CHS Careerist: Lessons Learned, Part I

Apr 3, 2013

Over the past few months, I’ve spoken on a handful of career panels, and one thing that I’ve noticed is that successful people, especially women, tend to gloss over their failures.  From my point of view, knowing how someone overcame a challenge and what they learned from it is more instructive than platitudes or glowing stories of success.  No one gets it all right, and it’s time we stopped pretending that you have to make the correct choice every time in order to be successful, because  this fiction is giving younger generations of working women unrealistic expectations and setting them up for failure.

So this month, I thought I would talk about some of my personal experiences.  Challenges I’ve faced.  Successes I’ve had.  Mistakes I’ve made.  I’m still fairly young, but I’m hoping that there are lessons to be learned that might be of some value to others.

Lesson No. One: Taking a Step Back in Order to Move Forward

In 2007, I finished graduate school and started a new job at a small agricultural non-profit.  The job looked very promising from the outside, but once I peeked behind the emerald curtain, it was clear that something was rotten.

The board and the CEO were constantly at odds and the warring camps who could not come to terms about the direction the group should go.  Within a year, the organization split in half and I found myself without a job for the first time since I was 18.

Over the course of the next few months, I sent out hundreds of resumes, went on dozens of job interviews and nothing worked out.  My previous position was mid-level with a salary in the upper-30s, and I was searching for something similar.  Some employers told me that I was too qualified or that they couldn’t match my previous salary, others told me that I wasn’t qualified enough or that the bad press about my previous employer was too much to bear.

By the fall, I’d gained 30 lbs and lost all confidence in myself.  I was pretty sure that I wouldn’t find anything and that when my lease ended in December, I was going to be on the first plane home.  I was about to fail at my first choice profession, and as someone who started thinking about herself as a career woman in junior high school, I wasn’t sure how I would shoulder the shame of such a spectacular f**k up.  Especially one that left me with almost $125,000 in student loans.

Then, one day I sat down to look at the job listings, and there it was…the Congressman I had interned for two years earlier was looking for a Staff Assistant.

When I told people that I was applying for entry-level job, almost everyone told me that I was over-qualified for the position.  They warned me that I would get bored and wouldn’t like the work.  They told me that I taking the salary hit was suicidal.  And as far as they were concerned, I was taking a step backwards.

But to me, it didn’t feel like I was going in reverse.  I was abandoning a path with no clear purpose or direction for one at the bottom rung of a much more appealing ladder.

Working as a Staff Assistant wasn’t glamorous.  I made coffee, answered phones and sorted mail.  I gave constituent tours and supervised interns and compiled news clips.  And I worked weekends at a tanning salon to cover some of the financial deficit.  (Did I mention that this wasn’t a glamorous time in my life?)

Starting at the bottom allowed me to learn more about the political process.  It gave me a chance to prove that I could do the work, and helped me build a network of people who knew I was capable of pulling my weight.  I got promoted once.  Then, I got promoted again.  And I started to think about my career in terms of what I wanted from my future, not how could I put money in my bank account.

The lesson to be learned here is sometimes the key to moving forward is actually going backward.  After all, what do you do when you’re walking through a maze and you come to a dead-end?  You go back the way you came.

Almost failing let the air out of my ego and made me grateful just to have a job.  It also made me realize that every job, no matter how much bitch work is involved, is an opportunity to build your career.  There’s no shame in taking two steps back so that you can take your first step forward on the right path.


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  1. What an encouraging post about the reality of the world of career building and job searching. Thank you for sharing and I look forward to reading more posts like this one.

  2. G says:

    Love this! Thank you for sharing your story. I agree that failure is rarely mentioned and I find this very helpful. Keep up the great work!

  3. CH says:

    My company has been interviewing candidates for an open position, and something I’ve noticed is that most of them don’t have a good answer for a question like, “Describe a time you overcame a challenge” or “Talk about how you handle setbacks.” I wonder if part of the issue is hesitation to admit to “failure” in a situation where you’re competing for a job. But I don’t want to hear that the candidate has never struggled, I want to hear that they know how to manage obstacles and can learn from past mistakes with grace and maturity. Thanks for bringing up this topic!

    • Nina says:

      I interviewed interns recently and two of the three candidates had terrible answers for the “Describe a time you overcame a challenge” prompt. The one with the great answer demonstrated maturity and is getting the job. So TL;DR: I agree!

  4. Erin says:

    Belle, thank you. There’s not enough of this type of discussion going around. I spent 10 months in 2011 unemployed and it threw into relief just how much of my identity was wrapped up in my career. People, especially DC people, just aren’t sufficiently open about this. Thank you so much for being brave enough to talk about it.

  5. Terri says:

    Now, this is an honest account of what it is like to start building a career! Young women, we need to hear more about this perspective. Because there will be set backs, there will be trouble, and there will be mis-steps in all areas of career, financial decisions and personal life. Not nearly enough press or talk is about how circumtances don’t dictate your value, and that there is a time when you will have to gut it up and find ways to overcome. Thanks Belle, many many thanks. Great topic for discussion.

  6. Sofia says:

    Belle, thanks so much for sharing this experience. I had to go through something very similar to get to where I am today. In order to get a career in politics I had to quit my good-paying, but unfulfilling private sector job that I had for two years and left California for DC to do a $500/month stipend internship at a non-profit. I was draining my savings in order to live in DC and within two months I found a campaign back home to work on and eventually got a job in the state legislature.

    You’re absolutely right that sometimes you have to be willing to take something that is seen as a demotion if you want to move up in your career or change career paths!

  7. Les says:

    This couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks for sharing.

  8. LL says:

    Thank you so much for positing this. After working in two pretty mid-level jobs straight out of college with +$45K salaries, I found myself unemployed and desperately looking to get on the Hill. While everyone I had worked with told me I shouldn’t accept anything short of LA, everyone I was talking to on the Hill told me I would have to intern again (mind you I interned around 6 years ago).

    I ended up taking a Staff Assistant job to the horror of many of my friends, but I tried to think of it the same way as you – sometimes the bottom rung in the right career path is better the mid-rung in another career path (and honestly used your story as inspiration when I started second guessing myself). I’m happy to say just a few months later I’ve already been given a small portfolio of issues and love my office. I still get a little ego-bruise when old colleagues come into the office and assume I’m an LA, but I think this choice is really going to work out in the long run – Thanks Belle!

  9. Ashleigh says:

    Belle, thank you for this post. I originally came to this blog for ideas on workplace style, but I’ve stayed a reader because of the career advice in posts like this one.

  10. CAroline says:

    I really enjoyed this post. Thank you for sharing your career experiences. I agree that it is important for people to see how much others fail before they succeed!

  11. Emily says:

    Thanks for this Belle! I’m in the middle of job searching. I’ve been told over and over by my dad that I need find something paid but I have a vision of where I want to be and am willing to take a few months unpaid if I need to be.

  12. Elizabeth says:

    Thank you for opening this discussion, so refreshing and reassuring to hear from others who have struggled along the way. I often find myself frustrated with networking events and career panels because I have a hard time relating to their perfect success stories.

  13. Chloe says:


    Love this post! It rings very true to me. When I graduated college in ’09, I took on a paid internship, much to the confusion of everyone around me, because it was in the industry I knew I wanted. Three and a half years later at the same company (and just moved back to New England to start anew!), I have no doubt I made the right decision. Humility is everything, especially when you’re first starting out. Not many people realize or understand that!
    Thanks for such an insightful post.

  14. Young Esq. says:

    I think this is great advice, especially in today’s economy. A lot of my friends who I graduated law school with had trouble finding jobs and either had to do one of a few things: 1) tread water and intern/extern until something permanent opens up in a desired company/firm/geographic area, etc; 2) take a non-legal job; 3) take a job making less money than they were “worth.”

    What you learn along the way about yourself and what you really want to do makes the tough times worthwhile.

  15. Raquel says:

    Belle! I am so so glad you brought this up and were honest about where you started from!

  16. Ex Lehman employee says:

    Thank you so much for this post. As someone who lost her job of 4+ years in December, despite surviving several financial crises and the collapse of Lehman Brothers as her first job out of college, this post spoke to me. I feel like such a failure for not keeping my position and have had very little luck finding a permanent position, taking a temp job to pay the bills. Thank you for showing us there is no shame in starting over.

  17. Vanessa says:

    This was a great post and very timely for me. I’m currently in an unpaid internship after my paid internship ended this past December and two solid months of job hunting yielded nothing. I felt like I was going backward and that it might hurt my résumé, but I’m now at internship I love with the potential for permanent employment in the near future. It’s also at the other end of the spectrum from my Hill internship, giving me a totally new level of experience to add to my résumé.

  18. BBB says:

    Very interesting. While I always thought I would come to DC after I graduated in 2007, I loved the city I was living in at the time and decided to stay. After 1.5 years of non-profit experience and two years of campaign work, I was dismayed to find that my best option to break onto the Hill when I finally did move to DC in early 2011 was to do so as a staff assistant. I had been offered, and turned down, a staff assistant job 4 years earlier when I first graduated! I could hardly stomach that my 4 years of experience weren’t getting me any further ahead on the Hill – but it truly is its own world. I called on contacts and considered myself fortunate to land an LC job right out the gate. Still, I took a $20k pay cut, which was perhaps the hardest part to come to terms with. More than 2 years later, making the move and the brief setback in professional stature & salary was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

    I agree with you, Belle – we tend to gloss over unusual choices or mistakes we have made in our career. It’s refreshing to read so many women’s stories here in the comments.

  19. K says:

    This was so refreshing. My situation is very similar to a lot of other posters: Started in a low-paying job that had room for movement, have been successfull, love my field, etc. I think it’s so important as a young woman to remember that struggle is an neccessary part of accomplishment, and it often gets glossed over. So, thank you Belle!

  20. Kate says:

    Thank you, Belle. I have been considering a career change (one that would land me back at the bottom of the totem pole for a handful of years) and it’s been hard to work up the courage to take that leap. It’s really helpful to hear your story. Thank you for sharing!

  21. Anon says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  22. Dee says:

    As someone currently unemployed and using the last bit of savings to finish nighttime grad school, this post was JUST what I needed.I know where I want to be, but trying to get a foot in the door for months at a time (8 as of now) is exhausting and deflating. To be sure, I will appreciate this next job, even if it means taking 20 grand less than my last job!

  23. Anna S-A says:

    Belle, I have been reading CHS for the past six months. It started as an “every now and then” read and soon blossomed into a part of my regular morning coffee and newspapers routine. In January this year I resigned from my job as a solicitor in a major law firm – because, after 4 years, I knew it wasn’t the right place for me and that I needed different challenges and a different environment. Since being “funemployed” CHS has been less relevant to me and I have found myself checking in less. However, today I read this post and it came back to me just how fabulous you and your blog are. To me, this post, incapsulates the “hot topic” idea of “leaning in” (which I find very inspirational). In my experience “starting again” and “rebooting” are all part and parcel of the career process, and it is great to hear how it has worked out for you. You have clearly worked hard to have a fulfilling and worthwhile career (also, very inspirational). I only hope that one day I can write a story like this one. Thank you for your continued dedication to this blog, and to helping women!

  24. Anna O says:

    One of the best pieces of advice I got at university was to start looking at job ads, for the jobs you want in 3-5 years time, because there’s no point realising you want a job but aren’t qualified or can’t prove you are qualified. It’s paid dividends time & again & meant I’ve volunteered for lots of opportunities I might otherwise have thought I was too busy for!

  25. I just took my dream job, but it’s only part-time and I’ve been lamenting and lamenting about how backwards it feels. But it’s the perfect opportunity for me to learn and grow and comes at a time when we can swing it financially. Thanks for the encouragement to just dive in and do it!

  26. Robin says:

    Thank you for this post! I’m about to start my first full-time job, which gives me much less control than what I’m accustomed to and with relatively less money. However, I’m now in close proximity to organizations that I’d give a limb to work for and I now see this as an opportunity to get my foot in the door.

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