Career Development: How to Improve Your Work Experience

Joanna Nesbit

By Joanna Nesbit
Joanna Nesbit writes about college, education, personal finance, and the nuts and bolts of transitioning to adulthood. Follow her on Twitter at @joannanesbit or learn more at
Posted on 03/29/2018

Starting my career after graduate school wasn't easy. It took me a while to find my first professional job. I'd chosen to stay in the town where I'd earned my degree—not known for fantastic job opportunities—and the search process felt demoralizing. There were too many over-educated applicants, not enough openings.

The job I finally landed didn't pay well and wasn't challenging, but I started with an open mind. It didn't last: My attitude trended steadily downward, leaking into my daily comportment. I felt bored, frustrated, and undervalued, and quit after eight months.

I realize now my attitude contributed heavily to that job being unfulfilling, and career coach Jenn DeWall agrees. Denver-based DeWall works primarily with female Millennials to help realize their potential, and also gives customized workshops and motivational presentations to broader audiences. When I asked her which attitude tendencies cause workplace stress, her descriptions totally nailed my younger work self.

Much has been written about how the workplace is changing for Grownups, but Grownups have work to do, too. Here's what DeWall recommends:

Set goals.

They don't have to be big—perhaps it's learning better time-management strategies or volunteering for new assignments. The key is to work toward something unfamiliar to build confidence and purpose, which simultaneously gives our employer reasons to value who we are, DeWall explains. Be on the lookout for opportunities. Maybe you'll have a chance to reverse mentor, like the junior employee who taught her senior New York Times assignment editor how to use Snapchat to engage younger audiences.

Don't rely on external reassurance.

These days, most young people have grown up with an avalanche of accolades from parents, coaches, and teachers. But DeWall says relying on external reassurance is a learned behavior that doesn't serve us well. To evolve without constant back patting, we must develop our own self-assurance. (This doesn't mean we don't need effective feedback; we do.) Create your own “great list,” a compilation of your achievements to remind you of what you've done well. Trust in your abilities, and be open to constructive feedback when you get it.

Avoid negative thinking.

As DeWall says, “We are the producers of our work culture, and we need to recognize and own that we contribute to it.” When we complain or gossip, we don't model leadership or perseverance or see the value of others. Negative thinking stagnates us in our position and limits our growth opportunities because our superiors notice our attitude.

Embrace failure.

No one likes falling on their face—I've done a lot of self-talk on this one—but avoiding mistakes at all costs means you're not learning, stretching, or taking risks. “If you've never failed,” DeWall says, “it's going to be difficult to achieve management or director status because you're so used to things not going wrong. Upper-management people are willing to take risks, and they have experience with failure.” To female Grownups in particular: Do you fear failure? Women tend to be great rule followers, but this trait doesn't always serve career aspirations.

Examine limiting entrenched beliefs.

We often put limits on ourselves without even realizing it. We're too young; we're not qualified; we're not educated enough. Women especially fall into the trap of thinking they should possess 100 percent of the qualifications on a job application to apply, while far fewer men think the same way. There's no question it isn't easy for female Grownups in corporate America, even in 2016, but it's crucial to get beyond limited belief systems.

Seek a lateral promotion.

Many focus on climbing the ladder in part because it feeds their ego, DeWall says, but moving up might not be the best fit, at least right now. Moving laterally allows you to diversify your background and provides additional experience to contribute to that higher-level job when you do get promoted. Sometimes taking a higher position with more responsibility can be the wrong move when it conflicts with work/life balance goals. “Give yourself permission to try something and not see the lateral move as a failure, but a testament to self-awareness and knowing what you need right now,” DeWall recommends.

Be a self-starter.

Along with setting goals, taking initiative is a no-brainer, but not everyone does it. When you do, however, your colleagues and employers notice. “It's important to show you're open to feedback and criticism, as well as demonstrate your passion and commitment to the job, because it speaks volumes about the kind of employee you'll be,” DeWall says. When colleagues believe in you, they're more inclined to give you new assignments and provide support.

Be curious.

Demonstrating curiosity shows you're a self-starter. Instead of simply locking into your position like a machine cog, learn about your position and why your company assigns you your particular responsibilities. Learn why your job matters. Take your curiosity to a brainstorming session with your team. Look at the quarterly earning reports to better understand your company. In short: Be active, not passive.


I read every day. Sadly, many people don't read for pleasure, and the number of literature readers has been dropping steadily. DeWall says reading, all kinds, keeps you curious. Readers are happier and more confident than non-readers, she says, who are more prone to feeling stuck, less able to see the big picture, and less willing to consider different ways to solve problems. Non-readers can start by picking up magazines that interest them, DeWall suggests, or subscribing to a newspaper online.