Some of the most important lessons you learn during your first decade working in “the real world” come from one source: The school of hard knocks.
There are professional failures you can’t predict, opportunities that end up being too good to be true, and moments when you don’t live up to your potential.
Although they may seem career-ending in the moment, these workplace setbacks can prove their value over time.
In part, it’s because they are mistakes you’ll never forget or repeat.
We rounded up 10 tough career scenarios that often happen as you’re building your career in your 20s—along with expert advice on how to find the “silver lining” lessons within these career clouds.
#1: Your dream job is a dud.
It’s a common predicament: You nailed what you thought was the perfect gig—but your day-to-day hasn’t lived up to the hype or your lofty expectations.
That’s the situation Golda Manuel found herself in when, at 28, she scored a pharmacist position at a health care company in San Francisco.
“My attraction to the job was the breadth of impact I thought I could have, but there was no time to focus on one customer—it was very impersonal,” recalls Manuel. “I expected it to make me happy and earn me respect. Boy, was I wrong.”
The Silver Lining Lesson: This kind of career reality check can inspire soul-searching—and ultimately lead you in an unexpected, more satisfying direction.
Take Manuel, who cofounded Social Scout, an app that helps small business sellers succeed on Amazon—a complete 180 from her pharmacist gig.
“I’m now able to speak to fellow small business owners to understand their growing pains, and work in a community with a common goal and purpose,” she says.
A dream job’s letdown is also a reminder not to assume any one thing will make you happy—be it a job or a purchase.
Cheryl Palmer, founder of Washington, D.C., coaching firm Call to Career, emphasizes setting realistic expectations from the get-go for any job—even those purported “dream gigs.”
So instead of being bummed that your job isn’t as fast-paced as you’d hoped it would be, for example, look at it from the viewpoint that you can channel that energy toward networking and getting more involved with industry events.
“I encourage clients to find as much job satisfaction as they can while still being realistic,” Palmer says. To keep the pros and cons in perspective, she recommends regularly taking the pulse on your job satisfaction. If it’s at 80%, you’re doing pretty well—but if it dips to 40%, it may be time to move on.
#2: You didn’t adequately prep for an interview.
You’re burned out from months of job hunting. You’re overconfident. You’re just not that into the position—but you need a job.
Whatever the reason, not knowing enough about a company, a role or the person interviewing you leaves an equally poor impression.
That’s what happened to Karen Robertson. At 21 she felt overqualified for a telemarketing job but needed the income. “I was about to get my [teaching] degree, and I was arrogant,” she says. “I felt like any fool could do the job—and it came off that way in the interview.”
Needless to say, she didn’t get the gig.
The Silver Lining Lesson: An interview requires your valuable time—and someone else’s. Flubbing it takes you down a few notches.
So how do you save face?
“Send a thank-you note, anyway,” suggests Rosalinda Randall, a career etiquette expert and author of Don’t Burp in the Boardroom. “I believe there’s value in acknowledging that you were unprepared, and that with the research you’ve done now, you would be grateful for another opportunity.”
Doing your homework is just as important when networking.
Toronto-based career and leadership coach Kamara Toffolo once confidently approached an exec at a financial services conference to introduce herself. It went well—until she introduced herself again later in the day.
His response? “You’re in a business where you need to remember names.” Ouch.
“I am now an expert at remembering faces and names,” she says. “It’s a skill that has served me very well.” In fact, Toffolo graciously apologized for her error and, years later, that same man gave her a job.
#3: You were too eager to say yes.
An “I’ll do it!” attitude can build a reputation as a team player—until you find yourself in danger of seriously dropping the ball.
“This is a classic symptom of being a people pleaser, and something that many of us run into early in our careers,” says Toffolo.
The Silver Lining Lesson: Biting off more than you can chew reflects some admirable qualities, like ambition and initiative. But long-term success also depends on learning to set expectations and ask clarifying details, whether it’s related to deadlines, process or resources.
“It’s perfectly acceptable to say to someone that you will check or look into something before assuring them it can be done,” Toffolo says.
Understanding why a project left you unprepared can also highlight professional areas of improvement. So take this as an opportunity to assess where you may need more training—and then make a plan for how to brush up on those skills.
#4: You got passed over for a promotion—or laid off.
Sometimes you can go above and beyond what’s asked of you—and still get overlooked. Or, worse yet, you can get laid off unexpectedly, despite putting in your best effort.
If you don’t get a coveted promotion, Toffolo says you should use it as motivation to be more proactive.
“Getting passed over means you should keep doing a great job, but with the addition of asking for more responsibility and involvement,” she says. Once you’ve built a strong case, speak up for that promotion you’ve worked so hard to demonstrate you deserve.
The Silver Lining Lesson: While fortune does favor the bold, keep in mind that you can’t control all the factors influencing your office or your industry at large.
A pattern of being passed over, however, can signal that it’s time to take a step back and consider a professional pivot.
As for being blindsided by a layoff? Don’t take it personally, says Toffolo. instead, take action to keep moving forward.
For Amanda Rose, 34, being laid off from a corporate gig led her to launch her own business, the matchmaking firm Dating Boutique. Rose says the experience taught her that not getting what you want in your career can be more valuable than getting it.
“Your success is determined by your mind-set, your will and your work ethic—not someone else,” adds Rose.
#5: You have a nightmare boss.
“Unfortunately, in my experience, bad bosses are more plentiful than good bosses,” Palmer says.
So the better you can learn to peacefully coexist with people you don’t enjoy, the less you’ll be impacted by them—both in and out of the office.
The Silver Lining Lesson: Don’t try to “solve” the boss. Instead, learn how to manage your reactions, and work within the conditions you face—assuming, of course, that the boss isn’t violating human resources laws.
“Keep your interactions on topic and to the point. Always use a civil tone, even if your boss does not. Avoid whining or forming a bash-the-boss clique,” advises Randall. “In other words, don’t give them anything to use against you.”
Ultimately, a bad boss can teach you behaviors to avoid and help you envision the kind of leader you want to become.
#6: You scored a high paying job—and hate it.
In a TEDTalk about motivation at work, behavioral economist Dan Ariely explains that most of us need to feel a sense of continual progress and purpose to stay motivated.
That’s one reason why the initial high of landing a lucrative gig may quickly become the new normal and leave you feeling dissatisfied.
The Silver Lining Lesson: Don’t get us wrong—money is an important part of a job. It impacts when you can reach the financial goals that will deliver on the quality of life you desire. And what you earn now determines what you’ll command in your next gig.
But just as the thrill of a shopping spree wears off quickly, so does the elation of a high salary when the professional rewards are otherwise sparse.
Recognizing that income itself has a limited impact on how you feel each day can encourage you to reevaluate future opportunities with more honesty about what you really value and want in a job.
For instance, would you rather take a pay cut but report to an inspiring manager? Or bring home more dough but have to clock long days because of a competitive environment that prioritizes face time?
“A great work environment, work-life balance, room for growth, and a supportive corporate culture are all part of the motivation equation,” Toffolo says.
#7: You covered up a mistake when you should have come clean.
Even the most seasoned professionals sometimes make a misstep—and not recognizing and being honest about this can telegraph immaturity and insecurity.
Shoving something under the rug may leave you feeling anxious—and you’ll have a lot more explaining to do if and when your boss finds out.
The Silver Lining Lesson: Instead of trying to wish away an error, when you do finally fess up, Randall recommends making no excuses and placing no blame.
Simply let the boss know that you have learned from the experience, and suggest what you would do differently the next time.
She also advises asking your boss two questions to smooth over any rough waters: “How can I make this right?” and “What can I do to minimize the damage?”
#8: You blew a big presentation.
Public-speaking groups like Toastmasters exist for a reason: Presenting is a skill—and not one that comes naturally for most.
Bombing in front of a live audience can happen to the best of us—politicians, Oscar winners, C.E.O.’s, and athletes included. We have YouTube to prove it.
But while giving a lackluster presentation isn’t a professional habit you want to repeat, it’s not a career-ending gaffe either.
The Silver Lining Lesson: “Consider why your presentation went wrong, and what you could/should have done differently that would have led to a better outcome,” Palmer says.
Did you need more time, more information, more practice, or do you simply need to brush up on your public-speaking confidence? All of this can be solved for, so you don’t repeat your presentation faux pas.
“I also recommend meeting with your boss to apologize,” Randall says. “Leave out the list of excuses and ask for an honest critique. Even if it hurts, listen, consider and apply what you’ve learned.”
#9: You’re friends (or enemies!) with the wrong coworkers.
You spend a lot of hours at the office, and it can be more fun when you’re among friends—but if too many conversations center on inappropriate office gossip, you risk calling your judgment into question.
It’s not always easy to spot the “good eggs” from those who are insincere or who have a bad reputation that could tarnish yours. And if you’ve made professional enemies, their impressions could come back to haunt you later in your career.
The Silver Lining Lesson: Letting your guard down too much in the workplace presents a challenge—but also a great opportunity to redefine who you want to be professionally moving forward.
So seek out positive role models at work—and begin respectfully limiting the amount of time you spend with the “wrong crowd.”
As for people whom you’ve rubbed the wrong way, “talk to them and let them know that you want a fresh start,” urges Palmer. “It will take some time to rebuild the relationship, but it’s better to do that than to have to expect a knife in your back.”
#10: You disagreed with your boss—in the open.
Let’s say your manager invites you to share a project’s findings at a meeting attended by lots of company bigwigs.
Your presentation goes off without a hitch: The attendees are interested, asking questions and discussing ideas that may be important to keep the project’s momentum moving forward.
Then your boss makes a proposal but you don’t agree. And you say so. And just like that, the high-energy meeting goes to … crickets. You misread the room—and your place in it.
Bottom line: There’s a fine and sometimes ambiguous line between sharing opinions and speaking out of turn.
The Silver Lining Lesson: Learning to edit yourself is a key ingredient in the recipe for professional success. Your way isn’t the only approach—and you can’t always be the star.
When you’ve spoken publicly against your boss, Palmer says damage control is priority number one.
“Explain that you are still getting acclimated to the work world, and you realize that you were wrong to air your differences in a forum like that,” she says. “Then reassure your boss that it will never happen again.”
In the future, if you feel strongly that your suggestion is warranted, wait to bring it up with your boss in a more private setting—and weigh how best to broach the matter.
It’s a long climb up the corporate ladder, and there’s more payoff to being a supportive team player than an always-on self-promoter.
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