What's the worst professional mistake youv'e ever made? How did you recover?
December 3, 2006 6:26 PM   Subscribe

What's the worst professional mistake youv'e ever made? How did you recover?

I'm 23, fresh out of school, and rather terrified about my future. I entered a job, and it made me pretty miserable. After speaking with my former academic advisors and internship supervisors about the job, they advised me to quit (and also said they'd gladly act as references in a new job search). So I did. I have a good reference from the job I quit as well, although my exit itself was not the neatest. While I think I have my ducks in a row as far as job searching goes (got the references lined up, some part-time temp work lined up and savings to cushion the financial blow, put out the word that I'm looking again), and have a much better idea of where I'd like my career to go and the steps I need to take to get there, generally I feel pretty awful about myself after this experience.

So, while I'm not specifically looking for advice on my particular situation - I am curious about the other professional mistakes people made when they were my age. What happened? How did you recover? Did you recover? Please tell me that things get better after the age of 23, and not worse. Or, be horribly blunt and tell me that it will be a long, hard slog to put my career back together, and that the real world blows. Either way, your personal stories are appreciated.
posted by universal_qlc to Work & Money (27 answers total) 33 users marked this as a favorite
You know, everything you've said here sounds like you're just thinking too much about being between a previous professional job and your next one. It sounds like you did all the right things, asked all the right people and acted responsibly. In fact, after reading it I thought, "What an articulate fellow, he'll land on his feet in no time!".

So, don't worry about "recovery", be confident that you're going to move onto great things. To have a career defining moment on exit of education isn't very likely, so chin up - you've got what it takes.

As an aside, I always end up telling people that if they leave a job, they take with them the skills and experience gained, and so many people forget that. What you've learned now is to be more discerning with your choice in job.

To answer your question however, the worst career decision I ever made was leaving a firm I loved working for when I was 19 for their rival company which was located in a city I preferred to socialise in without having enough foresight to discover what the new job role was about, and within 6 weeks I had gone from my best to worst job ever. It only lasted 3 months.

Currently I'm self-employed, and that suits me just fine! :)
posted by rc55 at 6:50 PM on December 3, 2006

I can think of several friends/acquaintences who have made disastrous mistakes and have great jobs today. If you weren't escorted from the building in handcuffs while a forensic team pieced together what happened, no blunder you made at this job will have much impact on your career a few years from now.
posted by anonymous_k at 6:58 PM on December 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

I think you'll need to be a lot more specific about exactly why your exit was "not the neatest." Without any idea of how you screwed up, we can't advise you on how to "put your career back together."

Reading between the lines of your post, however, my guess is that you're blowing something way out of proportion. Job exits are often a little messy. As long as you did not leave because of any act of dishonesty, it's probably going to be alright.

And you ask us to assure you that things get better. They do and they don't. I've found that moving along in my career has required me to become comfortable juggling an ever-increasing number of potential disasters and uncomfortable situations, while attempting to minimize the repercussions of my own inevitable screw-ups and failures. The good news is that the longer you've been an adult, the more you're able to view these things with a sense of humor and not be too shaken up when things get really difficult.

My worst professional mistake was working for several years in a lame, unchallenging job because I didn't have the confidence to do something more challenging.
posted by jayder at 7:02 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

Best answer: This may be worthless information, so take it with a grain of salt:

I am a 35-year-old pastor with almost 11 years experience, and every so often somone your age comes to me terribly worried that they don't have their entire career all figured out yet. They seem uneasy with the uncertainty and just want the kind of ease and stability they see in others who have been in their careers for a while.

I am still waiting to make my Greatest Professional Mistake, but the only advice I can give you is:

- You have the foresight to have a good reference, your feet on the ground for the job search already, you are networking already, and you were wise enough to have some savings to get you over the hump. I cannot tell you how many people I have met who are a decade older than you who don't have the ability to be as forward thinking as you are.

- You are only 23. The very best thing about being 23 is not having to have it all figured out. You have some time to pursue your passions, and I encourage you to do it. Think about working overseas, or trying an idea you have always wanted to make happen. The predictable stage of your life comes quickly enough. Don't rush it.

- Give yourself some grace. I agree with rc55; that you are overthinking it. This kind of pressure you are putting yourself now is a bad habit to get into and will steal your joy/health/time as you get older.

Good luck, and when I make my great mistake, I will let you know. Hopefully you can hire me to work for your company. :)
posted by 4ster at 7:07 PM on December 3, 2006 [2 favorites]

Biggest mistake (so far): When I was your age, in my last semester of an MA program, I was so desperately broke and (temporarily) burned out on teaching that I took a private sector technical writing job. This is a swell field, but mine was a horrible, soul-killing position in a company that had made the cubicle mentality into an art form. I was beyond miserable for a few months, then scraped together enough cash to pay the rent for a bit, quit the hell job, and finished my thesis in a crazed flurry, eventually ending up with a contented little teaching career, which is exactly what I'm cut out for. Whenever the job gets annoying, I remind myself of how good I have it and of where I might be instead [shudder].

It was sheer serendipity -- as well as recognition of what I really wanted from life and willingness to sacrifice for it -- that allowed me to recover pretty quickly, and like you, I felt freaked out for a bit. But now it seems like a trivial detour. Everyone needs time to find a direction, and you had the sense to recognize that you were not in the right place and get out. That takes moxie and beats the alternative of slogging along for five or ten years, or a lifetime, because you're too scared to take a risk. To (horrendously) paraphrase Emerson, a ship zigzags here and there, but its overall course takes it where it needs to go. Don't sweat the occasional course corrections.
posted by FelliniBlank at 7:15 PM on December 3, 2006

relax and just learn from mistakes. only time will give you a better feeling for what you can get away with and what you can't. nobody expects you to be perfect at 23, just reasonably capable of using your common senses.
posted by krautland at 7:17 PM on December 3, 2006

I didn't go to HR when I should have gone to HR about an abusive co-worker.

Doesn't sound like much, but it made my life hell for months, and because it fucked with my head so badly, actually ruined my reputation with a few people. It escalated to the point where she was so frightening that I refused to leave the building before her because I was honestly afraid of what she would do to me in the parking lot if she found me by myself. So stupid. I finally wised up and told the boss that if he didn't fix her agression problem, I would by quitting.

Mysteriously she was gone within two weeks.

I recovered from it by 1) ballsing up, as above; and 2) finding a new department in the company with a boss who had a much more discerning eye for hiring and who really liked me personally.

Don't ever put up with anything like I did. Really. Don't. You aren't being whiny if you report it, and you are not obligated to try to like people.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:22 PM on December 3, 2006

I don't mean this to be mean, but you are a 23 year old fresh out of school. You don't have a career yet. With a few very rare exceptions (like child star or model), you would have to be some kind of monumental fuckup to hit your peak at only 23. There is no where to go but up from your age, so stop .worrying so much or else you'll end up having a stress-related heart attack in your thirties.
posted by MegoSteve at 7:24 PM on December 3, 2006

I agree with MegoSteve- I fail to see any real crisis here. You quit your job, no big whoop. You know those dipshits who have their lascivious/boorish workplace emails/voicemails forwarded around the internet? Those guys have fucked up their careers.
posted by mkultra at 8:02 PM on December 3, 2006

Having made various mistakes on various scales over the course of my career, I eventually came to this realization:

I haven't gotten anyone killed. Nor will I.

The mistakes I did make, I learned from, by figuring out exactly what I did wrong and NOT DOING IT AGAIN.

Not knowing exactly what you did, no once give you any solid advice, but it sounds like you're worrying too much.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:11 PM on December 3, 2006

My favourite story is of a former colleague that switched jobs every 18 months or so.
He was a corporate lawyer, and found the skeletons he created in his closet came back to haunt him if he stayed too long in one place.
Luckily, the pace of the law is slow enough that he can start, do some slip shod work, then leave without being found out. It was only later his previous employers discovered his systematic carelessness.
So I don't think you have too much to worry about...
posted by bystander at 8:19 PM on December 3, 2006

Best answer: I, like you, just graduated from college in May, and I'll be 23 in January. Some of the best advice I've gotten recently has been from the guy who was my boss this summer at the bookstore I work at. (He's 35 and lives in an apartment building across the street from mine and is kind of the closest thing I have to a mentor in this cold, nebulous post-collegiate world.)

Here are a few of the lessons he's imparted to me (and that I've learned by just getting out there and living these past seven months):

-One way or another, you need to reach a point where you don't worry so much about what other people think about your career or lack thereof. The particular path you take to reach that point of not-worrying will vary—some people get there by attaining their dream job right off the bat, then relaxing, and some people get there by hitting rock bottom and realizing there's nowhere to go but up. (Personally, I worked at Cold Stone Creamery for a while this summer to pay the rent. That's about as humiliating a job as you can get, post-college. Feel better yet?)

-In general, as long as you're getting something out of the place you're at in life, there's no need to rush to another state of being.

-Sometimes it takes a few months to really settle into a job and get to a place where you can do your best work (and then get promoted). You will have bad days when you start out at any new job, even if you *click* with the people you work with, 'cause you're learning how you fit into the culture, learning how to carry out new tasks, and just generally finding your place there.

-You're not obligated to any particular employer, and you're especially not obligated to stay in an employment situation that's just plain bad for you.

-Failure isn't something that overtakes you in the night. As long as you're doing what you want to do, and moving in the right direction, you're making progress.

-A lot of what you're doing right now is just résumé-building and hopscotching your way to your ultimate career-making job[s]. There are bound to be missteps here and there.

-You want to avoid making decisions that are simply safe, rather than good—but even if you do make one of those "safe" decisions, it probably won't be disastrous. For my part, I was offered a full-time position in June as assistant editor at a local magazine (where I absolutely LOVE the people and the atmosphere and where they love me, too)...and I turned it down. Why? Because I'd planned to just take a year off to work before grad school, and they wanted me to sign on for at least two years. Because I didn't want to lead them on and then burn a bridge if I decided to leave. Because I was afraid of what the job would demand of me.

That was definitely an example of a "safe" choice—I had a plan and I was sticking to it, despite the fact that I was throwing away an opportunity a lot of magazine folks would kill for right out of college.

But y'know, six months later I'm thinking I probably won't go to grad school next year after all—because now I've got other projects in the works that I'd never have started if I'd taken that full-time position back in June.

The world is full of opportunities, especially right now, and "blowing" a good one could turn out to be the best thing you ever did. You have to realize that you can't predict the future, and you must chill.

And know this: the fact that you care about your prospects and have the wherewithal to plan ahead and work hard to get to the top puts you ahead of so many people. Now what you need to do is work on not worrying so much.
posted by limeonaire at 8:38 PM on December 3, 2006 [10 favorites]

Don't sweat it. Took a job, realized it isn't going to work AFTER moving halfway across the country and buying a house. Currently in the process of extricating myself. 10 years older than you, doctoral degree, didn't make any better a decision. Sometimes you don't realize that it isn't going to work until after you've made the jump. It could be worse, no?
posted by caution live frogs at 9:36 PM on December 3, 2006

Worst mistake I ever made was in my first year as a software engineer when I accidently committed some code that disabled all security on my company's entire product line.

Fourteen years later the mistake is still part of company lore (it gets mentioned every time a coding talk is given) but as of about year three nobody except me remembered who had done it.

The moral: people will remember a good story, but nobody really cares about your career but you.

(note: this is a good thing to remember during yearly reviews. It's likely even your direct boss has completely forgotten what you did this year, so don't be shy about reminding him or her)
posted by tkolar at 10:13 PM on December 3, 2006 [1 favorite]

I was fired from my first "real" job after college. I was (justifiably) angry at the endless 70 hour weeks at entry-level pay, and mouthed off a lot about it. It seemed horrible at the time, but I had a better job within 2 weeks, based on a recommendation from a colleague at the first job. And every job I've had in the subsequent decade has been through a connection made at that first job. Within 2 months, I viewed that firing as a great career move. I now view it as a tremendous character-builder. I learned a very important lesson from that bad experience: how to speak up about my needs and rights as an employee in a way that managers can respect and work with.

Something to remember: professional life is not like school in a very important way - there is no passing or failing. By fucking up a few tasks, you can fail a class. Not so in professional life; we're all jsut plugging along along, trying to do our best. Most of us have had bad jobs, poor fits, etc., at some point. Just move on to the next thing.

I agree that you don't need to worry about this. You'll have lots of jobs in your life, some good, some bad. You're not in a horrible position, and you'll be fine.
posted by Cranialtorque at 10:27 PM on December 3, 2006

- Email, voicemail, VOIP and you're presence on the net: keep an eye on what you write and say that can be recorded -- always stay professional when you communicate.

- If you're in IT: careful with root access on that production server. Never run rm -rf unless you absolutely have to. Always decline receiving privileges that you shouldn't have.

- If you screw up, notify your boss right away. There's nothing worse than an employee who hides things. Every time this happens, I give employees feedback why it was a bad idea -- and I'm not even the boss that will yell if someone makes a mistake nor am I the kind of boss who thinks that people just shouldn't do mistake, far from it -- but it seems deeply embedded in people not to tell when they screw up.

- My worst professional mistake: sniffing a root password on my very first week at work. That was very immature, I could have been fired. I recoverd by drowning the IT team in beer.
posted by NewBornHippy at 10:31 PM on December 3, 2006

My worst professional mistake was working for several years in a lame, unchallenging job because I didn't have the confidence to do something more challenging.

posted by forallmankind at 10:48 PM on December 3, 2006

Back in the days before having a robust IT policy, joke e-mails were bandied around our office without a care. I was new to the company, and enjoyed joining in with the social aspect.
Someone sent out a pretty innocuous e-mail to the whole company distribution list (about car parking, not a joke), and I replied with a rather um... ill advised joke response. To everyone.

I didn't get in trouble for it, but I can't leave the company until there's no longer any staff still working here who were there to witness (or, worse, keep an e-mail record of...) my folly.
Acute embarrassment, rather than career destroying, but I was your age at the time, and it certainly seemed like the latter :)
posted by Chunder at 3:32 AM on December 4, 2006

If you screw up, notify your boss right away.

OH! This reminds me of my brother's worst professional mistake:

April Fools Day he sends out a joke email to his office which mentions a merger (mergers are common in his industry).

The problem was that the merger was mentioned in the first paragraph and the "this is an April Fools joke reference" was not until the very end. Apparently a LOT of people read only the first paragraph and then forwarded it ALL OVER the company.

He told me he just went into his boss' office, closed the door, looked at his boss and said, "I fsked up."

Today, all we will say about the issue was "It wasn't my best day."

Still, he is a really bright, hardworking guy, and this has not hurt his career at all. He has a received a couple of nice promotions since that day.
posted by 4ster at 5:10 AM on December 4, 2006

NEVER TALK SHIT ABOUT COWORKERS USING COMPANY EMAIL. You run the risk of accidentally putting that person's own email address in the To: field.

Um, not that I've done it or anything...

I'm actually not talking shit about coworkers at all anymore. It's just bad in so many ways.

If you screw up, notify your boss right away.

So so true.

I thought I had lost some really important documents and I spent a few days just totally sweating it. Finally, when I admitted it, he said casually, Those? I have those. I could have totally spared myself the incredible stress had I admitted it right away.
posted by loiseau at 8:34 AM on December 4, 2006

I was fired from my first job post-college--I took it because I needed money and mistakenly believed that it wouldn't matter if I was bored comatose all day long. I was unhappy, and it showed, and it was a relief to be let go. Like you, I was worried about the black mark on my resume.

I called the company's HR department and explained that I didn't want anyone at the company talking about me to future employers except to disclose dates of employment and salary. I got it in writing--they can't give me a reference, either positive or negative, or I can sue. When I went to my next interview, I told them that the former company had a policy against giving references. When they asked why I'd left, I said simply that it wasn't the right fit, and I emphasized what I'd learned there that was relevant to the new job.

Employers have generally had bad experiences working before as well, so they understand. Mention that it wasn't the right opportunity, though it was valuable; don't dwell on it, and you'll be fine.
posted by hamster at 8:50 AM on December 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I think 4ster hit it on the head - sometimes young people just want some reassurance in one form or another. And that limeonaire and bunch of other people are right - not to take myself so seriously at my age (because that's ridiculous) and learn to relax. Thanks, everyone, for the stories and advice!
posted by universal_qlc at 10:10 AM on December 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

Don't sweat it too much. I graduated from college thinking I wanted a career in one industry, ended up working in something completely unrelated, and finally chose my actual career at the age of 27, when I enrolled in school for my Master's.

You don't have to make final decisions about anything right now. Find out what you like. Try things. Be open to new possibilities. Listen to other's experiences, but realize yours may be different (they may hate highly structured environments, you may be unable to work without one).
posted by timepiece at 10:51 AM on December 4, 2006

universal_qlc: I, too, am 23, and just about to leave a soul-sucking job. This was something that had all the trappings of being impressive, careerwise, but lacked the content. It had me deep in a funk for the past few months, and it took me a long time to decide what I wanted to do about it. Now I'm leaving to do something I know I love, and I'm extremely happy that this is going to quickly fade into the past and be nothing more than a bad memory.

I could go back and say that I'm disappointed with myself for taking the job in the first place despite my misgivings, or for not quitting the minute things got bad, or for not toughing it out longer, or whatever, but I'm not. No matter how much I hated my day-to-day while I was here, it still gave me a new perspective on things. I took the job because I wanted to try something different; it didn't work out. In the process I've learned a lot about myself, and a lot about how I relate to others. That's far more valuable than getting promoted quickly or any other metric that people normally use for status.
posted by kdar at 12:01 PM on December 4, 2006 [1 favorite]

As a callow youth, I worked for a guy who had an AR15 rifle leaning against the wall in his office (this is Australia - we don't do that here), kept all the business paperwork in a jumble of cardboard boxes, and thought it was a huge joke to stop a $20,000 cheque after the goods it was paying for had been delivered. He was a cowboy and a bit of a sleaze, but I got on OK with him until I allowed myself to be persuaded by some of my colleagues that he was evil incarnate, at which point I joined his imaginary throng of plotters-against.

I can't remember whether it was before or just after leaving that job that I changed his logon password to "cockbreath". What I do remember is the shit I got into (it had to have been me - very few people had access) and how petty and stupid I felt (and still feel, looking back on it) for doing that. The guy had given me my first paying job, and even if he was evil incarnate, how exactly was that supposed to help?

I went on to work on other things with other people. AFAIK the incident has had no long term repercussions.

Whatever hideous mistakes you make at 23 are pretty much par for the course. Don't sweat it.
posted by flabdablet at 2:12 PM on December 4, 2006

Thirding or fourthing or whatevering this:

If you screw up, notify your boss right away. There's nothing worse than an employee who hides things.

Fact is you are going to make professional mistakes, we all do. I made one last week, not huge, but it was with a brand new Sr. Exec I now report to. The best thing you can do is to go straight to your boss with a) how you screwed up, b) what you think the best resolution is (better yet, what you've already done to start rectifying it), and c) your promise to do your best to not let it happen again. Anyone who expects you to never screw up is not in reality and you don't want to work for them anyway.

But perhaps the best advice I can give you is some I got early on in one of my first jobs:

There's a world of difference between a job and a career.

You can do jobs you don't particularly enjoy right now (although I would suggest you find something you do) without totally determining your career. In some respects, your career will be a thing of retrospect - a summation of jobs you had over your life. Most of us will have many. The encouragement I've found in this idea is the fact that if I screw up in the here and now, or even if I'm in a job position that's not optimal, it does not dictate the whole of my career.

Its just a job. Keep things in this perspective and you'll have the cool head to make the right decisions.
posted by allkindsoftime at 7:13 AM on December 5, 2006

I'm 40, and looking back, the only professional mistakes I can remember making that weren't just the normal learning curve of any career were interpersonal ones. It may sound trivial, but let me promise you that it's not: don't gossip about coworkers, don't bring too much of your personal life into your work environment because you need that place to retreat to, don't talk shit about your boss because it *will* get back to him or her, and whatever you do, don't get romantically involved with co-workers. (Your case will always seem like the exception, but so far I have never seen any exceptions to this one).

Other than that, just put yourself all the way out on the limb and stay there. Take risks and enjoy it. And you will make professional mistakes (a step up, at least, from amateur mistakes), and its the recovering from them that will take you to the next level in many cases.

Most of the intelligent, interesting, and sucessful people I know have had quite a few jobs that ended up being less than ideal. It's not like 30 years ago where you picked one company and stayed there for life. You might not believe this now, but the perfect career for you may not reveal itself until years from now, and the trail of breadcrumbs leading you to it may be a string of jobs that on the surface seem to have nothing to do with each other.

Good luck! (It's a fun ride!)
posted by purplegenie at 4:43 AM on December 6, 2006

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