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Three Pieces of Career Advice I Wish I’d Been Given in School

The transition from university to the workplace is bumpy for many people. It was for me.

In college or graduate school, you are the client. School is set up to serve you—to nurture your interests and your social life, impart knowledge into your brain, and help you find your place in the world. In some workplaces, you may find some or all these benefits, but the bottom line is different.

At work – even in companies deeply committed to investing in their employees – the client is someone else. It’s no longer just about you. And the skillsets and strategies for successfully navigating the professional world to ensure a job meets your needs, builds your expertise, and puts you in the direction you want to go – are fundamentally different.

After years of hiring, training, and mentoring early twenty-somethings, I have seen how steep the learning curve can be, particularly for very bright people used to succeeding in an academic environment. Nearly three years of remote work, school, and internships have only made it steeper.

Here are three pieces of advice I wish I had been given before starting life as a full-time professional.

First, tangible skills are way more important than prestigious titles.

From a young age, so many of us are hard-wired to seek out the highest status opportunities—to attend the “best” school, win the “most prestigious” fellowship, or claim the “highest esteemed” internship or afterschool activity.

The brands that appear on your resume might help you land a job interview, but the skills you can offer a workplace are what differentiate you once you are at the table, and more importantly, what will help you thrive once you are in the door.

Few early career professionals are valuable to an organization because of what is on their resume, but many are invaluable because of the hard skills they have learned, whether those include writing, coding, subject matter expertise, a language, or organizational talents.

Find a job that will put you in a position to acquire skills that will quickly make you invaluable to your organization and others you will work for in the future. This will open infinitely more doors for you than the name of the company or the title on your resume.

Second, think long-term about relationships.

When you are young, it is easy to forget how long your career might be. Odds are, you will see the people you work with—whether co-workers, clients, vendors, or consultants—again. And again. And again. Industries and cities are often much smaller than you think.

Everyone you meet is important – and every professional interaction you have with someone is not just about that specific exchange, but also about the dozens that will occur in the future, in many cases when one or both of you are working at different organizations.

You should carefully consider the long-term impact of how you treat people and how people see you. Help those around you out when you can. Do favors. Give folks the benefit of the doubt. Go above and beyond. Don’t always be so invested in getting the better end of any specific negotiation or interaction. Instead, have a view of the long-term relationship.

If you nourish the ecosystem around you and plant seeds in the form of strong relationships, your career and network will grow.

Third, networking is not just about who you meet, but how you meet.

The most important professional opportunities usually come from people who can witness the value that you add, and not just those who just shake your hand.

Whether you are working in public relations or politics, Hollywood or science, it is not enough to simply be in the same room as people who can help you. You want to be in a position to show them your skills demonstrate your ability to add value, solve problems, and get things done. Prioritize roles that give you these opportunities and work to put yourself in situations where you can do this as early as possible in your career.

Many students will not know what they want to be after college or graduate school. That is to be expected. While you shouldn’t stress about not having a perfectly fleshed out career roadmap, you should stress about acquiring meaningful professional skills, experiences, and contacts as quickly as possible. The foundation you build in your twenties is critical for professional success.