It's easy to assume that the most successful people are expert planners who knew exactly where they wanted to be at each point in their career.
That's rarely the case. Much more often, those folks were simply open to new opportunities from the very beginning—they took chances and learned to embrace what made them unique. But that doesn't mean they wouldn't have done a few things differently. I spoke with six executives at major companies like PayPal, GM, SoulCycle, and Salesforce to learn what advice they wish they'd gotten when they were younger.
"In today’s heavily prescribed, overly programmed world, it’s easy to believe—even at age 22—that you need to plan every detail of your future career," says General Motors CEO Mary Barra. But that’s not the case.
"While planning for your future is great, the fact is, things change," says Barra, looking back. There are always new opportunities around the corner that you won't know are waiting there until they're right in front of you. "If you pass on them because they don’t fit neatly into your current plan or because you’re afraid, you could easily miss your best opportunities for growth."
Leah Sweet, VP of global product and engineering, planning, and operations at PayPal (which in full disclosure is my employer, too) says she wished she'd had more confidence earlier on. "I always assumed everyone was smarter than me," Sweet says, touching on a sentiment common to many women starting their careers.
But too often, the source of young professionals' insecurities later turn out to be their strategic advantages, Sweet has since learned. "People will always have differences—whether it’s gender, culture, age, or something else—but that’s part of the beauty of life." Embrace them, she counsels, don't run from them. "Instead, figure out how to use your unique differences to propel you forward."
Kris Miller, chief strategy officer at eBay, said she'd go back and advise her younger self to live and work abroad. "Over the course of my career, I have traveled around the world. I have always loved traveling to other countries, meeting new people, and experiencing other cultures. But I have never lived abroad," says Miller.
Had she done so, Miller believes it would've proved an asset, not to mention personally fulfilling. She urges younger professionals to go someplace new and set down roots. "Learn their language. Live in their shoes. View the world through their lens."
Not only does that expand your own perspective, says Miller, it can also help you grasp why consumer attitudes and behaviors differ around the world, which "can be helpful to becoming an even better global business leader and a more empathetic human being."
SoulCycle CEO Melanie Whelan wishes she'd focused on what made her happy rather than on others' expectations. "You may think you are supposed to follow a career path—to work in finance, become a lawyer, or study medicine," Whelan acknowledges, echoing Barra. And "oftentimes your perceptions of your path come from your family or friends"—people you trust and listen to.
But that can make it harder to find out what really matters to you, she says. "Figure out what makes you excited or happy, and go after a job that matches that passion," says Whelan. That may sound familiar or obvious, but it's easy to lose sight of when you're young and everybody's giving you their own bits of career wisdom.
"It's much easier to be all-in when you're excited about where you're going every day," she adds.
Suzanne DiBianca, EVP of corporate relations and chief philanthropy officer at Salesforce, wishes she'd been counseled to push for what she was worth right from the outset.
At some points in your career it pays to be patient, and other times you've got to "be decisive and push the boundaries," says DiBianca. But since your first few years in the job force often sets up your earning potential later down the road, it's important not to under-negotiate.
"Annual performance reviews are a great example of this," she says, especially "because many women in the modern workplace just say 'thank you' and don't ask for more compensation even when they deserve it—which is more than likely the opposite approach of their male counterparts."
The advice DiBianca wishes she'd heard earlier? "Always know your value and never settle for less."
Wherever you’re working, don't ever forget that you joined for a reason, says Jessica Verrilli, Twitter’s senior director of corporate development and strategy. If she could offer a tip to her younger self, Verrilli says it would simply be to "take initiative and follow your instincts."
Throughout your whole career, anytime you accept a job offer it's because "you had conviction about the leadership, the company’s trajectory, the product, your manager, or your colleagues," she points out. That's useful fuel for creating opportunities for yourself no matter what your job description might be.
"Harness the energy that brought you there, and direct it toward having the greatest impact possible—even if it falls outside the strict boundaries of your role."