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12 Common Career Mistakes You Need to Avoid If You Want to Get Ahead


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It’s all too easy to get stuck in a rut in your career. The average worker’s salary plateaus and then starts declining, and earlier than you’d think. According to the Federal Reserve, income growth virtually grinds to a halt by age 35.

Fortunately, you have more control over your career than it often seems. By consciously putting it under the microscope, you can see exactly where you’re going wrong and take steps to do better.

Do more interesting, fulfilling, and lucrative work and get your career back on track by cutting out these all-too-common mistakes.

Career Mistakes to Avoid

1. Assuming Your Job Is Static

Too many workers think their job is completely safe and stable. They think to themselves, “I know my job well. I’m good at it, and I can ride this gravy train until I get bored or retire.”

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No, you can’t. Just ask the many older works who are laid off or forced to retire.

When you assume your job is static, you stop paying attention. You stop learning new things. And you set yourself up for a nasty shock when your job disappears to a merger, acquisition, downsizing, or plain old-fashioned firing.

Don’t get complacent about your job. It isn’t guaranteed, and it won’t stay the same, either. By drifting into your comfort zone, you won’t push yourself to learn new skills you need to adapt and evolve.

2. Failing to Learn New Skills

Today’s business world moves faster than it did in the 20th century.

Remember Moore’s Law? It holds that the computing power of microprocessors doubles every 18 months. That means exponential acceleration in technological growth – which is precisely what we’ve seen in the 50-some years since Gordon Moore predicted it in 1965.

While scientists can nitpick over the exact speed of technological growth, the point is technology continues to accelerate faster than ever, and that change impacts every industry on the planet. And with faster technological change comes faster obsolescence of old skills.

Again, complacency leads to a false sense of security. Your industry is changing whether you see it from your personal bubble or not.

You either grow and evolve along with it or get left behind as the world moves on. So learn a new technology, earn a new certification, or stay up to date on the latest marketing tactics. It always pays to be better informed.

And when you can’t see around the bend to understand the hard skills you’ll need in the future, start with soft skills that will be increasingly important in a fast-changing world.

3. Focusing on Only Your Own Work

Too many employees fixate on their tiny sphere of influence and ignore the bigger picture of their company’s goals. That leads them to fixate on the wrong things – tasks that keep them busy but do little to contribute to the organization’s broader mission or profitability.

Always ask yourself, “What end goal does my work achieve for the company?” Answering that question helps you look for more efficient and effective ways of accomplishing those goals. It lets you stop spinning your wheels on work that feels important but doesn’t move the needle for your company.

It helps if you stay on top of the larger trends affecting your industry. Not everyone has an hour every morning to read The Wall Street Journal from cover to cover. So try Morning Brew’s five-minute business news summary (read our full review of Morning Brew here).

Man Focused Working Computer Office

4. Not Volunteering for More Responsibility

Many employees get it backward: They think they should get a promotion before taking on more responsibility.

It doesn’t work like that. Instead, ask for additional responsibility before asking for a raise. You can then justify a significantly higher paycheck by pointing out the greater value you provide the organization.

Think about it. Who gets the nod when it comes time to choose someone for promotion if you’re overseeing higher-responsibility work while your colleagues fiddle with lower-level tasks?

Take the initiative and volunteer for higher-function work. Prove your value. Then leverage it into a raise and formal promotion.

5. Not Pursuing Promotions Actively

Similarly, promotions rarely come looking for you. You need to go out and find them yourself.

If you don’t know how to differentiate yourself to climb the corporate ladder, ask your boss directly. Say, “I like this organization and would like to make a career here if there’s room for me to grow. What would you like to see from me to make that happen?”

Get as clear as you can about expectations and the additional responsibilities you want. Then deliver on them.

After you’ve demonstrated how much value you create, go back to your boss and ask for a raise. The worst they can say is no, in which case you can explore other employers. But by proactively asking, you have a fighting chance to negotiate a higher salary, better benefits, and a more prestigious title.

6. Not Negotiating for More

My grandfather was an entrepreneur who built a company that remains strong to this day. He had a saying that stuck with me: You don’t get what you deserve in life; you get what you negotiate.

If you create value for your employer, they will want to keep you. But that doesn’t mean they want to pay you as much as they can afford. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Their goal is to pay you what they think they must to keep you and not a penny more. Your goal is to secure the best possible compensation package and title without burning bridges.

Start with proven salary and benefit negotiation tactics as you prepare to ask for a raise or promotion. Use as much data as you can to defend your request, including your own performance data and comparable salaries from sites like PayScale.

Keep in mind that not all benefits cost the company money. For example, being able to telecommute and work from home might make your life easier without actually costing your employer a penny.

7. Not Setting Boundaries

If you don’t learn how to say no, your colleagues and bosses will keep piling work on you until you collapse under the weight.

That may sound like it contradicts the advice to accept more responsibility. But the key isn’t taking on all responsibilities. It’s taking on the right responsibilities – responsibilities that create higher-level value for the company rather than low-skill busywork.

When people ask you to do something for them, use a simple litmus test: Compared to my regular work, will this task create more measurable value for the company that I can point to when negotiating for a promotion?

Copying files for a lazy coworker fails that litmus test. Managing more lucrative clients passes it.

Determining what work to take on is only half the battle, though. Just as important, you must learn how to say no in a way that leaves your colleagues with more respect for you, not less.

Try this approach: “While I’m flattered you thought of me, I can’t take that on and also do ________, which is my primary work that creates the most value for the company.”

Overwhelmed At Work Office Post Its Stressed Employee

8. Communicating Poorly

The world judges you, for better or worse, based on your ability to communicate. When you send out an email full of misspelled words and grammatical errors, it doesn’t matter how brilliant your idea was. You still look foolish.

In other words, people assess your intelligence and competence based not just on what you say but how you say it. That means you need to make it a priority to communicate crisply, persuasively, and charismatically.

Start by improving your business writing skills, which is easier than you think. When in doubt, use short, concise sentences with smaller, unambiguous words. Too many people believe using longer words makes them look smart. But if you misuse them, the opposite is true. Even when you use them properly, you often look pompous or desperate to impress.

Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, offers succint advice to become a better writer. Take 60 seconds to read it the next time you draft an important memo or email.

But written communication only forms one piece of the puzzle. You also need to communicate better orally.

Start by reading Olivia Fox Cabane’s excellent book “The Charisma Myth.” It’s essentially a cheat sheet for how to make others perceive you as strong but warm whenever you open your mouth.

Then go to work on your public speaking skills. Like anything else, if you do enough of it, you can attain mastery. Join Toastmasters, which has independently run speaking clubs all over the world, to practice public speaking until you master it.

9. Neglecting Networking

According to a study by LinkedIn, 85% of jobs are never advertised. So finding a job really is more about who you know.

The good news is that anyone can become a good networker. Learn to network and start expanding and reinforcing your contacts to keep a finger on the pulse of better job opportunities.

If you’re shy, know that even introverts can network successfully. In fact, almost half of entrepreneurs and executives are introverts, according to Forbes.

10. Burning Bridges

If networking is a good offense, not burning your existing bridges is a good defense.

That includes your current boss and colleagues, even when you think you have a new job lined up. Stay courteous, stay professional, and avoid the urge to storm out of the office in a blaze of glory.

Burning bridges includes gossiping and saying anything negative about coworkers, management, or the company at large. If you have to vent, do it to your spouse or friends in a completely different industry. Avoid negativity at all costs. Remember what your mother taught you: If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all.

You never know when people you worked with previously will reemerge in your life and be in a position to help or hinder your career.

11. Nursing a Negative Attitude

Gossiping about your coworkers is just the tip of the negativity iceberg. Not only do you need to curb the impulse to talk trash, you need to maintain a positive attitude in general.

No one likes negative people. It’s not funny or cute to be the sardonic downer taking shots from the outskirts because you refuse to engage fully. It’s toxic and saps the energy of everyone else on your team.

Cynics don’t get promoted above lower or middle management, at best. And they only make it that far because higher managers weren’t paying enough attention.

Start cultivating a positive, friendly, can-do attitude. It might sound cliché, but there’s a good reason you’ve heard the same advice a thousand times before.

12. Failing to Score a New Job Before Quitting

Here’s another line you’ve heard before: It’s easier to find a job when you already have one.

When you start scouting new jobs from the comfort of your current job, you have the luxury of time. You can apply for dream jobs or significant advances in your career and only leap when you land a truly better job.

But with a rapidly draining bank account and bill collectors circling, it’s tough to hold out for an upward move. Most people start getting desperate and take lateral or even lower positions.

Compounding the challenge, managers don’t like to hire desperate-seeming applicants. It’s human nature. When a person seems desperate, others assume there’s low demand for them, which in turn suggests they aren’t a good hire.

If at all possible, take your time to prepare for a career change. Keep a cool head and climb toward your dream position strategically rather than leaping first and then scrambling to catch hold of the ladder again.

Final Word

If managing your career were easy, we’d live in a world full of C-suite executives.

But while it may not be easy, it’s not complicated, either. It doesn’t take a career expert to avoid these types of mistakes. What it takes is determination, self-awareness, and a growth mindset.

Your job isn’t static, and neither are you. You can and must learn new skills, improve your attitude, and work better with others. If you don’t, you’ll fall behind your colleagues, because you’d better believe they’re not standing still.

Start by viewing your career as a living, evolving organism. What will it take to grow it? It certainly won’t sprout upward by itself. The days of spending 40 years working for the same company disappeared with the last century. In today’s world, you can either take charge of caring for your career or watch it wither and droop.

You have control over it, either way.

What are you doing to nurture your career? What common career mistakes do you see others making?

G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.