The 3 Hardest Career Lessons I've Had To Learn

One of my favorite things to ask people who are further along in their careers is “what is the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn?” It’s an interesting question because we learn so many lessons in life, and some are easy to learn while some are really tough. And the lessons that are the hardest to learn are often the life truths that we don’t want to face. Tough lessons take time to learn, and they often require people to fail-- many, many times. It’s been one of my favorite questions because some of the lessons I’ve had to learn in my own life and career have been really difficult. It’s graduation season across the country, and I’ve been reflecting on the 4 years that I’ve been out of school. When I was 22 and I moved to New York, I got a job at a small startup as a Customer Experience Associate. My sole goal when I got that role was to learn. To watch and participate in various tasks until I had a better idea of the path I truly wanted to take and the direction I wanted to go. It turns out that after about 6 months in the role, I decided I wanted to move into a more people focused role, and be on the HR team.

When I decided that, I didn't know how hard it would be. And I think that most of the “hardest lessons” I have been lucky enough to learn in the last 4 years have been around this concept of moving forward, moving up, and doing new things. I now sit on the HR team and I’m really liking the work that I do. I’m really happy with where I am. But when I look back on what it took to get where I am, even today, it was really hard. This is the blog post where I’ll lay out the 3 toughest career lessons I’ve had to learn since joining the real world.

1. Being a hard worker and delivering results is more important than being popular.

I’ve always been someone who has been pretty well liked, and in high school, college, and my jobs in my younger years, that usually got me somewhere. Something that took me a long while to learn is that the nice, funny person isn’t the person who moves forward. If someone likes you and your personality, it doesn’t mean that you are doing a good job, and it doesn’t mean that they are going to promote you or do you any favors. Someone will promote you if you are the most valuable team member. Not if you are the most fun team member.

I’ve been someone who has been well liked, and I’ve made lots of team members laugh, but there have been many times where people who don’t focus on that are promoted way ahead of me because they were simply doing a great job and delivering the right results. It’s not about making people like you; it’s about rolling up your sleeves and doing really great work. And that’s the only way you’ll get ahead. 

2. Nobody cares about you more than you care about yourself.

I grew up in a community and a family where I was set up to succeed. My parents forced me to do my homework and they forced me to be home by 10 pm, and they forced me to eat healthier (when they could) and it was all because they cared about me and loved me. I would argue that at times, my parents cared more about my success and my future than even I did. They stuck their necks out for me, and they made sure that I had everything I needed to make the most of my life.

From that, I’ve grown into someone who cares about my own success, my own well being, and my future. And what I’ve learned in the last few years is that this kind of care and protection just does not exist in the adult world.

Absolutely nobody is going to force you to get promoted. If you don’t do well, you just lose the opportunity to try. If you don’t ask for more development opportunities, rarely will someone give it to you. Literally, nobody cares specifically about you and your future to that same extent. Nobody will stick their neck out and stand up for you the way you should stand up and advocate for yourself.

You are responsible for making goals and you are responsible for sticking to them. You have to talk about what you want because if you don’t, the right people will rarely ask. You have to make friends and professional connections. Nobody is going to do anything for you unless you give them a really good reason to do something for you. You are the only person who cares about you enough to truly move you forward.

3. Things take a long time to happen, so you have to play the long game.

In the beginning of this post, I said that I knew 6 months into my time as a customer experience associate that I would have liked to move to the HR team. The reality is that the move I made to the HR team didn’t happen until 2 years after I knew I wanted it. And that’s for a few reasons. First of all, I had a ton of things I needed to learn, and I had a lot of growing up to do before I would be ready to have a job like I have now. Second, I didn’t even know what it was I even wanted to do on an HR team. I had to explore my own skills and passions to even know what I wanted to be doing every day. And third, the job I have now didn’t even exist 2 years ago. The opportunity wasn’t even there at the time that I initially had this dream. There are always going to be external forces, gatekeepers, and reasons why something won’t happen when you snap your fingers.

What I learned is that even though we live in this instant gratification generation, the world doesn’t quite work like that. If you want to make the right moves, you have to be willing to work hard and be heads down to become the perfect shoe-in for when an opportunity does come about. At times it will feel like you are in the middle of an endless quest for success, but you just have to take a step back and understand that that road truly is long, and things take time to happen. And the people who can take breaths and play the long game are the people who win in these situations, and it’s never easy.

The lessons I’ve listed above have been the hardest for me to learn because they are the truths that I’ve not wanted to face. Growing up, I always wanted to be successful, but I didn’t realize that it would be really hard to make that happen. By no means have I "made it," but at 26 years old I feel like I’m  “making it,” and that is what matters right now. I’m moving forward, and I’m building myself a strong foundation for a great future.

What’s the hardest lesson you’ve ever had to learn in your own career? Let me know in the comments, or by email at benjhawes@gmail.com. You can find me on Twitter or Instagram @therealbenhawes, and feel free to like, comment, subscribe, and share this post! Thanks for reading :)