5 Career Lessons I Learnt in My 20s


So it’s been awhile since I’ve written one of these 5 Lessons posts… But Kenneth and I recently chatted about this Yelp Employee’s Open Letter to her CEO (and of course it just had to be written by a millennial) and we basically discussed about what it means to pay our dues, how to raise important issues in a professional way and what real empathy would take the form of. That kinda made me think about career lessons.

I’m only 26-going-on-27 and I grew up in the safe confines of the Singapore education system while living in this small island country, so I will never know what it really feels like to work in minimum wage in an expensive state like so many do in the US, or even be jobless and forced to take non-paying internships for a ridiculous length of time due to bad market conditions. So what do I know, right?

But since I have been working for more than 7 years full-time since I graduated with just a humble diploma at the age of 19, I thought I would share 5 really important career lessons I learnt within those few years which will hopefully help you get clear on your aspirations and uncover new ways of working towards your career goals.

1. I am responsible for my own career aspirations

Having a job is not a ticket to guaranteed career progression or fair remuneration

This right here is my number one career lesson which I am still grappling with! I always thought to myself, as long as I could do my job well, my employers would pay me fairly in proportion to the value I could deliver to the company and I would be adequately taken care of with reasonable career progression. Does this sound familiar to you too?

  • “I feel demoralised that I’ve worked at my company for the last few years when everyone else was leaving and yet they’ve chosen to pass me up for a promotion.”
  • “I went beyond the call of duty and put in so much extra effort, but all I get is an empty thank you, next time they just expect the same with none of the appreciation.”

Let’s get real! A job is really just a job and my employers are not obligated to look out for me by pushing for higher salary increments or plan my career progression with or for me, let alone carry through any planned course of action. That’s in MY hands.

Human Resource publications and top HR professionals will preach about employee retention and engagement, but at the end of the day, every company looks out for their own interests over everything else, first. Without looking out for themselves first, there may not be a profitable company around to support the employment of their workforce. That’s the brutal truth here and its completely understandable. My role then is to look after myself and take responsibility for my career.

If I feel I deserve better, I can:

When I look after me and achieve a compromise I am agreeable to, I keep myself centred and in the right state to constantly take risks and deliver. If I start disconnecting and lose my drive to do good work, its time to re-evaluate if the job fit is right for me. That’s my responsibility.

2. Focus out and help others to achieve their goals

Because before you know it, you’ll become the expert in what you do

Its a dog-eat-dog world out there. Maybe I’m a dreamer and really optimistic, but one of the best lessons I’ve learnt, which has been truly rewarding, is to constantly guide others and provide insight in areas I am adept at. I’m not afraid that what I share will make someone better than me because of what I have given willingly.

I know it probably sucks if some of those people I help end up not appreciating it and even thinking I’m being a know-it-all, forgets I’ve been there for them, stabs me in the back or beats me career-wise to the next level, but I can’t let those fears be my driving force in my “being”.  Of course, these things happen, but well, when it does, then I’ll find a way to deal with that.

I’ve found that when I am present and “there” for people I help, I learn an invaluable number of things in the process. It could be a new way of experiencing what I know in order to be understood (different people do have different learning styles and aptitudes) or an exchange of ideas that could lead to better ways of working. Sometimes, while I am guiding someone else, I draw parallels to my own life, and I realise that I could also use the same advice I dished out.

After time, when I realise that whatever I’ve been teaching, doing, truly helps others in moving nearer to their goals, I discover what “works” and that helps build my understanding of whatever topic I’m guiding someone on.

While it sounds “altruistic” to lend a helping hand and guide others, believe it or not, helping others actually benefits me most. It builds my self esteem, plus it helps me feel connected and invested in my own  life when I impact the people around me. That said, don’t go off helping others till you’re dry! You still need to take stock of your own personal goals as well and ensure you have time for yourself – balance is key here. This brings me to point 3.

3. If I want to do exceptional work, learn when to say “No”

And don’t say “Yes” just because you’re under pressure

Everyone has a set number of hours a day, along with a limited number of working hours as well. In my years of working, I’ve noticed that something I find most uncomfortable, is saying ‘No’ when it is warranted. I often feel that I come across as difficult, uncooperative, unhelpful and sometimes even a grump or bitch. #TrueStory

Understandably, sometimes, I can say ‘Yes’, but I make it a point to not do so with the focus on pleasing the asker or fearing what they will think of me if I don’t do as they’ve requested. There is no doubt that I would have colleagues, vendors or even managers (whether from my department or outside of it) who have not felt too pleased when I stood my ground, but well, a girls gotta work and honey, it was a request, and unless we can reach a compromise, we should all respect each other’s time!

Here’s some questions I ask myself when I am deciding between agreeing to do something and giving a straight out rejection:

  • Is it a time sucking task that will take me more than a quick email/call to sort out?
  • Is this really, truly, emergency button “urgent” like he/she insists it is?
  • Am I equipped with the right information to create any solutions?
  • Do I have other important tasks to focus on and can I afford this “distraction” from it?

Being distracted and helping sort some shit out for someone works if it creates value for all those involved, but its also important that if I feel it doesn’t and when I make my decision that I won’t, I don’t have to be sorry about my choice either.

The last thing I want is saying ‘yes’ again and again for the same things and ending up having to always do it because “he’s/she’s gonna say ‘yes’ anyway!” Don’t let helping someone become an added job scope – unless of course, that’s what you want.

Anyway, with those 8 working hours +/-, I’m sure if you had it fully to do your best in your role, you would. But if you choose to let others take it from you, and you end up not doing exceptional work, then well, that’s something you’ll have to be responsible for.

4. It always pays to take feedback and make things better

Or at least much better, than to just sweep it under the carpet

There will always be feedback. There will always be coworkers or managers who point out areas for improvement, whether it be in a positive constructive manner or a more authoritative or negative way. It sometimes sucks.

  • Maybe I worked hard at something and yet fell short or made a mistake.
  • Maybe I didn’t work so hard at something because I didn’t own it and it fell through the cracks.
  • Maybe I got frustrated or distracted and I dropped the ball at work.

It’s okay to admit that it happened. It’s okay to accept something about myself I don’t like. What matters is I “shift” and work towards making things better than before.

If you’re not making mistakes, then you’re not doing anything. I’m positive a doer makes mistakes. – John Wooden

So yeah, I messed up. How will I react? What I do next defines me!

If someone insisted that because I dropped the ball with communicating something and that led to the eventual delay of a project, it may be hard to swallow if the person may have played a part in that breakdown as well, but I willingly acknowledge it.

How can I make this person realise that I am willing to work it out with them without pointing an accusatory finger back and playing politics? Moving on, I set up detailed timelines, brief others better of how we all work and the importance of everyone owning the project and not just pointing fingers at each other.

Sorry is not the hardest word to say if you know you’re gonna rock and roll next time with this valuable piece of feedback. Yeah, it may be genuine feedback or something just to play down the other person’s responsibility in what happened, but for me, I believe I’ll use humility and feedback to create better outcomes. That’s responsibility to myself and my career goals.

Don’t know where to start? Check out this Forbes article on receiving feedback and criticism.

5. My lack of a degree is not a weakness but a strength

Companies may discount me all the time because of that, but that’s my opportunity

Finally, I’m going to talk about the elephant in the room here: education. (This is gonna be a long one!)

It’s a hot button topic for me because as someone who didn’t go to university along with my peers and instead launched myself into the school of hard knocks (doesn’t mater whether by choice or circumstance), I am very vocal about what I think about Singapore’s education inflation and paper chasing culture.

I appreciate that people take different routes in life to get where they want,  but I believe strongly and I prove to myself every single day with my own work ethic and desire to learn (even without going to school), that education is merely a TOOL and that what counts and deserves to be paid better for should never be determined by a piece of paper and three to four years in an institution of higher learning.

Honestly, I know that my application to my current job in the hotel was rejected countless times (before I was given a “chance”) because I did not “fit the bill” due in part to my age, education qualifications and perceived lack of experience. However, I was given a chance to prove myself by a mentor I respect greatly, even before I knew I wanted the job. I have no doubt that every time I go the extra mile, every time I do something exceptional, it is because I appreciate that leap of faith he gave me four years ago.

My lack of a degree is not a weakness, but a strength. It is the opportunity for me to knock down stereotypes and surprise people with my capabilities and willingness to work and while some may feel I am still “not good enough”, I reject that and I declare that “I am enough”! Even if I fall short of expectations, it will never be because of my lack of educational qualification.

Oh I didn’t know you weren’t a degree holder, I just assumed that you had one!

That is something I’ve been told countless times. #NotAHumbleBrag #Honestly

I am in a Marketing Manager role in a hotel and I’m mentoring my younger colleagues. Sometimes I even give professional advice to older and more qualified colleagues and I’m not afraid to share what I feel is best to my managers. That creates the perception that I already have a degree because people link ability and better working ethic to a degree. But that can’t be further from the truth.

I am here and I am going to say that it’s not about that paper.

It’s about MY own desire to create an impact.

It’s MY own thirst for knowledge and new ways of working.

It’s about ME and what I make of my job and career.

So if you have a degree, good for you, prove that those years of studying was worth it. If you don’t, like me, make them turn around and do a double-take. Go make a stand for yourself and those, who like you, decided to join the school of hard knocks earlier than others.

I am most grateful for people I’ve met who have never shied away from sharing their own lessons with me. Open, loving and capable individuals like Christel, Flora, and Kenneth who never fail to share great new perspectives with me. Thank you!

I’m equally indebted to my mentors who have guided me in the past seven years. Without them, I would have still played a small game. Thank you!

I still have a long way to go in my career and still take some time to remind myself of these lessons every day. I have so many more career lessons to share, but I’ll save that for next time! Let’s keep growing and if you have your own lessons you’d love to share, please do comment below.


5 Responses to 5 Career Lessons I Learnt in My 20s

  1. Kenneth February 27, 2016 at 6:52 pm #

    Hey Carrie!

    These 5 very valuable career lessons are some of the best pieces of advice I’ve read in recent times. I truly believe in the idea that a job doesn’t secure us any future progress or growth. It guarantees only the basic.

    If I might add one more thing I learnt, it is a saying by Intel’s Andy Grove: “Only the paranoid survive”. Andy Grove meant that the only way to survive and thrive in longevity for any business (and anyone) is to be exposed to the winds of change and be hyper-aware of it, consistently building a strong system, adapting and countering new threats. It is an uncomfortable, often difficult thing to accept for people in a safe society like ours, but it’s truly helped me in my continued growth as a person.

    • Carrie February 29, 2016 at 11:05 am #

      Thanks for sharing Kenneth! Always great to hear your suggestions and insights too.

      Very good point, always stay hungry, right?

  2. Shan Yi February 28, 2016 at 11:56 am #

    Although I hadn’t even started my degree, let alone my career, I find your post useful! I agree with you that holding a bachelor degree does not guarantee you with a smooth-sailing career. Our working attitude is the one that determines how far we can go in our careers. 🙂


    • Carrie February 29, 2016 at 11:06 am #

      Hi Shan Yi,

      Thanks for popping by, reading and leaving your own comment here!

      I’m glad this could be of help and its the easiest thing for me to say “have a good working attitude” of course, that I admit. We all have our up and down days; we have days when we’re more motivated than others and vice versa. The key is really in shifting.

      All the best with your studies and enjoy the ride!

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