6 Successful Professionals Share the Career Mistakes That Made Them Stronger

career mistakes at work

“Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.” These words ring as true today as when Albert Einstein first said them.

When you’re just starting out in your career, you might be afraid of messing up. But as a relative newcomer to the workforce, you’re bound to make some errors.

Growing from your career mistakes — and using them to take your career in the right direction — is what counts. At least, that’s what several professionals learned from their post-college blunders.

Here’s what people had to say about their biggest mistakes at work, and how they bounced back.

1. I didn’t speak up during meetings

When you’re a junior addition to a company, it can be tough to speak up about your ideas — but taking part in the conversation is the only way to grow. Katie Derrick, now a content executive for It Works Media, learned this lesson firsthand.

“I was afraid to showcase my creative ideas, with the fear that my opinion would be undervalued or ignored,” said Derrick. “After advancing in my career, I recognized this was a big mistake because it was setting me up to fail.”

By staying quiet, Derrick also gave the impression she wasn’t engaged. “I learned that staying quiet and hiding in the background could actually be perceived as having a lack of interest in topics being discussed at work,” she said.

This realization gave Derrick the push she needed to jump into the conversation. Now, she encourages other new professionals to show confidence from day one. “When an idea springs to mind, throw it out there and discuss it,” said Derrick. “Any idea is better than no idea.”

2. I failed to negotiate my salary

Salary negotiation is one of the most challenging stages of getting a new job — but it’s also one of the most important. Failing to negotiate and taking a lower wage could cost you tens of thousands of dollars over the years.

Anna Segova, a communications manager at 2hats, said one of her biggest career mistakes was avoiding the salary discussion. “Getting my first job in the industry, I felt so lucky to even get paid that I was willing to work for whatever employer would pay me,” she said.

As a result, Segova wound up with an income far below industry standards. Luckily, she was able to fix the issue. “My boss gave me the pay rise that I needed after presenting a case to him,” said Segova. “God, it was terrifying, but it had to be done.”

Segova now understands the importance of salary negotiation, even if you’re an entry-level employee. “I have learned to always negotiate, especially when taking on a new role,” she said. “Salary negotiation when taking a first job could determine the financial future of a graduate.”

3. I stayed too long in a toxic work environment

If you work full-time, you spend almost one-third of your waking hours doing your job. It’s important to be in an environment that makes you happy. If your work environment is dysfunctional, it could seriously drain your well-being, not to mention stunt your professional growth.

As the owner of Black N Bianco, Lisa Chu now has the power to shape her work environment — but she didn’t have this freedom starting out.

“[My] environment was very cutthroat and a lot of the decisions were hampered by bureaucracy,” she said. “Influencing major change or improvements simply was not a possibility. Playing politics was the only way to survive.”

Chu tried to make the best of it, but in retrospect, she wishes she had left sooner. “I wasted years in that company doing nothing productive,” she said. “It hindered my ability to grow as a designer.”

She is now able to create better policies for her own employees, and she encourages new grads not to stay too long in a toxic work environment. “These type of dysfunctions will lead you down a very unhappy path for your career,” she added.

4. I didn’t realize how important it was to network

According to a recent survey by LinkedIn, 85 percent of people get their jobs through networking. Whatever your field, networking is an essential part of professional development. Even if you already have a job, networking with others in your industry can help you grow in your career.

“The biggest mistake that I have made in my career is a failure, early on, to realize the importance of networking,” said Stacy Harris, publisher and editor of Stacy’s Music Row Report. As a result, she missed out on important events.

Once she realized how important it was to connect with others in her industry, Harris joined organizations like Leadership Music. Plus, she’s now a volunteer coordinator for World of Bluegrass and a mentor in the International Bluegrass Music Association.

“I would advise new grads … [to] find like-minded people [and] enlarge your circle to include them,” said Harris. “Acknowledge those who have assisted you and never miss an opportunity to ‘pay it forward.’”

By connecting with peers and joining networking organizations, you’ll gain a deeper foothold in your industry. Once you’ve established yourself, you can help others who are just starting out.

5. I opted for job security over passion

When you’re fresh out of college, sometimes you have to settle for the job you can get. But be careful not to get stuck; you deserve a career you care about, even if you have to take some risks to get it.

Accountant and finance blogger at Cash Cow Couple Gabe Lumby took a job in a big accounting firm right out of college. “Each and every work day was completely miserable,” Lumby said. “Sundays were the worst because I would spend my whole day dreading the Monday morning alarm clock.”

Although people told Lumby to stick it out for two years, he knew he had to leave the job he hated. He took the first job he could get at a smaller firm and never looked back.

“I never had any desire to go the corporate route or stay in a large firm,” said Lumby. “Looking back, it would have been much smarter to start my career at a small firm so I could have learned the skills necessary to serve small business clients as well as how to run a small firm.”

Lumby learned how important it was to work in the right environment and enjoy your job. “I would encourage new grads to figure out the type of work they want before getting stuck in a job they hate,” said Lumby. “If they know the type of career they desire, they shouldn’t go another route because it is more prestigious [or has] better pay or benefits.”

Danielle Kunkle, vice president of Boomer Benefits, echoed this sentiment. “Money is great, but you’ve got to pursue something you love because that’s what you’ll be good at,” she said. “What’s more important is the feeling you get when you leave work every day after a job well done. That never goes away.”

As a new grad, you might need to prioritize job security over personal passion at first. But be careful about spending years in the wrong career path for the sake of a paycheck. If you’re interested in your work, you increase your chances of long-term success.

Career mistakes are bound to happen

Mistakes at work are inevitable, no matter what stage of life you’re in. By taking the time to reflect on those career mistakes, you can grow and learn as a professional.

And if you find yourself unhappy with your career choice, it’s never too late to shift direction. For more on making a career change, learn how to transfer skills from one job to another.

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