I spent this past holiday weekend with close friends who have three teenagers. I know when you hear teenagers, you think you know where this is going, but truly you don’t. They are three of the coolest teenagers I’ve ever met, so I was simultaneously taking copious notes and wholeheartedly grateful for friends who experience every parenting milestone before me and share the goods. Our "nieces and nephew" are smart, curious, interesting and interested in others around them.
They have their entire lives and careers ahead of them. I was so excited for them and their collective potential that I found myself giving a TED Talk at every turn. They humored me, even asked insightful questions, but to be honest—even I was tiring of the Rachel B Garrett Career Boot-Camp Intensive Weekend by day three. So on that day, I decided to chill the F out, ride a lawnmower tractor (when in the suburbs!) and get curious about my need for a career monologue.
It comes down to this: I don’t do regret anymore. That said, seeing these fresh faces and wide eyes, I wanted to give them all of the answers to the test. The secret shortcuts. The map to the landmines. All of the stuff I needed to figure out by failing and failing hard. Ironically, by spoon-feeding it to them, I would be robbing them of the opportunity to truly learn the lessons. Instead, I’ll distill them into themes I wish I knew when I was just starting out in my career…and we can see what happens from there.
1. We are in a time of inequality, but you can work to change it.
Growing up a privileged white girl, I was taught (and believed) we fought for and won equality on many fronts. My dad was an entrepreneur and on both sides of my family, self-made relatives were evidence to me that the American Dream was alive and well. What I neglected to see at the time was that all of these relatives were white men. When I, along with colleagues and friends, began to experience both overt and subtle gender discrimination in our early careers—even with our feminism primers in college—we were still nothing short of shocked. While I’m glad nobody sat me down to definitively tell me what was possible for me and what was not, some middle ground advice would have been helpful. I have a lot to learn in this process, but so far, my approach with my daughters and in my workshops has been, "Let me teach you the tools to advocate for yourself, be a leader and create your life with your choices…in the context of our patriarchal culture fraught with institutional bias." I’m fighting for a world where I don’t have to say things like this, but if you’re a woman, that may mean something as simple as smiling while negotiating and working through your discomfort with self-promotion, so you gain greater visibility in the organization. And for the professionals of color in my workshops, it’s listening to what they need, supporting them with the tools, and providing a safe space to talk through the inequity so they can be the leaders and change-makers in their organizations.
2. Growth is the new perfection.
You’ve heard me say this many times, but perfection is unattainable and is a pointless goal. Growth is the goal. It could look like a world where every failure and mistake is an opportunity to learn, or where there are no wrong decisions, or where we seek out roles that constantly challenge us to learn instead of settling in where we get comfy and stuck. I wish I knew or trusted this idea throughout the first part of my career. I was doing the same kind of digital marketing work over and over again—building new websites and digital experiences. I was hungry for growth, but it felt messy and uncomfortable. The opportunity to focus on growth also allows us to move at our own respective pace to get to our destinations. When growth is the goal, we need not compare ourselves to others in their own (often faster) processes, on their paths. Apples and oranges, friends—and not worth the time comparing.
3. Follow your curiosity.
In college I changed my major five times. FIVE TIMES! When I look back to that time with compassion, I realize there was an epic four-year battle between my curious and practical selves. I was prone to epiphanies (still am) and would let my new intrigue lead until my practical hammer came down to redirect my course. When my 5th and final major was chosen—Psychology—the exact same as my first, I secretly wished I was majoring in some kind of writing, but thought, "What are the chances that I could become a writer?" It seemed foolishly optimistic and full of myself. What I didn’t realize at the time was that a creative writing or journalism degree would have been a solid foundation for any number of careers—just as my psychology degree proved to be. And I could have spent all those college years solidly practicing a craft I love and have only late in life given myself the time and space to pursue.
4. Nurture self-awareness early and often.
Do your early due diligence to figure out who you are and what’s meaningful to you, and continue to ask those same questions as you change. Be courageous when what’s meaningful to you is not the popular thing. It’s what makes you, you! The earlier you develop this honing device, the greater clarity and confidence you can have in your decisions. The clues about who you are also may come from the most unlikely of messengers. I had an eye-opening moment in college, when I made a joke that something (I can’t even remember what) went against everything I stood for and one of my jackass guy friends (there were a few) commented, "You don’t stand for anything." While it felt like a gut-punch, in my sophomore year of navigating my social world, he wasn’t wrong. It prompted me to ask the questions, "What do I stand for? What’s important to me?" And that was another moment when I became involved in feminism, an ongoing thread in my career.
5. Humanity over hierarchy.
Early in my career, I got hung up on the differences between my VP’s and me. At the internal networking events I stayed with the people at my level and when I did break through and talk to more of the senior leaders—I’m not going to lie—I said some stupid shit. There were a few leaders along the way, with strong emotional intelligence, a clear generosity and a will to take their time in de-icing me—and those are the mentors and memories that stick with me. There was power in knowing I made a connection and saw above the fear that was holding me back. Sometimes I’ll spend a moment wishing I was able to do that more often early on, but I’m also grateful to have learned it in my career at all. I love how as a business owner, out of the hierarchy altogether, I’m able to see how unimportant hierarchical pretense is when it comes to human connection. We all want to be truly seen and heard—and if you can do that with the person next to you, your title is the last thing on anyone’s mind in that moment.
With at least three decades of career ahead of me (I’m planning a late retirement—if at all!), it’s a wonderful time to distill the lessons down to a plan I can follow and change over time. Most importantly, just as I no longer allow regret, I also practice releasing judgment for my younger self—especially when she changed her major yet again in her senior year. She/I/we were confused. But now, with greater clarity and confidence in who I am, when I address her with compassion, the lessons follow and I savor them as they come into focus.