11 Successful Women Recall Their Early Career Mistakes
Some career mistakes, like not negotiating your salary or dressing the part, can be seriously damaging to your professional growth. Others, like focusing too much on product when you should be proving the validity of your concept, offer crucial business lessons that help you learn fast and navigate a successful career path. We’ve asked 11 successful female business leaders and entrepreneurs to share their early career mistakes and how they contributed to their later success. Read on to hear how they used their failures as a stepping stool to greatness.
Amanda Thomas seems like an overnight prodigy, given that she started her successful jewellery line Luv AJ at the age of 16. But Thomas is the first to admit that despite having a Hollywood-adored line, she made a lot of mistakes at the beginning of her career. “When I first started Luv AJ, I made so many stupid mistakes, but I think it’s important to learn them the hard way because it only lights a fire under you to never do them again,” she says. One of her biggest mistakes, she tells us, was overspending on startup costs: “I thought I needed custom packaging, a fancy campaign, 1000 printed lookbooks, a custom website, etc. And the truth of the matter is I really needed to be frugal and focus on spending my money on the actual product, not all the extras.”
The Takeaway: At the beginning of your career especially, practice the art of frugality. Want to cut costs on your branding? She advises customizing store-bought packaging and finding young, up-and-coming talent for things like photography and web design.
Jana Williams is an international lifestyle photographer who specializes in weddings. While her portfolio demonstrates a life and career of elegance and beauty, she is not foreign to making mistakes. “When I first started Jana Williams Photography, I made the mistake of trying to be like other photographers. I was driven by fear and competition,” she says. “When I realized there is more than enough to go around and that each artist has something different and special to bring to the table, I began to celebrate it and my career took off.” These days, she finds value in supporting other photographers. “I don’t keep secrets,” she says. “If I learn something new that is working great for me, I share them on my YouTube channel and blog. I believe that you get what you give.”
The Takeaway: Be driven by inspiration, rather than fear and competition.
Jessica Alba has pioneered a successful career path, going from Hollywood It girl in teen classics like Never Been Kissed and the Dark Angel series to co-founder of the billion-dollar brand The Honest Company. In her keynote interview at the 2015 Forbes Women’s Summit, Alba discussed how she began her Hollywood career by accepting film roles in order “to save for [her] life,” not for creative value. That kind of fiscal planning paved the way for Alba to build a personal fortune of $250 million. However, her entrepreneurial career is not one without mistakes, as well. When Alba first pitched The Honest Company to potential investors, her pitch deck was far too long and unfocused, she admitted in her keynote. She had to spend time cutting it down from a 50-page deck to a 10-page pitch with a clear outline for how much funding she needed and where each dollar would be allocated.
The Takeaway: Focus on cash before creativity. Know your budget and stick to it.
Anna Holmes is a successful writer, the recipient of the Mirror Award for Commentary, and the founder of Jezebel. She told The New York Times about some of her early career mistakes and regrets. Regret #1: “Assuming that aggressive, masculine-sounding prose was the ideal style of writing because it was so frequently rewarded in my literature and composition classes.” Holmes also admits to making the mistake of taking on a generic feminine voice. “Mostly, what I regret is the ease with which I assumed that others’ prose style were something not just to study and learn from but to imitate,” Holmes wrote in The New York Times. “This chameleonic impulse, a talent I developed at an early age, certainly came in handy during my stints as a writer and editor for women’s service and celebrity magazines—but it also did a fair amount of damage to my writerly sense of self.”
The Takeaway: Learn from others but don’t imitate. Take the time to develop your personal style.
Working in the boys’ club of the cooking profession, renowned chef Gabrielle Hamilton and author of Blood, Bones & Butter had to put on a tough façade. However, she regrets some of her early career harshness. “In my twenties, I mistook meanness for intellectualism and had this idea that if I had a razor-sharp wit, I would be perceived as smart—like Dorothy Parker or H.L. Mencken smart. I could have been so much kinder to so many people.”
The Takeaway: Always be kind, no matter what title you have.
Lauren Touby, founder of online media job board and trade publication Mediabistro, says in Mistakes I Made at Work that management was one of her early slip-ups. When she started her company in early 2000 with a small team of six young employees, she says she learned the hard way that “people on the other side of the desk take things that you say with more weight.” She explains, “What happened was I was driven to get a job done, and I just figured these are intelligent people… They should be able to figure it out. And within a few months, one of my favorite staffers came into my office, and he sat down and said, ‘I have some news for you. Unless you change your behavior, we’re all gonna quit. It’s a mutiny.’ And that’s how I learned that I really didn’t know what I was doing.”
The Takeaway: Never think of sleep as optional. Your success and sustainability depend on it.
They say practice makes perfect, but actress Amy Adams (American Hustle, Julie & Julia) thinks that’s only true to a point. “I’ve been on so many auditions, I started treating it as my acting class,” she told Hollywood Reporter. “I would just pretend I was shooting the scene because I figured I had to learn from it. But the problem was then I thought I could experiment, and so I just did some really dumb things. I would go in and wear costumes, take props. I think sometimes they just thought I was mad.”
The Takeaway: Even when you’re at your wits’ end, keep it professional.
For actress Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), her early mistake was following a career path she wasn’t passionate about. “I did not particularly enjoy modeling. I felt I was only utilizing 10% or 20% of my abilities. In India, it’s just another job,” she tells Interview Magazine. So Pinto quit modeling and tried acting—something that allowed her to use a greater portion of her talent. Rather than follow in the footsteps of other Indian actors and make it big in India before venturing to the United States, Pinto made the bold decision to seek international fame before she won over her native country. She claims that she still isn’t famous in her home of Bombay. Before she goes back, she wants to perfect her producing skills so that she can produce films in her native country. Without breaking away from her first job, Pinto would never have been able to build a career as an international film star and producer.
The Takeaway: Change career paths if your first endeavor doesn’t fulfill you.
Janice Turner for The Times
Media mogul Arianna Huffington discusses one of her greatest mistakes in her article “Burnout: The Enemy of Sleep” for The Atlantic. During the first couple of years building Huffington Post, she only gave herself two to three hours of sleep per night. “The Huffington Post was two years old at the point, and I felt it demanded my constant attention.” One night after work she returned to her New York home and collapsed in her living room from exhaustion, hitting her head on her desk on the way down to the floor. Huffington says that the accident, which broke her cheekbone, “served as a wake-up call.” Now Huffington prioritizes sleep and doesn’t begin her workday without meditating first.
The Takeaway: Never think of sleep as optional. Your success, health, and sustainability depend on it.
After having started acting at the age of 11 months, Drew Barrymore was a seasoned actress by the time she scored her breakthrough role in ET at age 6. Unfortunately, due to early career success and extenuating circumstances, Barrymore made the mistake of growing up too fast. She tells More, “I didn’t really have parents, you know? And therefore the kind of parent I will be is a good, present parent. In a way, maybe that was a detriment to my youth but it’ll be the biggest asset to my adulthood.” While Barrymore may not have had a choice about the circumstances of her childhood, she actively decided to create an environment for her children that would promote healthy choices.
The Takeaway: Use the flaws of your past as a road map for what not to do going forward.
Sophia Amoruso, the creator of #GirlBoss and the founder of Nasty Gal, looked reflected on her past to Fast Company: “Look, I was dumb. Half the people in this office wouldn’t have taken me seriously seven years ago. To my surprise and everyone else’s, I’ve come out the other side more self-aware, self-critical, and able to appreciate what I have.” Yes, Amoruso may have made lots of mistakes at the beginning of her career, but she often says how if she knew what she was doing and she knew how difficult starting a company the size of Nasty Gal would be, she never would have done it.
The Takeaway: Embrace the determination that comes with naïveté.
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