When Magdalena Yesil was a 21-year-old product design engineer at Advanced Micro Devices (AMD), she was invited to a national sales conference to present one of her products. The first item on the agenda at 8 a.m. on a Monday was an “eye-opener,” which turned out to be a show of topless women.
As an immigrant who grew up in a predominantly conservative culture, Yesil felt uncomfortable, but said nothing. As she recounts in Power Up: How Smart Women Win in the New Economy, two nights later, she found herself sitting at a pre-dinner show, and encountered yet another show of topless women to “entertain” the predominantly male crowd. At the end of the show, she marched up to her CEO, whom she never met, and told him, “I am an engineer at your company, and what just happened was unacceptable to me personally. The show of naked women made me feel like I’m not a respected employee of this company. Is that how you want your new engineer to feel?” Taken aback, AMD’s then CEO, Jerry Sanders, invited her to a table full of his best customers. They proceeded to have an open and productive conversation.
Yesil’s actions broke several unspoken rules. But she realized that had she done what was expected of her, to be quiet and sit there, she would have never been able to change things. It was the first time she realized that sometimes, moving forward means breaking the rules.
When you’re just starting out in your career, it can be overwhelming to keep up with the unspoken rules that you’re expected to magically know (and follow). And while it’s important to keep them in mind, there is a time and place to break them. Here are some things to think about when deciding whether or not a particular “rule” is worth breaking.
1. Be Comfortable With The Worst-Case Scenario
Some of us thrive in going against the grain, but many of us find it deeply unsettling. As a result, we don’t often step back and think about what the worst is that could really happen and think about what that would mean for us.
Laura Ellis, founder of New York-based Whimsy Creative, broke her first career “rule” by booking a one-way ticket to New York from Perth, Australia, when she first graduated from college. Ellis tells Fast Company that while her move might seem like a bold one, she perceived it to be a calculated risk. After all, for Ellis, the stakes were actually quite low–if New York didn’t work out, her worst-case scenario was moving back to Australia to look for a job.
Yesil also stresses the importance of being comfortable with the risks. When you’re not willing to risk the possibility of the worst-case scenario coming true, it might be best to hold off. She tells Fast Company, “Growing up, my father would say, “Any fool can take a risk with their eyes closed . . . the key is to take a risk with your eyes open.”
2. Understand That Rules Are Not Always Set In Stone
Liz Wessel, CEO and cofounder of job site WayUp, tells Fast Company that one rule she sees too many early-level candidates follow is applying for roles they are “qualified” for. “Job postings typically contain long lists of requirements. However, just because you may not meet them doesn’t mean you shouldn’t apply. For example, if you see that a role says, “two to three years experience required” and you have only one, apply anyway. “If you have an impressive background and can show that you would be a great culture fit within the organization, employers will often overlook qualifications such as years of experience or GPA when evaluating you,” Wessel writes in an email.
When there’s a rule that everyone follows, it’s easier to follow it and not question how it was created in the first place. But when you take this extra step, you might come to the realization that it’s not enforced as strictly as you think.
3. Think About Who The Rules Are Written For
Growing up as a Christian Armenian–a minority–in Turkey, Yesil learned early on that many of the “rules” that society accepts are written for the majority. “As an outsider, as ‘the Other,’ I knew that the rules weren’t written for people like me. The rules were written to keep people like me out.” This insight prepared her to navigate the tech world as an immigrant woman, where she was once again a minority. When it came to motherhood, Yesil was able to quickly identify that the “rules” were not written for people like her who had strong career ambitions and wanted to be a mother.
As a result, Yesil decided to create her own rules, one of which included setting up a playroom in her office so her children can entertain themselves when she had to come into the office on weekends. She writes in her book, “Going to work with mom on a Saturday went from being a punishment to a treat.”
4. Be Consistent With Your Personal Values And Goals
People regret doing things for all sorts of reasons. One thing that’s sure to cause it? Acting against your own personal values. When Wessel received a full-time offer from Google in the fall of her senior year, she told the HR person that she expected to leave in two years to start her own company. “Some might say it is taboo to give your two years’ notice before starting,” Wessel writes, but she wanted to be honest with Google about her “not-so-long-term” plans.
In a previous Fast Company article, Julie Austin, a Los-Angeles based inventor, told Gwen Moran, “You stand out by breaking the rules with your business–doing things no one else will do . . . But you have to do it in a way that’s true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not.”
5. Don’t Let Fear Of Failure Hold You Back
Kathy Osborne, an account manager for BAM Communications, realized early on in her career that making progress often means putting her hand up for opportunities that are “above” her, and being fearless about the possibility of failing. When she wanted to transition from social worker to media, she applied to be a freelancer for a local magazine during New York Fashion Week. Because she didn’t have any professional clips, she used her own blog and posts she’d written on her friend’s blogs as writing samples. Osborne admits she exaggerated her skills during the interview process, but because she was willing to learn on the spot, the risk and the rule breaking paid off.
These days, the question Osborne ask herself before taking the risks is whether it makes her happy. Though she admits that she is a lot more conservative about career risks these days, she tells Fast Company, “Passion is still what drives me . . . The risk becomes worth risking when you’re 100% involved.”