7 pieces of career advice that have stood the test of time | Behind the Business

This week, I joined a panel of alumni from my old university to speak to soon-to-be graduates as they prepare for their careers. We all remember what it was like before we joined the world of work – for me, it was a mix of awe and excitement, and absolute fear of the unknown. So I always hope I can give them some inspiration and some reassurance. Here, I’ve put pen to paper to share 7 pieces of career advice that have stood the test of time for me.

1. Stay open minded

When I was training (in multimedia journalism), I wanted to be a features writer. I’d done placements at national magazines and spent many late nights in the university newsroom editing the student newspaper. I really didn’t enjoy the video section of my course. Creating news video packages didn’t inspire me, and I was never going to be a competitive enough journo to want to chase someone down with a camera and a microphone. 

It was only during my internship at Mumsnet that I fell into creating video content for brands. As a powerhouse national brand itself, Mumsnet had incredible A-list guests coming through the door every week, and nobody else in the office had the time and skills to capture them. So I was given an opportunity and I ran with it, figuring out what I didn’t know along the way. 

Five years later, when I was offered a dream job at HELLO!, I never could have imagined that I’d eventually give it up to work for myself. I’m a planner! Freelancing – let alone running a small business – was never in my sights. But as more and more people enquired about working with me, I developed a hunch that it was possible. And again, I went with it. 

Your first job won’t be your last, and it doesn’t define you. Your current job doesn’t have to be your last, and doesn’t define you. I always tell soon-to-be graduates to stay open-minded – you never know where an opportunity will take you, and you can always change your path.

2. Ask for what you want (and need)

For me, this lesson started with my first boss, on the day of my first appraisal, when she whispered to me – just before we walked in – that I should ask her for more money. I was floored by the breakdown of the traditional boss-employee barrier. It hadn’t even crossed my mind before, I was grateful just to have the job, but I did ask and – of course, thanks to her – it was approved. 

I’ve always remembered that and I’ve often encouraged friends, peers and people I’ve been responsible for at work to do the same. It’s true that if you don’t ask, you don’t get, but it’s much more layered than that – some bosses, and some companies, proudly hold up work cultures where it doesn’t feel safe to ask, and that’s not OK.

So it’s particularly important for anyone from a discriminated-against group to know that they can, and should, ask for what they want and need at work. And it’s vital that those people rising up the ranks to become gatekeepers, who can actually influence these outcomes, are reminded of the opportunity they have to help create a fairer workplace for everybody.

In the almost-decade since I started out, I’ve had to learn how to negotiate pay, progress, responsibilities, trips, training, hours, resources, outsourcing, boundaries and – of course – goodbyes and new beginnings. 

And none of this stops when you leave the 9-5, by the way; freelancers and founders wrestle just as much with how to protect their wants and needs while running a successful business. I for one am half-heartedly enforcing a rule that says I don’t start work until I’ve done yoga in the morning. I often eat a sad lunch after 3pm because I’ve not made the time or effort earlier. I’ve only just given myself a decent monthly salary, as I preferred before to plough everything back into the business. And I still struggle to delegate. 

But I’m better now at spotting these opportunities to work more sustainably. I regularly say to myself “what do I need?” when I can sense that I’m in a grey area or about to cross some unarticulated line within myself. I’m getting good at taking time off. And I certainly have practiced hard conversations with clients – with positive results, like resolving misunderstandings, standing firm on my requirements, or securing better rates and resources. 

Tune into what you want and need, and begin to practice going after it. 

3. Remember that your “other” skills are often the most valuable

I don’t get hired for my skills or talents as a videographer. Not solely. I realised this not long after starting out on my own, when clients were keen to book me without necessarily having seen the work I’ve produced.

So what was happening? Most had been referred to me by someone they trust, others were sold on just the headlines from my CV. All of them were willing to pay for the service as much as the product.

Your “other” skills – outside of those related to your technical discipline – are highly coveted and worth paying for. Things like reliability, trust, having high standards, a strong work ethic, being a joy to work with, being open, having ideas, and deeply respecting the clients and brands that you work for. Not everybody possesses these qualities. 

I can remember interviewing potential in-house video assistants who turned up late and (quite probably) hungover to an opportunity with a national brand. Maybe they just didn’t care, and it showed.

I’ve had clients come to me because other videographers haven’t delivered – they’ve gotten sloppy with their timelines or communications, or they didn’t take the time to really ‘get’ the heart of the brief in the first place. Whilst from a technical point of view, their product may have been professional, their service was lacking. 

And I’ve certainly secured work – as well as recommissions – because I was able to push through my comfort zone and introduce myself to people on set, or at events like careers forums. Building rapport, nurturing relationships and being able to network are all “other” skills which set you apart from people who may be just as technically able as you, but who struggle to put themselves in the path of opportunity. 

Like any other skills, these can be practiced and honed over time. They’re just often overlooked when we’re worrying whether we’ve got the technical experience to go for a job, or when we’re justifying our wants and needs in negotiations at work. Remember you’re not just being paid for your product, you’re being hired for what you bring to the role. I found it helpful to write my “other” skills down and refer back to it in moments of self-doubt.

4. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room

This is an absolute given for people just starting out, but it’s true as you move up the ladder too. You cannot know everything and you will get caught out if you pretend to.

Here are some phrases I got a lot of use out of at work:

  • “I’m not sure, to be honest” followed by an assurance that I’ll look into it.
  • “My initial thought is [whatever I think is best], but let’s check what the stats say.” (Most companies collect data on their audience’s behaviour and this often holds answers)
  • “This is outside of my remit” i.e. kindly ask someone whose job it is to know, or give me adequate time to figure it out.
  • “Do you mind if I get your input on something?” to someone who may have more knowledge or a different perspective on something that’s got you stuck.

See also: buying time to google something, watching a tutorial, reading stories from people in similar situations, not being too threatened to hire talented people, and outright asking for help.

Even in my own business now, I have to remind myself that I am not best placed to do everything. After several stressful Januarys, I hired an accountancy firm. When I first overbooked myself as a freelancer, I had to delegate without having factored in margins – I didn’t make that mistake again. I’ve attended courses to fast-track my learning, where an expert can teach me something it would take me weeks to understand from google. It is a lesson that will never stop showing up.

So let’s all be more open about the fact that you never know everything, especially in the online world, which moves so fast – learning is inevitable, delegating is essential.

5. You can’t pour from an empty cup

When you are young and hungry and you have all the time and energy to devote to your career, you may well give it everything. You’ll probably be rewarded for this, as I was, with promotions and “success” and the approval or interest of others. But it does come at a price. 

People don’t generally share on Instagram when they’re crying in toilet cubicles. Or having an anxiety attack on the way to work. When they miss trains home to see their family or are late to their best friend’s birthday because they were trying to tackle their neverending To Do list. When they’re doubting themselves or wondering if they’ll ever feel they’ve figured things out.

I don’t love the expression “you can’t pour from an empty cup” – who’s pouring from a cup anyway?? – but it’s become shorthand for a lesson I’ve certainly lived and learned. Your first job is to look after you. If you don’t, you personally will shoulder the burden for a while – during which time it’ll take its toll on your social life, your mind, and eventually your body – then inevitably your work will suffer too. Although it is in your employer’s interest to care if they’ve facilitated a toxic or unsustainable culture, not every company will. So the responsibility lies with each of us to look after ourselves first. 

This has taken many shapes for me over the years. When I was in-house, it was predominantly about flagging and resolving challenges or imbalances, and getting to know my own boundaries. Now, as my own boss, it’s part of every decision I make, from how I set my rates (to allow me adequate time and resource to do a job well), to the hours I work (to protect time off and time for self-care necessities like exercise) and the projects or clients I’ll politely decline.

So be hungry, be determined, be successful (on your own terms) – but keep balance in mind.

6. It’s a small world (don’t be a dick)

My work experience placement during university was at More! Magazine. The Deputy Editor at the time, who I’d crossed over with, would later leave that role and set up a hugely successful blog. Years down the line, when I was overseeing the video team at Mumsnet, she was one of many talents in our influencers network who were commissioned to create content with us. Since I started up on my own, I’ve also been commissioned to work with her pals in the influencer sphere, and she’s attended courses I’ve run. 

It is a small world. Even the world of big brands or national magazines or major broadcasters. Whatever your field is, you can bet that you’ll cross paths with the same people over time, and they will – or won’t – mention your name when opportunities come up, depending on whether they remember you for the right reasons (and depending on how generous they are, of course, but you can’t control that part).

So… don’t be a dick. Or do, if you like, but don’t expect people not to notice. 

There are some ways I think I’ve worked by this motto quite well; I like to think I treat everyone the same, whether they’re an A-lister or an intern. I generally stayed out of office gossip. And I made a conscious effort to share opportunities with others.

There are other things I wouldn’t repeat if I had my time again; I wasn’t above using a bitter nickname at home for someone who was making work difficult. My expectations were once so high as a manager that I missed signs that explained why someone could be struggling. I used to indulge people when they asked if I’d had any nightmare celebrity encounters, whereas now I never do, because it may have just been an off-day and those tales travel fast. 

You’ll make mistakes too, just don’t go on the offensive. Don’t make them your entire work persona, as some people do – the ones who thrive on being contrary, insensitive, aggressive or totalitarian. Those people aren’t getting their names mentioned for the right reasons, and they’re not helping themselves in the long run. As the saying goes, be nice to people on the way up – you never know who you’ll need on the way down. But also? Work’s just a whole lot better for everyone when you’re all on the same side.

7. Do what you love, love what you do

I’ve borrowed that title from a much-loved client, Holly Tucker, who has a brilliant book of the same.

Let me be the first to say that “loving” what you do does NOT mean that you’re walking on air in the office, that you never get stressed or resent work some days. You are human. 

But we humans do spend a lot of our precious and limited time at work, so it does help to enjoy it or to find some kind of purpose in it. And that looks different for everyone – Hollywood is biased and tends to show only a few versions of it, but any job or cause can be one that somebody loves and takes pride in. 

So how do you foster and protect a love for what you do? Well, here’s my take.

  • Firstly, I remember which bits of the job I love. For me, it’s the storytelling, it’s the end-to-end production (I love a project!), it’s working with inspiring people and amazing brands, it’s taking all these random elements and overcoming challenges to turn it into something with meaning together.
  • If I’m lacking my usual get-up-and-go, I borrow this reminder: “I don’t have to this, I get to do this.” I look at the bigger picture for as long as I need to, to remember that it’s a privilege to work, to have choice and agency about the work, to earn good money and to take satisfaction from it too. 
  • I’m reminding myself more frequently of the wins – big and small. That might just be re-reading an email of appreciation from a client. It might be looking at the numbers and allowing myself to recognise how far I’ve come. Sometimes it’s as simple as the novelty of walking around or being with my family when everyone else is at work, because flexibility was one of my incentives for leaving the 9-5.
  • I’m creating space and resources to outsource the bits I don’t love. 

No relationship in life is thriving 100% of the time. Loving what you do, just like any other relationship, takes work. But if it means you being happier more days than not, if you feel like yourself in it, if it lifts you up and positively adds to your life – which has a ripple effect on everyone and everything else in it, by the way – then, I’ve found, the work is worth it.