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.