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Ten Things I Wish I Learned Before I Started My Career
A guest post by Charlene Lee on lessons she wishes she could share with her younger self
I still remember the day the recruiter called me with a job offer from Google. I danced around my dorm room for hours celebrating what was to come. Landing a position in Google’s coveted Associate Manager program was a dream, and all the years of late-night problem sets and internships were finally paying off.
However, as summer passed and my first day neared, a deep sense of unease and anxiety began to set in. Leaving the structure of school introduced a new, overwhelming kind of freedom. I imagined myself struggling to both fit in and stand out among people who were older and more experienced than me. I kept wishing for a guide to entering the workplace for the first time.
Almost a decade has passed since I got that call in my college dorm. Today, I'd like to share some of the lessons I wish I had learned before starting my career, lessons that I now teach my team. This is the result of hours of 1:1s, books, and trial and error. It's the guide I wish I'd had when I began my journey. I hope it will benefit you in the ways that it would’ve helped me.
1. It’s your job to find a good manager
One of my best managers, Paul, spent a lot of time with me early in my career. He wasn’t just great because he did things I valued in leaders, like inspiring others with bold ideas and celebrating his team instead of himself. I’ve had plenty of managers who did (and didn’t) do that.
Paul was great because he loved to teach. Our 1:1s covered a lot, from the more straightforward, “How do you frame a problem for an executive?” to the more complicated, “What should you do with your life?" He taught me to be curious and look for signs of rising stress, and how to reset if a meeting didn’t go the way I wanted. He taught me skills and ways of thinking that a college degree couldn't have. But connecting with Paul didn't happen by accident.
When I first started my career, I heard how important it was to “have a good manager,” but I had no clue what that meant. I assumed that someone who was likable and tenured also managed well. I also assumed I had no choice in who became my manager. I was wrong. If I wanted a good manager, it was my job to find them.
I started by meeting with managers I admired and seeing if how they dispensed knowledge resonated with me. In my first 30-minute chat with Paul, I learned so much, and to my surprise, he said that he did, too. It was clear he was a good teacher but also that it was a two-way relationship. Learning from him compounded like an investment, one that continues to grow to this day. I owe it all to finding a great manager.
2. Check your values instead of boxes
My whole life, I operated like a box-checker. Get into college, get a good job, get promoted, and become a manager. After I checked one box, I moved on to the next one. Things changed when the next box, like writing a book, started conflicting with things that weren’t on the list.
It took me almost a decade to stop forcing myself down the “correct path.” Of my most consequential life decisions, the best ones were driven by my gut rather than my brain. I did a fellowship, worked abroad in Asia, and studied Chinese. These were decisions defined by my values, and not necessarily what “made the most sense.” I pursued these experiences to become one percent better and to give back to others. Each time, I didn’t know how, or even if, these experiences would impact my career. It's only now, as I look back, that I can connect the dots.
It was easy to go down paths that were well-lit but just weren’t for me. Asking myself what I valued was challenging because it meant being honest about my definition of success. I sometimes still struggle with this, but when I get stuck, I know to check my values. Only once I understand what matters to me can I chart a path to get there.
3. Measure yourself with your own yardstick
I decided to switch roles a few years into my job at Google. I wanted to work on a new product and move from Asia back to the US, but doing so meant I would forego a promotion. It felt like a huge setback to watch my peers progress up the ladder while I didn’t. I still went through with it, but for the next year, I worried that I had stunted my career. For a while, it felt like I had because the next promotion took time.
But promotions are an arbitrary yardstick based on someone else’s definition of growth. I wish I had clarified to myself earlier what my yardstick was and reminded myself to run my own race. This would have saved me from a lot of late-night angst and rumination.
Through that decision, I achieved growth by working on a product I loved and living in New York in my 20s. I might have made a move that seemed like a step backward to others. But to me, that decision put me three steps forward because of how I defined progress.
4. Plan to learn instead of over-planning
I’ve always been an over-planner. I used to map out my five-year plan every six months on a legal-sized sheet of paper and bring it to my managers to discuss. I thought the only way to reach my goals was to plan them out step-by-step.
But overplanning stressed me out when things inevitably didn’t go according to plan. I would take every blip as a sign that I hadn’t worked hard enough. Then I would overcorrect by planning even more when, in reality, many things were out of my control.
In fact, overplanning almost made me miss unexpected opportunities. Had I stuck to my original plan to go to business school at 26, I would have missed out on working in China and building Google Translate within Google Maps, which ended up being the experiences I learned from the most.
Of course, preparation and self-discovery are necessary tools to plan your career. But there is a balance between thoughtful planning and getting stuck in over-analysis. Careers are long, and they can take many shapes. Instead of approaching each decision as right or wrong, I now use my values to reframe it as, “How much can I learn from this opportunity?”
5. Give sponsors a reason to help you
I often used to be—and sometimes still am—shy to reach out to people whom I respect and admire. I used to watch my more confident peers go up and introduce themselves to senior leaders, while my default was to stay in my seat and assume that senior people wouldn’t help me because I had nothing to offer.
I’ve stopped holding myself back by realizing that help can take many forms. For my second year of Google’s new grad program, I wanted to learn about potential teams to join at our Asia headquarters in Singapore. To be helpful, I offered to contribute to an internal newsletter that one manager, Jon, published each week. Though Jon wasn’t hiring, that relationship opened doors to another team.
I continued to volunteer to help with anything I thought was interesting or could be beneficial. I raised my hand to run a development training for the region, led an international study trip, hosted women's ERG breakfasts, and organized a hackathon. Two years later, I ended up joining Jon’s team. He then helped me land an opportunity to work in Shanghai with a director I had met during the training I'd organized.
By contributing to the community, I built relationships with people like Jon, who became one of my biggest sponsors and catapulted me to my next goal. I now always try to help others first before asking for help myself.
6. Take the risk and show up
Throughout my career, I’ve cared about supporting young women, but I never used to publicize it. I cringed sharing about it on social media, thinking it was calculative and self-inflating. But then I saw how peers who shared their work were more effective at achieving their goals because people remembered who they were and recommended them to others.
My reputation existed, whether I liked it or not. By staying quiet, I was creating one that was neutral at best and forgettable at worst. I was sabotaging myself because people wouldn’t be able to help me on my journey if they didn’t know what I was trying to do.
I finally took the plunge by sharing my learnings onstage at the Women In Product conference and posting about it online. I was surprised by the amount of interest and new connections I made by taking the risk and showing up. I still hesitate to put things out in public—including this article—but I am only able to make the impact I want by sharing my work with others.
7. See your team as real people
I love getting things done. Early on, I focused on my work and assumed my colleagues’ way of working was the same as mine. I then got frustrated when they didn’t stay as late as I did or reply as soon as I wanted. I rolled up my sleeves and did things myself, thinking I was proving that I was capable.
But by not collaborating, I was redoing work and creating knowledge silos. One peer mentioned that despite my work ethic, I could be a “bulldozer.” I was both shocked and humbled. It wasn’t only what I got done that mattered; it was how I did it with others. I hadn’t earned my team’s trust. I didn’t know about their families or what they cared about because I had never asked.
I spent the next year learning who my co-workers were outside the office and beyond their work goals. Getting to know my team as real people helped me not only get things done but also become a better teammate and leader.
8. Manage your energy, not your time
Many have called me a “productivity junkie.” I used to schedule my tasks in 25-minute increments per the Pomodoro technique, including replying to texts, going to the gym, and reading the news. My output increased, but I somehow felt that I had less time. By the end of the day, my energy was depleted.
Then I heard Naval Ravikant, the former CEO of AngelList, say that his number one priority in life—above his happiness, his family, and his work—was his health. The maxim that “you can’t pour from an empty cup” finally made sense.
Energy, not time, became the currency that I started to save and protect before I decided where to spend it. Things I thought I had no time for—exercising, taking walks, socializing—became my top investments to recharge my mind and body. I became aware of unconscious things I did that were sapping my energy and taking up valuable mind space, like ruminating. Managing my energy helped me use my time more meaningfully and productively.
9. Make your call to action clear
For one of my first products, I created a deck with robust data and facts on how to grow market share. My manager, Carissa, was curious about some trends, but she also asked me, “So what?” Despite my many slides, I hadn’t communicated what I wanted my audience, the engineering lead of another team, to do. Did I need them to help me secure more resources or agree to collaborate with us?
When I didn't make my call to action clear, nothing I said landed with my audience. To get them to buy into my idea, I needed them to feel like they were part of the journey. To get them excited, I needed to tell a story around my data that would motivate them.
My ideas and plans were only as good as how I communicated them. Carissa wasn’t able to do anything with what I said because she didn’t understand what I was trying to say—or even why it was important. Now I always start every presentation not with what I want my audience to take away, but with what I want them to do.
10. Celebrate your wins
I recently looked at a five-year plan I made when I was 23. I was surprised that I had accomplished most of the things on the list. When my partner, Marty, jokingly asked if I had forgotten about my achievements, I had to admit that I rarely recognize what I’ve done. Because I've always equated celebrations with complacency, I've always set new goals to strive for next rather than celebrating my wins.
This is the success trap of moving goalposts, or what Harvard professor Dan Gilbert calls the "Impact Bias." You’re never as happy as you think you’ll be when you achieve a goal because the mind adapts to your current circumstances. This “hedonic adaptation” created an endless cycle of me being dissatisfied with my progress and feeling like an imposter.
I was skeptical when my coach insisted that celebrating my wins could help me better achieve my goals. After all, it was my constant determination to achieve that had gotten me to where I was. But she showed me how celebrating could help me pause and pinpoint patterns, which I could then recreate. Remembering how I had prevailed in the past helped me strengthen my conviction to overcome current challenges.
The thoughtful celebration wasn't self-indulgent; rather, it was a powerful tool for sustaining my long-term growth. I’ve learned to be aware of when I fall into this unforgiving cycle of striving for perfection. I now ask myself if the “me from a decade ago” would be proud of who I am today, and I celebrate that the answer is yes.
Navigating the beginning of my career felt intimidating and isolating at times, but I felt less alone when I met others who were on the same journey. When I was recruiting in college, my brother gave me a card with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Life is a journey, not a destination." The start of your career is the beginning of your journey, and I hope that this guide helps you with yours.
Charlene Lee is a guest writer who wishes Perspectives existed when she was starting her career. She’s a product management leader who has led teams at Google and startups as Senior Director of Product. Now she aims to help the next generation of young professionals navigate the workplace. Connect with her @charlenealee on LinkedIn, Instagram, and Twitter.