For most of my 20s I felt as if the universe would never operate quickly enough for me to get where I needed to be. (Years of interning and assisting can have that effect.) Now that I'm 32, I finally feel proud of where I am and feel more at peace with everything within, and out, of my control. Here's what I've learned in over a decade of working:
1. Coworkers are not your family, and never will be.
As close as you may feel to the people you interact with everyday, you're all working for a business and business is about the bottom line, not how great of a person you are.
2. Everyone gets a turn at the wheel.
I truly believe you can be competitive and be a good friend; it all comes down to your character and your self-confidence. As a friend, I'd never ask you to delay pursuing something you want and I'd never wish for you to fail. So, if you're my friend and we're competing for the same responsibilities -- let the best woman win. I'd rather lose to someone I respect than win an easy fight. If you're passionate, hardworking, and a good person, you'll get your turn.
3. A job is never worth your life.
No matter how much you love what you do and no matter how good you are at doing it, a job is impermanent; here today, gone tomorrow. Things that last longer than jobs: your health, your loved ones, your passions. I've witnessed grown, successful women get demeaned, undermined, and taken for granted by other women in the workplace. And I've seen them rationalize it - people would die to have this job, or would kill to work at this company, or but I worked so hard to get here. I've also seen young and old women alike spend all their waking hours on the job, convinced that it's the most important thing they'll ever do and meanwhile they lose friends and loved ones in the process. Refer back to #1.
4. You choose who you want to be everyday.
This goes for interns and CEOs and everyone in between. You choose to be the intern always willing to do the grunt work with a smile or the intern who'd rather be anywhere but here. You choose to be the manager who encourages and empowers or the manager who rules by fear. You choose to throw someone under the bus or shirk responsibility. You chose to take credit when it's due. You choose to be the wallflower or the loudest person in the room. Decide who you want to be and how you want to make others feel in the office: they are two things you'll always have control over.
5. Karma is real, burned bridges are not.
All the talk about being "blacklisted" and "burning bridges" scared the crap out of me when I was a post-grad. I was terrified of disappointing the wrong person and "never working in this town again." The truth is, you can piss people off and you can fuck up, but no one is beyond redemption (think James Frey, Lauren Weisberger). You will find work somewhere with someone. That said, reputations are sticky and karma is a bitch. What you put out in the universe, good or bad, does come back. Refer to #4.
6. There is no map for success.
In school it's pretty simple: study hard, get good grades, advance to the next level. At 24, I assumed work would be the same way. I was very, very wrong. Here's an easy exercise to illustrate what I mean: Look around your office and think about the individual experiences of each person there -- where did they go to school? Where did they work before this? Where did they grow up? Somehow, you all ended up in the same room.
7. Getting fired means as much as you let it.
I'll never forget the despondency I felt the day I was let go from a job. I was a hyperventilating, sick, shocked. When I was younger, I assumed that people who got fired were the kids who didn't study for the test -- the lazy person, the insubordinate person, and the talentless person. So when it happened to me, I believed that I was all of those things. Nonetheless, I picked myself back up and kept working. I've since met incredible people who've lost high-powered jobs and have rebuilt their careers.
8. Mentors are invaluable.
When the day comes when you question yourself and your abilities -- and it will -- the best thing you can draw upon is the memory of how someone who believed in you made you feel. I'm not talking about mom or dad or your boyfriend. I'm talking about someone you worked with who empowered you to take the reigns and was patient with your faults. That person's investment of time and encouragement will support you for years. Be sure to check in and say thank you often -- and to pay it forward.
9. Dream jobs can surprise you.
You may get to the place you've always wanted and realize it's not at all the right fit. And conversely, you may work someplace you never planned to in a position no one's ever heard of and be happier than you'd ever thought possible. So go ahead and make your plans, but know that there's absolutely no way to plan for the best things that happen to you.
10. Your definition of success will change.
At one point it can be all about the title, the money, the office space ... and at another it may be about how the job makes you feel, how much balance it offers, and how meaningful the work is. Success, by default, is fluid because there's no hard, fast way to get there. It evolves just as you do. Remember, no map, many surprises.
11. "It's a rat race and it sucks, Kenny."
Everything I wrote here can be summed up in the classic film "Don't Tell Mom the Babysitter's Dead" (see clip below). Someday the babysitter may die and you'll be left in charge. It's up to you to envision what you'll do when you get there, be ready when it happens, and play the game until it does. And unless you're a Hilton, Trump, or Kardashian, you do have to play.
WATCH: From "Don't Tell Mom, The Babysitter's Dead"