The Career Mistake You Need To Stop Making NOW

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embedPhotographed by Erin Yamagata.
Household names. We all know them: Target, Bank of America, Nike, Coca-Cola.

Why work at a small marketing agency when you could be at Digitas on Park Avenue? Who wants to work at a local news station when you could be at NBC headquarters in Rockefeller Center? Working for your mom’s best friend’s uncle is so unsexy when you could be consulting at PricewaterhouseCoopers!

Looking back on my own career, I am not 100% sure why I was so focused on the Fortune 500 when it came to my job search. Was it because I was attracted to the brand name? Probably. Was it elitist? Yes. Did I want to show off in cocktail party conversations? Of course! Fancy role at a fancy-name company equals instant success, right?

Wrong! (At least for me.) I found that when it came to looking for a job, especially when I was new to the job market or changing careers, going with a brand name was actually a less than thrilling experience. By narrowing my focus so much, I didn’t get the chance to explore what was out there.

We live in a culture that is all about status. Amass enough degrees, accolades, certificates, fancy titles, and you’re good to go! But, what’s next? When you’ve exhausted all the hard praise, what will you be left doing all day, everyday? Will you like it?

Good, strong, successful careers take years to build — years that are challenging and often characterized by nose-to-the-grindstone work.

When I entered a new industry, my number one goal was not necessarily to just succeed — not at that early stage, anyway. My number one goal was to explore. I needed to get a lay of the land, test out a few different roles, try out different departments and explore different angles before I dug in for the long haul. I had to discover what I liked by learning what I didn’t like.

The problem with big companies is that though they have lots of departments, those departments are usually very siloed — sometimes even in different buildings or different cities.

In the best case scenario of working in a large company, I learned a lot about the specific task of my department. At worst, I found myself stuck in a quagmire of inefficiency, learning only that I didn’t like meetings.

I once got a job at a fancy media company, whose name you would know. My office was in Times Square! I had my own cubicle! I hob-nobbed with VPs! And then, business got slow in January and February, and for six weeks straight my manager cancelled our daily meeting. That was the only thing on my schedule. For six weeks I sat in my cubicle wondering what to do that day with the rest of my team seven floors away — and no one to give me any instructions.

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On the other hand, when I was a photo editor at a much smaller company, running out of work was exciting! That was my chance to saunter over to one of the other teams and learn what they were working on.

Smaller companies tend to be much more nimble and fluid, and, more importantly, chronically understaffed. Express an interest in engineering or marketing, and you might get invited to sit in on one of their meetings. They would love to have you sit in on meetings! Demonstrate a curiosity in event planning and you could be the extra hands volunteering at a big party.

Granted, in my position at the smaller company, I wasn’t learning how big companies operated, but at that moment in my career, that was OK. I didn’t need to know how to manage 30,000 employees in four countries (yet). I just needed to make sure that what I was doing was something that I was interested enough in doing every day for the next 20 (or so) years.

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