9 Biggest Career Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
9 Biggest Career Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

In today's go-go-go world, it's easy to be hyper-focused on your current employment situation and concentrate on day-to-day issues related to job performance, satisfaction and security. But occasionally, it can be helpful to zoom the lens out a bit and think more broadly about what goes into building a great overall career — and what will lead to consistent success in the long run — instead of focusing entirely on just the needs of the day.

As a career coach who has worked with more than 20,000 professionals to date, including (in some cases) multiple generations of people from the same family, it's been fascinating to ponder the attitudes, behaviors and patterns that seem to consistently contribute to the overall career success or failure of folks of all ages. Here's a quick breakdown of the 9 biggest career mistakes I've witnessed and how to avoid them.

1. Letting somebody else make career decisions for you

According to data in the book Happiness at Work by Jessica Pryce-Jones, the average person spends over 90,000 hours working during their lifetime (makes you tired just thinking about it, doesn't it?) So, when it comes to picking your career path, be open to advice from those around you, but don't let it influence you to the point that you choose a direction that's at odds with your talents, interests and values. Trust your gut about what career paths might work for you and which ones would not and make your career decisions accordingly.

Thankfully, there are numerous tests, assessments and resources that can help you assess your occupational interests and aptitudes. Most universities also have a career counseling department that can provide assistance in determining your goals.

2. Underestimating the importance of networking

If there's one thing I've learned in three decades of watching people succeed and fail in the job market, it's that talent alone is only half the equation. The most common factor that leads to people achieving sustainable career success in any field is their ability to build relationships, network and build a circle of friends or acquaintances who can serve as allies during the job search process.

Even if you're an introvert, like me, it's imperative to work on your networking skills, get out of your comfort zone and find workable methods for managing your "social capital." Sites like LinkedIn can be invaluable in this regard, allowing you to foster relationships with hundreds of people online and reducing the need to attend in-person events and schmooze with strangers if that's not your jam. However you go about it, networking is an indispensable ingredient in the recipe for career success, so find a relationship-building framework that works for you — and stick to it!

3. Not keeping your skills sharp or engaging in continuous learning

There's no question that the pace of change in the job market is accelerating. As a result, staying current on the latest tools, trends and best practices in your field is essential. Whether this involves taking formal classes or simply engaging in self-study on an ongoing basis, embracing lifelong learning will keep you a step ahead of your competition in the long run.

For example, while many folks are expressing their concerns about AI technology’s impact on their fields, how many are proactively studying this topic — and acquiring relevant skills — ensuring they're at the forefront of this trend when it really kicks in? Stagnant skills are also often cited as contributing to age bias in the marketplace, so if you're an established professional, keep your skills fresh by seeking relevant training opportunities.

4. Failing to clarify your career priorities (or recognize that all jobs involve tradeoffs)

The way I see it, the whole nature of a job involves investing your time and energy in return for getting particular wants and needs met. So, the more precise you are about your needs, the better you'll be able to pick a career path that satisfies them.

For example, some people focus on pursuing careers that make a lot of money. Others desire work that will allow them to impact the world or achieve recognition as a thought leader. Others, still, practice a "work to live" philosophy and place the greatest value on achieving work/life balance and finding a career that allows them an uncommon amount of free time and flexibility.

However, no matter your preference, the key thing to recognize is that ALL careers have pros and cons and involve some sort of tradeoffs. If you can determine what's important to you at this stage of your life and what's not, you'll have better odds of achieving satisfaction.

5. Not being able to explain the specific “problems you can solve” in exchange for a paycheck

When with professionals, I always find it a bit concerning when a person struggles to answer the simple question: "What specific problems can you solve for an organization?" While it may surprise you, many working adults aren't able to give a concise or coherent response to this question, suggesting that they aren't clear on the value proposition they offer from an employment standpoint — or understand how their skills contribute to an employer's bottom line.

As the job market becomes more specialized, a failure to understand this dynamic can be a career limiter. Just as you'd likely be surprised to meet a business owner who can't explain the results they can deliver to customers; job hunters need to think hard about the distinct pain points their careers revolve around alleviating.

6. Failing to consider the impact of age bias

Speaking for myself, I found it to be existentially bizarre when I turned 40 years old and suddenly qualified as a "protected class" according to U.S. labor regulations. Here I was, seemingly at the peak of my powers, and I already had to start worrying about being passed over due to my age? It seems wild to think about, but as millions of professionals can attest, age bias is a genuine phenomenon and more noticeable when working in a fast-changing field such as technology.

Alas, as much as we all wish to the contrary, there's no simple trick or magic wand that can completely eradicate issues of age when it comes to the hiring process. In many cases, you must embrace the reality that you'll likely have to search more aggressively for roles to achieve the same results. Additionally, I'd recommend analyzing the stereotypes often associated with age (e.g., outdated skills, lower energy and inability to take criticism) to be sure you aren't unconsciously reinforcing any of these stereotypes during the interview process.

7. Not keeping your resume and LinkedIn profile current

As somebody who writes the above documents for a living, I can assure you that the process gets exponentially harder when a person has failed to keep these materials up to date for years at a time — or hasn't developed a structured method for capturing their ongoing accomplishments.

Given that one of the most important elements of any resume (or LinkedIn profile) comes down to specific, measurable job achievements, I'd recommend you regularly jot down your top contributions somewhere, at least in rough form, for easy access when needed. You never know when a promising lead might materialize, and if you make a point to update your materials at least every year or two, you'll be able to respond in a rapid fashion.

8. Inability to ask for help

While it's theoretically possible for somebody to build a great career sheerly through their own efforts, with no help from others, it's safe to say this is a very uncommon occurrence. Ask any top-tier professional the key to their success or read the biography of virtually any industry leader, and you'll note extensive praise given to the inordinate number of people who helped these individuals reach their goals.

Even if you pride yourself on your rugged individualism and self-reliance, don't be too proud to ask for help. Build a circle of trusted allies (sometimes called a "mastermind group" based on a 1925 book by author Napolean Hill) and rely on them as a sounding board and source of ideas, assistance and inspiration throughout your career. Better yet, seek out a formal mentor or investigate potential peer groups who can help you identify your blind spots and develop strengths in any competency areas limiting your potential.

9. Underestimating the amount of opportunity that exists

Lastly, despite the constant barrage of negative news to which we all get exposed, I encourage people to keep in mind there are exponentially more employers out there than people realize — more than 290K in greater Seattle alone! Not to mention there are numerous pathways when it comes to getting started in your career. Accessible education options abound, and more remote work opportunities exist today than ever before. So again, while there are plenty of job market dynamics to be concerned about, don't overlook the positives, either!

In closing, there's no perfect formula for career success, and it's almost inevitable that you’ll suffer a few setbacks and wrong turns along the way. It's all part of the learning process and few professionals will go through life without making a career "blunder" or two that they regret. But there's also no reason you can't improve your odds of success by studying the mistakes of others and doing your best to avoid them.

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Author Matt Youngquist

Matt Youngquist

Guest writer Matt Youngquist is a recognized career coaching expert and LinkedIn trainer in the greater Seattle area. He’s the founder and president of Career Horizons, where he helps clients across the Pacific Northwest tackle the challenges of job hunting and employment transition.

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