From choosing love over our career goals to not negotiating, there are so many career mistakes that young women make.
When we are in our 20s, we are at a very vulnerable state in our lives. For some of us, we just finished college, are working at our first “real" jobs, and we are even starting families. Through the midst of it all, we tend to make simple mistakes as it relates to our careers. Since I graduated from undergrad, I've made plenty of the same mistakes that my female friends have made. I cringe now when I think of them from time to time, but now that I know better, I try my best to do better.
Recently, I was able to connect with a few girl bosses in various careers and personal backgrounds. Each woman shared their biggest career mistake and what they learned from it. Whether you are a graduating college senior, just starting out on your own, or a 20-something woman that is already working, you will be able to benefit from the wisdom of each of the boss women below. Each woman shared her own career mistake and how they've managed to get in formation (slay girl, slay!)
1. Sheena Allen (@whoisSheena)
Entrepreneur & Founder of Sheena Allen Apps & Insta Funds
Learn when to ask for help.
"My biggest career mistake in my 20s was thinking that I could do it all on my own. I started my first tech company as a solo founder and actually waited a good amount of time before seeking mentorship or a team to help in growing my company. I learned that it is important to have a great team in order to build a great company. Trying to do everything on your own will tire and stress you out, which only leads to hurting your company."
2. Troy Washington (@thetroyla)
On-Air News Reporter for KSLA
Have faith in yourself over everyone & everything else.
"I vowed that I would keep this mistake between myself and the reporter who found me bawling my eyes out in the restroom but if it helps someone else out in their career then I suppose the embarrassment is worth it. It took a nightmare live shot during the evening news to teach me that you shouldn't depend on technology. No matter how confident you are in your smartphone, keep a backup plan!
"I was reporting live on a complicated story, the anchor tossed my phone to me and my iPhone cancelled out of my notes. I spent the entire shot stumbling and trying to open the note in my phone. Finally to no avail I tossed the phone back to the anchors feeling defeated. To top it off a viewer came up to me right after and said "got a little tongue tied there at 5." I was mortified. Now no matter how simple or complex the story is I don't complicate things or depend on anything else. I rely on old fashioned pen, pad, bullet points, and what I know. This taught me to trust myself instead of a flimsy note in my phone.
"Believe it or not that moment built my confidence because I knew I could never repeat that mistake. In essence falling on my face has always delivered the best lessons. That was one of my first live shots and I've done hundreds more since then but I'll never forget that one. That's the one that humbled me, it hurt, and taught me that I never wanted to experience it again. In TV, you'll make mistakes and that's inevitable because you're human and likely those mistakes will be broadcasted, but as long as you don't repeat those mistakes, you'll be fine."
3. Shay Lawson (@ShayMLawson )
Diversity Professional & Attorney
Stay hopeful, be fearless, & focus on you.
"I have quite a few career mistakes that comes to mind, but this one sticks out the most:
"When you start working, you need to negotiate. Women make $0.79 for every $1 a man makes, often because men demand more. I didn't even know this was an option when I was in my twenties and in talking to my girlfriends they all agreed that they wish they had negotiated for a higher salary in their first few jobs. I know that's not something most young women are comfortable doing, but men do it ALL THE TIME!!!
"Do the research, know how much people at the job and experience level make, and also come prepared to explain why you want what you're asking be it for relocation, for cost of living, etc. Once you've been offered a job, don't worry you will lose the offer. You're not being petty over pennies, you're getting what you're worth."
4. Emily Drewry (@emily.drewry)
Assistant Social Media Editor at Forbes
Never let the world drown out your voice.
"My biggest mistake thus far has been holding back my thoughts in the workplace because I lacked confidence. As a 22-year-old in my first role out of school, I would frequently wait to bring ideas to the table until I was 100% sure they were good and would be successful. At a certain point, my boss sat me down and told me that I needed to stop focusing on my age and let the ideas speak for themselves.
"It's harder than it sounds to forget about seniority and structure at the office, but doing so let me shine so much more -- and perform better in my role. I try to remember that every day is a new opportunity to prove my skills, and I can't do that without speaking up."
5. Gia Peppers (@giapeppers)
Freelance Entertainment Journalist & On Air Talent (portfolio includes the NBA, BET, ESSENCE, Hot 97 & more)
Be faithful & fearless to YOURSELF.
"I've learned a lot in the first five years of my 20s. The top thing I want other young women to know is that an internship doesn't guarantee a job & you should be loyal to you. In college, I interned almost every semester to make sure I knew exactly what I wanted to do in radio and/or TV. When I graduated, my resume was stacked with "experience." I just KNEW everyone was going to be knocking at my door (or LinkedIn page) with opportunities. But, after I got all my cookout celebrations out of the way, I still had no offers and had to take a job outside of my field to start paying back loans. I hated it. I would go in the bathroom and cry.
"BUT, the resources I had-- like a laptop and overnight car service-- motivated me to work all hours of the night to ensure I would not be there longer than one year. Every moment you have is meant to prepare you for the next one. Do your best in that moment and learn all you can. And, don't be surprised if no one calls you RIGHT after you graduate. It takes a job to get a job. Once you get that job, be loyal to YOU. Our parents grew up in a time when you could stay at one company for 20 years and move up to make more money and gain experience within the company. Unfortunately, our generation doesn't have that security. In many fields, companies barely pay full salaries with benefits. In fact, many of these same companies don't offer raises until an employee threatens to leave. Have your own brand. Make yourself irreplaceable and save for rainy days. In this economic climate, you will probably have some."
6. Nicaila (Caila) Matthews (@CailaKSpeaks)
Senior Manager of Social Marketing at NPR, Founder of CailaKSpeaks.com
Setbacks are temporary. Comebacks create legends.
"My biggest career mistake in my 20s was believing that a job at a big media conglomerate would guarantee happiness and career growth. I was lured by the brand's name and glitzy reputation, but I did not take the time to assess how it aligned with my career goals. Two years and one horrible boss later, I ended up quitting my first job out of college and going through a frustrating period of unemployment, having to move back home, and feeling like a failure. I bounced back by starting to side hustle as a blogger and freelance writer, which led me to my calling as a digital and content marketer.
"If you're reading this and experiencing the same feelings of disappointment and confusion that I did, take the time to assess what you want from your career and life and write down three things you plan to do to get there. I worked at an unrelated job for one and a half years while I hustled to get to the next stage of my career, and ended up living with my parents for three years (two years longer than I planned). In the end I know you'll be happier and that much closer to fulfilling your authentic purpose on this earth. This low point in my career would later propel me into social media marketing and drive me to get my MBA. As I learned from my experience, sometimes you have to take a step backward before you can move forward in pursuit of your goals."
7. Sidnee Michelle Douyon (@sidmich_)
Editorial Operations Assistant at Forbes, and Music and Entertainment Writer/Reporter
Never let your insecurities get in the way.
"My biggest career mistake I've made in my 20's would be second guessing myself. There were times I was hesitant and even shied away from going after certain opportunities and interviews because I thought I didn't have what it takes to execute at 100%. I learned that you have to always go for what you want, especially in your career.
"If you let the fear of failure or your insecurities keep you from going after what you deserve than you'll never reach the heights of your potential. If I could go back in time to prepare myself for the struggles I went through, I wouldn't do anything different but develop a personal confidence within myself early on and really use that as a driving factor to push me forward in my career. Fast forward, I've definitely evolved into a much more confident journalist. Before I even execute an interview or gain an opportunity, I go into it like I know I'm going to "kill this." I also have evolved my work ethic to align with a 'newfound career confidence' where I put in the work & research to be able to go into an assignment or interview 100% confident and prepped."
8. Melissa Kimble (@Melissa_Kimble)
Senior Social Media Manager at EBONY, Leader of The#blkcreatives
Know when to walk away & when to stay.
"The biggest mistake I've made is giving away my power. Anytime my true value wasn't recognized or my energy was being depleted in situations that didn't fulfill or honor me, I should have made the decision to walk away from those things sooner.
"If you're constantly giving away your power, you're living in a place of fear and fear destroys everything, especially your chance to succeed and build the career life you really want for yourself."
9. Ariel Lopez (@ArielLopez__)
Founder of 2020Shift
Try to make the most out of every situation & be the best.
"The biggest mistake I made was making a leap before I was ready (I was 22 at the time) I was working full time at a staffing firm and also on a startup idea when I was presented with an opportunity to work from home. I immediately thought that this is was a dream situation. Make money and have more time to work on my own thing- why not? Unfortunately the position fell through within a month's time and I had to scramble to figure out how to make it. I went through a super rough time and almost had to move back home (nightmare) but was able to land something a few months later. I learned that you can't try to game the system. I wasn't taking the position to give 100% effort to them, I was using them as a catalyst to get my own thing off the ground (bad karma). It also taught me to really think things through before making life altering decisions. I wasn't financially prepared to sustain myself and my expenses if my job didn't work out.
"Ultimately, I took a risk on leaving something stable to pursue the unknown, but I think it paid off. That experience fueled me to do it all over again, just better. I actually don't believe in mistakes, just lessons learned. I recently took the leap again, but this time I had things aligned differently. Since then, I've evolved a ton as entrepreneur and also as a career coach. I'm able to advise people on their careers because of my personal experience. It's also showed me that if I can bounce back once I could do it twice. I'm unafraid because I know what I'm capable of."
10. Emmelie De La Cruz (@EmmelieDeLaCruz)
Author of Make Yourself Marketable & Personal Branding Strategist
Your personal brand is more important than you may think.
"The biggest career mistake I made was believing that I needed the right credentials to be an expert. Have you heard of Malala? Imagine if she censored herself because she considered herself too young and her story insignificant. We wouldn't have the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner. Our personal brand is a combination of our personality, skill sets, and the value we create for others.
"It is all about who we are, what we do and how others perceive us through those in-person and digital interactions. Building your personal brand inside and outside the workplace is necessary to accelerate your career. Our insecurities around self-promotion, our credentials, and contributions will disappear when we understand that the stakes for us to succeed as a sisterhood are so high that we are almost forced to tell our story for the sake of being a resource to someone else. We have an important story that needs to be told and heard. The unique combination of your personal and professional experience, your skills and accomplishments already make you an expert."
11. Tola Lawal (@tola617)
Entrepreneur & Founder of SixOne7Creative
Never let them see you sweat or lose your cool.
"One of my biggest career mistakes was bringing my emotions to work. In my early 20's I let a co-worker take me out of my professional element and I went OFF in the office. My bosses and co-workers were SHOCKED! I was a great employee and most times I ignored the tomfoolery but at that point I was fed up. As busy as I was supporting a number of senior level executives, I didn't have time. But that day... that day, I had time. But after I lit the office up, I was SO embarrassed. After this mistake, I learned a few things. I learned the importance of a poker face, and that most of what goes on at work is not personal. Don't take any of it personally. If there is an issue, go to your immediate boss, and if that doesn't resolve the issue, take it to Human Resources.
"BUT don't EVER give someone the satisfaction of taking you out of your calm which can result in you embarrassing yourself. Since that mistake, I don't take much personally. There is always going to be someone, something, that ruffles your feathers at work. Be like a duck and keep calm. Don't let anything get to you, and if it does, vent in private. Vent to your accountability partners, your friends, but NEVER, EVER at work."
Featured image by Shay M. Lawson
Originally published December 9, 2017
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Brittani Hunter is a proud PVAMU alumni and the founder of The Mogul Millennial, a business and career platform for Black Millennials. Meet Brittani on Twitter and on the Gram at @BrittaniLHunter and @mogulmillennial.
Amber Riley Is In Her Element
Amber Riley has the type of laugh that sticks with you long after the raspy, rhythmic sounds have ceased. It punctuates her sentences sometimes, whether she’s giving a chuckle to denote the serious nature of something she just said or throwing her head back in rip-roarious laughter after a joke. She laughs as if she understands the fragility of each minute. She chooses laughter often with the understanding that future joy is not guaranteed.
Credit: Ally Green
The sound of her laughter is rivaled only by her singing voice, an emblem of the past and the future resilience of Black women stretched over a few octaves. On Fox’s Glee, her character Mercedes Jones was portrayed, perhaps unfairly, as the vocal duel to Rachel Berry (Lea Michele), offering rough, full-throated belts behind her co-star’s smooth, pristine vocals. Riley’s always been more than the singer who could deliver a finishing note, though.
Portraying Effie White, she displayed the dynamic emotions of a song such as “And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going” in Dreamgirls on London’s West End without buckling under the historic weight of her predecessors. With her instrument, John Mayer’s “Gravity” became a religious experience, a belted hymnal full of growls and churchy riffs. In her voice, Nicole Scherzinger once said she heard “the power of God.”
Credit: Ally Green
Riley’s voice has been a staple throughout pop culture for nearly 15 years now. Her tone has become so distinguishable that most viewers of Fox’s The Masked Singer recognized the multihyphenate even before it was revealed that she was Harp, the competition-winning, gold-masked figure with an actual harp strapped to her back.
Still, it wasn’t until recently that Riley began to feel like she’d found her voice. This sounds unbelievable. But she’s not referring to the one she uses on stage. She’s referencing the voice that speaks to who she is at her core. “Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind,” the 37-year-old says. “It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women. I got so comfortable in [doing so], and I really want other people, especially Black women, to get more comfortable in that space.”
“Therapy kind of gave me the training to speak my mind. It’s not something we’re taught, especially as Black women."
If you ask Riley’s manager, Myisha Brooks, she’ll tell you the foundation of who the multihyphenate is hasn’t changed much since she was a kid growing up in Compton. “She is who she is from when I met her back when she was singing in the front of the church to back when she landed major roles in film and TV,” Brooks says. Time has allowed Riley to grow more comfortable, giving fans a more intimate glimpse into her life, including her mental health journey and the ins and outs of show business.
The actress/singer has been in therapy since 2019, although she suffered from depression and anxiety way before that. In a recent interview with Jason Lee, she recalls having suicidal ideation as a kid. By the time she started seeing a psychologist and taking antidepressants in her thirties, her body had become jittery, a physical reminder of the trauma stacked high inside her. “I was shaking in [my therapist’s] office,” she tells xoNecole. “My fight or flight was on such a high level. I was constantly in survival mode. My heart was beating fast all the time. All I did was sweat.”
There wasn’t just childhood trauma to account for. After auditioning for American Idol and being turned away by producers, Riley began working for Ikea and nearly missed her Glee audition because her car broke down on the highway while en route. Thankfully, Riley had been cast to play Mercedes Jones. American Idol had temporarily convinced her she wasn’t cut out for the entertainment industry, but this was validation that she was right where she belonged. Glee launched in 2009 with the promise of becoming Riley’s big break.
In some ways, it was. The show introduced Riley to millions of fans and catapulted her into major Hollywood circles. But in other ways, it became a reminder of the types of roles Black women, especially those who are plus-sized, are relegated to. Behind the scenes, Riley says she fought for her character "to have a voice" but eventually realized her efforts were useless. "It finally got to a point where I was like, this is not my moment. I'm not who they're choosing, and this is just going to have to be a job for me for now," she says. "And, that's okay because it pays my bills, I still get to be on television, I'm doing more than any other Black plus-sized women that I'm seeing right now on screen."
The actress can recognize now that she was navigating issues associated with trauma and low self-esteem at the time. She now knows that she's long had anxiety and depression and can recognize the ways in which she was triggered by how the cult-like following of the show conflicted with her individual, isolated experiences behind the scenes. But she was in her early '20s back then. She didn't yet have the language or the tools to process how she was feeling.
Riley says she eventually sought out medical intervention. "When you're in Hollywood, and you go to a doctor, they give you pills," she says, sharing a part of her story that she'd never revealed publicly before now. "[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that's not fixing my problem. If anything, it's making it worse."
“[I was] on medication and developing a habit of medicating to numb, not understanding I was developing an addiction to something that’s not fixing my problem. If anything it’s making it worse.”
Credit: Ally Green
At one point, while in her dressing room on set, she rested her arm on a curling iron without realizing it. It wasn't until her makeup artist alerted her that she even realized her skin was burning. Once she noticed, she says she was "so zonked out on pills" that she barely reacted. Speaking today, she holds up her arm and motions towards a scar that remains from the incident. She sought help for her reliance on the pills, but it would still be years before she finally attended therapy.
This stress was only compounded by the trauma of growing up in poverty and the realities of being a "contract worker." "Imagine going from literally one week having to borrow a car to get to set to the next week being on a private jet to New York City," she says. After Glee ended, so did the rides on private planes. The fury of opportunities she expected to follow her appearance on the show failed to materialize. She wasn't even 30 yet, and she was already forced to consider if she'd hit her career peak.
. . .
We’re only four minutes into our Zoom call before Riley delivers her new adage to me. “My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway,” she says.
On this Thursday afternoon in April, the LA-based entertainer is seated inside her closet/dressing room wearing a cerulean blue tank top with matching shorts and eating hot wings. This current phase of healing hinges on balance. It’s about having discipline and consistency, but not at the risk of inflexibility. She was planning to head to the gym, for instance, but she’s still tired from the “exhausting” day before. Instead, she’s spent her day receiving a massage, eating some chicken wings, and planning to spend quality time with friends. “I’m not going to beat myself up for it. I’m not going to talk down to myself. I’m going to eat my chicken wings, and then tomorrow I’m [back] in the gym,” she says.
“My new mantra is ‘humility does not serve me.’ Humility does not serve Black women. The world works so hard to humble us anyway."
This is the balance with which she's been approaching much of her life these days. It's why she's worried less about whether or not people see her as someone who is humble. She'd rather be respected. "I think you should be a person that's easy to work with, but in the moments where I have to ruffle feathers and make waves, I'm not shying away from that anymore. You can do it in love, you don't have to be nasty about it, but I had to finally be comfortable with the fact that setting boundaries around my life – in whatever aspect, whether that's personal or business – people are not going to like it. Some people are not going to have nice things to say about you, and you gotta be okay with it," she says.
When Amber talks about the constant humbling of Black women in Hollywood, I think of the entertainers before her who have suffered from this. The brilliant, consistent, overqualified Black women who have spoken of having to fight for opportunities and fair pay. Aretha Franklin. Viola Davis. Tracee Ellis Ross. There's a long list of stars whose success hasn't mirrored their experiences behind the scenes.
Credit: Ally Green
If Black women outside of Hollywood are struggling to decrease the pay gap, so, too, are their wealthier, more famous peers.
Riley says there’s been progress in recent years, but only in small ways and for a limited group of people. “This business is exhausting. The goalpost is constantly moving, and sometimes it’s unfair,” she says. But, I have to say it’s the love that keeps you going.”
“There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman,” she continues. “We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
"There’s no way you can continue to be in this business and not love it, especially being a plus-sized Black woman. We’re still niche. We’re still not main characters.”
Last year, Riley starred alongside Raven Goodwin in the Lifetime thriller Single Black Female (a modern, diversified take on 1992’s Single White Female). It was more than a leading role for the actress, it also served as proof that someone who looks like her can front a successful project without it hinging on her identity. It showcased that the characters she portrays don’t “have to be about being a big girl. It can just be a regular story.”
Riley sees her work in music as an extension of her efforts to push past the rigid stereotypes in entertainment. Take her appearance on The Masked Singer, for instance. Riley said she decided to perform Mayer’s “Gravity” after being told she couldn’t sing it years earlier. “I wanted to do ‘Gravity’ on Glee. [I] was told no, because that’s not a song that Mercedes would do,” she says. “That was a full circle moment for me, doing that on that show and to hear what it is they had to say.”
As Scherzinger praised the “anointed” performance, a masked Riley began to cry, her chest heaving as she stood on stage, her eyes shielded from view. “You have to understand, I have really big names – casting directors, producers, show creators – that constantly tell me ‘I’m such a big fan. Your talent is unmatched.’ Hire me, then,” she says, reflecting on the moment.
Recently, she’s been in the studio working on original music, the follow-up to her independently-released debut EP, 2020’s Riley. The sequel to songs such as the anthemic “Big Girl Energy” and the reflective ballad “A Moment” on Riley, this new project hones in on the singer’s R&B roots with sensual grooves such as the tentatively titled “All Night.” “You said I wasn’t shit, turns out that I’m the shit. Then you called me a bitch, turns out that I’m that bitch. You said no one would want me, well you should call your homies,” she sings on the tentatively titled “Lately,” a cut about reflecting on a past relationship. From the forthcoming project, xoNecole received five potential tracks. Fans likely already know the strengths and contours of Riley’s vocals, but these new songs are her strongest, most confident offerings as an artist.
“I am so much more comfortable as a writer, and I know who I am as an artist now. I’m evolving as a human being, in general, so I’m way more vulnerable in my music. I’m way more willing to talk about whatever is on my mind. I don’t stop myself from saying what it is I want to say,” she says.
Credit: Ally Green
“Every era and alliteration of Amber, the baseline is ‘Big Girl Energy.’ That’s the name of her company,” her manager Brooks says, referencing the imprint through which Riley releases her music after getting out of a label deal several years ago. “It’s just what she stands for. She’s not just talking about size, it’s in all things. Whether it’s putting your big girl pants on and having to face a boardroom full of executives or sell yourself in front of a casting agent. It’s her trying to achieve the things she wants to do in life.”
Riley says she has big dreams beyond releasing this new music, too. She’d love to star in a rom-com with Winston Duke. She hasn't starred in a biopic yet, but she’d revel in the opportunity to portray Rosetta Tharpe on screen. She’s determined that her previous setbacks won’t stop her from dreaming big.
“I think one of my superpowers is resilience because, at the end of the day, I’m going to kick, scream, cry, cuss, be mad and disappointed, but I’m going to get up and risk having to deal with it all again. It’s worth it for the happy moments,” she says.
If Riley seems more comfortable and confident professionally, it’s because of the work she’s been doing in her personal life.
She’d previously spoken to xoNecole about becoming engaged to a man she discovered in a post on the site, but she called things off last year. For Valentine’s Day, she revealed her new boyfriend publicly. “I decided to post him on Valentine’s Day, partially because I was in the dog house. I got in trouble with him,” she says, half-joking before turning serious. “The breakup was never going to stop me from finding love. Or at least trying. I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness, and you enjoy it and work through it.”
Credit: Ally Green
"I don’t owe anybody a happily ever after. People break up. It happens. When it was good, it was good. When it was bad, it was terrible, hunny. I had to get the fuck up out of there. You find happiness and you enjoy it and work through it.”
With her ex, Riley was pretty outspoken about her relationship, even appearing in content for Netflix with him. This time around is different. She’s not hiding her boyfriend of eight months, but she’s more protective of him, especially because he’s a father and isn’t interested in becoming a public figure.
She’s traveling more, too. It’s a deliberate effort on her part to enjoy her money and reject the trauma she’s developed after experiencing poverty in her childhood. “I live in constant fear of being broke. I don’t think you ever don’t remember that trauma or move past that. Now I travel and I’m like, listen, if it goes, it goes. I’m not saying [to] be reckless, but I deserve to enjoy my hard work.”
After everything she’s been through, she certainly deserves to finally let loose a bit. “I have to have a life to live,” she says. “I’ve got to have a life worth fighting for.”
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How Black Women Can Get Out Of Survival Mode At Work
We've heard this same song replayed over and over again: Women are stressed and overworked, underpaid, and overlooked in the workplace. Research and everyday experiences back up this claim. And Black women face the added stress of discrimination, even lower pay, and being head of household for a large percentage of homes.
So, how can we get out of survival mode? How can we take deliberate steps to thrive? I'm a huge fan of looking at things from a balanced point of view. I refuse to wear those woe-is-me-it's-hard-being-a-Black-woman tinted glasses often sold to us by propaganda and fear mongers. Here are a few tips that helped me to finally step out of survival mode and into thrive mode:
1. Own your career choices with a mindset shift from lack to optimistic focus and discipline.
It can seem tough to radically approach your career moves as a journey filled with empowering choices, especially when bills have to be paid, and there's stress related to finances. Oftentimes, when I feel the pressure of financial responsibilities, what empowers me is a change in my outlook. I dislike feeling boxed in or forced into anything, including a job or professional role, simply out of financial need. So my mindset has to shift.
I've had to take jobs that I didn't necessarily like. I've also been underemployed before. The key was to think about the goal and focus solely on that. Whether it was to pay off a debt, tide me over while I was in a time of self-employment slump, or save up for a large purchase, focusing on the goal vs. my dislike of the actual job, helped me push through and be more strategic about my career moves.
Once I was able to meet certain goals, I found the freedom to be a bit more picky with the organizations I work with, the companies I work for, and the salary I was willing to accept. It might take a bit of time, but you can set yourself up for this freedom with strategy and focus.
The optimistic piece is key here because it's easy to fall into a cycle of thinking about the negatives of a job or career. It's also easy to fall into shame about mistakes made or about what you perceive you lack, but when you shift focus to what you can control, what you can change, what you do have, and your end goal, you're better able to really be strategic about going for the professional life and quality of work you'd like to have.
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2. Get to know what really motivates your fulfillment or happiness at work.
Do you just generally like helping people? Do you like challenging yourself intellectually? Do you love working with children or being a person of authority? Do you like being outdoors or doing work activities in nature? Do you enjoy solo work where you really don't have to interact with too many people all the time? Is your work purpose-driven or more about making lots of money? (It's totally fine to be motivated by the pursuit of financial freedom and wealth, but you must keep it real with yourself in this regard. We all play various roles in this world, and the money-makers among us are vital as well, so there's no shame in that.)
Sit down and think about these things. Write them down. If your current job or career doesn't align with what motivates you to get up and take action every day or it doesn't involve tasks that will guide you to your ultimate goal in life, consider looking for other work, going back to school to get training in something else you might be interested in doing for a living, volunteering, or taking on other projects at your current job in order to really tap into what you enjoy doing.
3. Find other fulfilling activities that fill in the gaps of dissatisfaction.
Some of us can't afford to just quit a job or give up on the years we've dedicated to a company. That's fine. If there are things about your job that are stressors or that are simply just a norm in the work you do, find other activities outside of work that allows you to have some sense of release and balance. It could be sports, spa dates, exercise, church, family time, or solo do-nothing days.
It could be starting a side business, a nonprofit, or a group for other people who have similar interests. It could be therapy or other spiritual practices. If you find you've made your job your whole life, it's a good idea to figure out a better balance so that you aren't consumed by it.
It's great to be an achiever and to do well at work, but there are other human needs that are important, too. Deliberately schedule other activities on your calendar and make them a priority so that you can start to really enjoy your career by having a balanced outlook on your role in it.
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4. Use your voice---especially if you're in a leadership position---and ask for help.
Oftentimes, it can be hard for us to simply as for the help we need. We don't want to seem inadequate, inexperienced, or, dare I say, weak. We want to seem strong, powerful, and resilient all the time. And that desire is a valid one, especially due to the discrimination and toxic systemic issues we face in the workplace.
I challenge you, though, to ask for help, anyway. If you need an assistant, ask for one. If you need time off, ask for it. If you need more time to complete a task, ask for it. Build your tribe at work and get support. Even if you feel your manager or supervisor will say no, speak up anyway.
We have to get into a practice of speaking up because the more all of us do this, the more we empower ourselves and help to shift company cultures. It's really annoying and sometimes insulting to have to justify a reasonable request for assistance, but sometimes, it must be done.
I once had to create a whole pitch just to get an intern to help with the work I had in managing projects that probably should have been split between three people, not one. I ended up getting the intern, but just having to create this whole pitch for something a leader could have used common sense to approve was a lesson in humility for sure. It was as if I had to prove I deserved an intern or help at all.
If you're a manager, delegate. Trust others to do tasks. Empower them by giving them the tools they need to fulfill certain obligations that are really distracting you from the more vital deadlines that you need to meet. Being a superwoman is just not realistic, and to be honest, it's a farce. A true leader serves and is able to give others a chance to be leaders within their own right. You can let someone else shine without dimming your own light.
And managers, speak up for more efficient work processes, better ways to communicate, equal pay, and better protocols that put workers who offer amazing talent and time first. If you have to take baby steps to do this, do it, even if you must align yourself with a privileged ally or seek legal counsel. Again, change in terms of the fight to survive in a career or thrive in one can be sparked with one action from many of us.
5. Quit. Yes, just let that job go.
Burnout is nothing to play with, and it can literally affect your physical health. If you find that you're always mentally exhausted, are oftentimes depressed or angry, or you're coping with work-related stress through overeating or over-indulging in other ways, it's time to take a full stop. If you're literally at your wit's end and you have the family or other support to resign, do it. Talk to your family, a counselor, or a mentor, and take the steps to prep for an exit.
I'd had a point in my life where professional burnout literally led to a mental breakdown. I was in my early 30s at the time. I was overweight, drinking a lot, angry all the time, and wasn't sleeping well. I was working all the time as well, and I was not enjoying my life anymore. I called my mom. "There's something wrong. I cannot function. Ma, it's getting bad. I cannot do this anymore." She simply replied, "Come home."
I felt ashamed and like a failure, but looking back, several years later, it was the best decision of my life. My mom, stepfather, and grandmother really helped me during a tough time. I cashed out my 401K, got on unemployment, and rebuilt. I found love, bought a car (in cash, sis!), went to therapy, moved into my dream home, traveled, and made more money than I had when I was at that previous job where I'd experienced burnout. (I found balance again, both emotionally and mentally, and I felt like myself again.)
If you have the support, tap into it. Use all resources afforded to you to be able to take some time off to get out of survival mode. Change your environment.
And maybe your "letting go" doesn't even include quitting outright. Focusing on the positive outcomes, explain to your HR department or manager, and ask to take a sabbatical. During the break---where your job would still be waiting for you upon your return---map out what you want out of your career, what gives you joy, and what it will take to get your finances in order. Let go of the shame and get the help you need.
As Black women, we deserve all the best life has to offer, and while we must work hard and continue to challenge ourselves, we must also find fulfillment and joy within our career journeys. I hope these tips will help many of you take back your life and thrive.
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