What I Wish I Knew About Work When I Was Younger, According To 12 Men

Whether you’ve been working for decades or are just starting out, this hard-won advice is worth remembering.

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Unless you’re a secret gazillionaire (in which case, congrats), work will be a constant in your life until your kids are adults. Chances are, you’ve already learned a good deal about work. About managing up, and finding some semblance of balance. About what pride in your job feels like, and how to deal with not-so-great coworkers. But it’s never a bad idea to hear about the experiences of others and what they’ve learned during their careers. Good advice lurks everywhere. That’s why we reached out to 12 men and asked them to tell us what they wish they knew about work when they were younger. They looked back on their work-life so far and spoke about the importance of authenticity, why sick days are meant to be spent, and the rarity of good bosses. And they largely cut through the B.S. And whether you’ve been working for 25 years or are just starting out, this hard-won career advice is worth remembering.

1. The Sky Is Probably Not Falling

“Now that I’m older, I know when I have to work hard, and when it’s not necessary. When you’re young and wide-eyed, you think that every part of your job is the most important thing in the world. And that’s not your fault, because most people make it seem that way. But, unless you’re in a field where actual emergencies happen things aren’t as urgent as they seem. It’s important to work hard, and it’s important to take your job seriously. But there’s a difference between doing that, and the unrealistic ‘sky is falling’ mindset that every single part of your job is an emergency. It’s not. And most of the time, it can probably wait.” - Adam, 50, New York

2. Authenticity Matters

“After I dropped out of high school and started working full time as a teenager, I really wanted to make a positive impression on my bosses. That led me to tell people more of what I thought they wanted to hear and I acted like I thought people wanted me to act. It wasn’t until I became an entrepreneur that I realized that being myself and sharing myself authentically was more powerful to stand out and make a positive impression. As I reached my 40s, I realized further that the only way to leave a true legacy to my family, friends, industry and community was being authentically myself. Even if that means choosing board shorts to wear to a business meeting, or proudly wearing my pony tail. It’s who I am.” - Mike, 46, Winnipeg

3. Vacation Days Should Be Spent

“If I could talk to my younger self about work, I would say, ‘Use every single one of your sick days, personal days, and whatever other days you have.’ I used to take pride in never calling off sick, or sticking around during summer and not going on vacation. And I did it because I thought it would make me seem indispensable. Well, I got dispensed. When I asked about my dedication to the company, they may as well have said, ‘Gotcha, sucker!’ Since then, I’ve used every single day off I have and never looked back. I’m tactful, of course. But those days are mine, and I’m going to use the hell out of them. I’m less worried about taking care of work, and more concerned with taking care of myself. Truthfully, it’s made me a much better, more relaxed employee.” - Connor, 43, Pennsylvania

4. Making Strong Connections Is Crucial

“When I was younger, one thing I wish I would have had a better understanding of was the importance of networking and building professional relationships. Being able to ask the right questions, introduce yourself properly, and make an impression can open doors to incredible opportunities. It's important to remember that job openings aren't always listed publicly and having connections can be the key to spotting them before anyone else does. Making connections is also incredibly valuable when it comes to learning from other more experienced professionals in terms of getting insider information on trends in your industry or setting yourself apart from other applicants with additional skills. Overall, having a comprehensive understanding on how networking works could have benefitted me immensely growing up.” - Jon, 41, West Virginia

5. Set Your Expectations Wisely

“I wish I knew how important it is to appreciate the moment you are in. As I’ve grown older, I’ve started putting incredible value on my time and prioritizing who I give it to. There is an opportunity cost to every minute in the day, especially as a father and husband. If I agree to help a friend move, stay late at work, or get a beer with a colleague, that takes away from the valuable, fleeting time I have with my children and wife. You have to set your expectations wisely, and cherish the moments you have with your family. Becoming a father means you inheritably move down on the priority list in your home. Your time, your energy, your life now belong to a greater purpose and your needs and maybe some career goals will need to take a back seat. And that's okay, as long as you can stay present.” - Taylor, 35, Arizona

6. Taking Responsibility

“I wish I knew the importance of taking responsibility. You can gain control over your life by taking the wheel and accepting responsibility for your choices. As your sense of self-awareness grows, you'll be more motivated to make changes in your life for the better. Plus, accepting responsibility shows maturity, honesty, and a strong work ethic, all of which can have a good effect on relationships in both your professional and personal life. On the other hand, a lack of accountability can result in a pattern of blaming others and making excuses, which can harm relationships and stunt personal development. It's a realization that has completely changed my life more than I ever thought it would.” - Thomas, 45, Tennessee

7. Don’t Force Your Next Step

“Focus on learning as much as possible in each role you take up. This is important for two reasons. Firstly, the more you know about different fields and industries, the better the chances of discovering something you are passionate about. Secondly, staying open to different opportunities allows you to be flexible when making career changes. During my early years, I was always focused on climbing the corporate ladder and reaching upper management positions quickly, but this limited my learning opportunities and caused me to miss out on valuable experiences.” - Mark, 32, Missouri

8. Work For Yourself, Not Your Employer

“Our culture emphasizes hard work, and we’re lured into the assumption that working hard will result in promotions, raises, and so forth. But what I’ve learned over the years is that this system mostly exploits people. Sure, there might be exceptions. But at the heart of things the truth is that there’s no reason for employers to reward employees for working hard just because they’re working hard. I would teach my younger self, as I’m teaching my children, to work for yourself. Know your value. Know what you want to do. And don’t be afraid to go where you need to be to get it done.” - Darren, 41, Texas

9. Work Backwards

“A good rule of thumb I’ve learned is to reverse engineer your career path from your ideal job’s description, and see what you have to offer. From there, you can see what you need to work on as well. I fell into the trap of doing what my parents told me to do until I was 18. Then, I did what my professors told me to do in college. After that, I did what my first bosses told me to do. I had no original thought or plan of action to build a career and life the way I wanted to. What I wish I would’ve done is start to internalize, realize, and visualize my dream life. I would’ve identified my relevance in terms of value to a prospective employer, while considering what my passions were. Then I could’ve figured out what drove me, what motivated me, and what would make me happy.” - Matt, 42, North Carolina

10. You Have To Evolve

“Company loyalty is dead. I work in marketing, but it’s like that all over. Technology continues to evolve, and companies are always looking for the next big thing. If you don’t make time to evolve and adapt, you’ll end up unemployed at some point in your career. My industry, specifically, is seen as a ‘nice to have’ department for many businesses. It’s like a feather in the cap of a growing company’s success. That only lasts as long as times are good, and will eventually result in rough times if the economy tanks, or salesmen don't perform. Employers expect young employees to make some mistakes. What they want to see is your ability to own up to them, learn from them, and evolve so that you don't make the same mistakes again and again.” - Allen, 51, Texas

11. You Are Not Your Job

“In my late 20s, I had an awesome job. So awesome, that I identified myself strictly by my job whenever I could. It consumed all of my energy, all of my time, and all of my passion. And then I got fired. I was utterly and completely lost, because I had no identity outside of being the guy who worked at that company. I got depressed. I self-sabotaged other opportunities. It was honestly the worst, most painful breakup of my life. A decade later, I realized my mistake. It’s okay to love your job. In fact, it’s great. It’s rare. But eventually there will come a day when it’s not there. I wasn’t prepared for that. A career can make a great chapter in the book of your life, but it shouldn’t be the whole story.” - Jared, 41, Ohio

12. Good Bosses Are Rare

“I’ve been in the workforce now for more than 20 years, and I’ve only had one good boss. It was my first job out of college, and I wish I would’ve known how lucky I was to work for a guy like him. It wasn’t just that he was a cool guy, though he was. He was the only boss I’ve ever had who made me want to come to work each day and impress him. He motivated me in a way that made me genuinely excited to do my best, and make him proud. When I went to my next job, and my next, and my next, I ran into a ton of different types of bosses. Some were nice, pleasant, and kind of boring. Others were just assholes. But none of them made me care about the work I was doing like that first one. If I’d known what a diamond in the rough he was, I might still be working for him.” - Aaron, 42, Illinois

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