead for every meeting. Work hard at every task. Treat every assignment as if it were a trial, because it is.

6Feedback Can Inform You, But It Doesn’t Define You

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During one job, I got feedback that I wasn’t detail-oriented enough. During my next, my boss felt I was extremely detail-oriented but had trouble seeing the big picture and wasn’t the strongest editor. After that, I went on to become an editor for several big publications, and they didn’t complain about either of those problems.

For a while, I didn’t know what to do with all that conflicting feedback. Eventually, I learned to neither tune it out nor over-generalize it. It’s a reflection of how I behaved at those particular jobs, which may or may not be a reflection of my innate capabilities.

I’m not going to tell you not to take anything personally, because if the feedback you got wasn’t at all personal, your boss would be saying the same exact things to everyone. Their feedback reflects how they responded to you. But you have to figure out why they responded to you that way. Usually, it has to do with the chemistry between the two of you. It’s about you both to some degree. So, all you can do is figure out what role you played in it, use the parts that are useful to you, and shrug off the rest. That’s true with any relationship.

7The Healthiest Relationships Come When You Put Your Work First

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I’m what Missouri Senate candidate Courtland Sykes would call a "career-obsessed banshee." I spend about half my time living with my partner and the other half traveling, largely for work. And when we are living together, the great majority of that time is coexisting while we work. We have our date nights, but we both work constantly in jobs we care about, and that’s probably what makes the relationship work so well. We’re not depending on each other for satisfaction, so it's hard to let each other down.

I used to devote a ton of thought to my partners, which would end up distracting me from my work. I thought I needed to do that to be happy. It’s only once I realized I can be totally happy single that I met a partner I could really be happy with. The way to find a happy relationship is to be happy before it even starts. And that often means being happy with your work.

Your 20s are a time to mess up and grow from it, so don’t worry if your career isn't going exactly as you planned. In fact, that’s probably a sign that you’re doing something right, because every mistake is another lesson learned.