10 things you should know about work by the time you’re 30

During your first years in the workforce, you can expect to have a huge learning curve – not just about the details of your job, but about broader issues of how to manage your career and operate successfully in an office. How do you deal with difficult coworkers? Figure out if you’re paid fairly? Understand what HR’s convoluted memos mean?

You’ll keep mastering work skills throughout your career, but here are 10 key things that you should make sure you know about work by the time you’re 30.

1. How to talk to people much more senior than you. It’s pretty common to be intimidated by company higher-ups or industry experts when you’re just starting out in your career. But if you let yourself stay intimidated, it will keep you from forming relationships and gaining visibility with decision-makers, and that can hold you back professionally. Don’t be shy about chatting with higher-ups or sharing your ideas when appropriate. The more you act like a colleague (which you are!), the more you’ll be seen that way.

2. How to respond to critical feedback. Being able to listen to feedback about your work with an open mind is enormously important, because feedback is one of the most direct ways to get better and better at what you do. If you respond defensively or shut down, you’ll prevent yourself from hearing important information, lose points with your boss, and maybe even make it less likely that you’ll hear information that could help you in the future. Instead, listen with an open mind and respond with something like “this is really useful to hear” or “I appreciate you sharing this with me.” If you can’t stomach those, try “I want to take some time to think about this, but I appreciate you telling me.”

3. How to negotiate salary when you get a job offer. People sometimes worry that they have to lay out an air-tight case when asking for more money, but it doesn’t always have to be a long speech with evidence about your worth. More often than not, you can simply say “I was hoping you could go up to $X. Is that possible?” or “Do you have any flexibility on the salary? I was hoping for X.”

4. How to figure out the market rate for your work. This can include asking other people in your field for their opinion, checking with professional organizations in your industry, looking at similar positions on online job boards to see if salary ranges are listed, and talking to recruiters in your field – always making sure that you’re factoring in your geographic area, which can have a big impact on the numbers.

5. How to run a meeting. If you lose control of your meetings, let conversation spiral in any direction, and don’t start or finish on time, people will quickly begin dreading attending any meetings you’re running. Instead, always use an agenda, be clear about what outcomes you’re aiming for, be willing to redirect the conversation when needed, take your starting and ending times seriously, and make sure everyone is clear on next steps before you wrap up. People will be far less likely to “miss seeing” your meeting invites when you do this.

6. How to have a difficult conversation. Whether it’s asking your coworker to turn down her music, telling your boss you’re quitting, or letting an employee go, you’re going to have to have tough conversations over the course of your career. Your life will be much better if you get comfortable with being straightforward. That doesn’t mean rude, of course; you can be direct and kind at the same time, but you do need to assert yourself and get comfortable with difficult topics. Speaking of direct…

7. How to stand up for yourself politely and professionally. There may be times when your employer does something that you need to push back on – for example, offering you a promotion with significantly more responsibility but no raise, expecting you to work unreasonable hours for months on end, or violating a labor law. In these cases, it’s key to know how to professionally advocate for yourself. Usually that means being assertive but not aggressive, calmly explaining the issue, and being direct about what you need. For example: “I’m happy to pitch in when needed, but this schedule has me working seven days a week for the next month with only two days off. I’m not able to do that because of commitments outside of work, so let’s talk about how else we can structure this.”

8. What you’re good at and what you’re not so good at. Early in your career, it’s pretty normal not to have a well refined sense of where you shine and where you don’t. But if you’ve been working for most of your 20s, by the end of them you should have fairly nuanced information about what you’re better at than others, what you’re much better at than others, what you want to work on improving in, and what you should probably avoid altogether

9. What to do when you make a mistake. At some point, you’re going to make a mistake at work because you’re human. When you do, how you handle it will often matter more than the mistake itself. The key is take responsibility for what happened; don’t make excuses or be defensive. Let your boss know what happened and – this is crucial – how you plan to ensure it doesn’t happen again. If you do that, you’ll have proactively addressed what your manager probably cares about most and she’s much less likely to feel she needs to impress the seriousness of the mistake on you.

10. Your reputation matters. Your reputation for doing great work and being easy to work with is what will give you more and more professional options over time. It’s what will let you avoid bad jobs and bad bosses and what will give you a safety net when you need to leave a job quickly or find a new one across the country. That means that it’s not worth doing things like leaving a job without notice or telling off your boss, and it’s worth it to go above and beyond to build a reputation for excelling.

I originally published this at U.S. News & World Report.

{ 64 comments… read them below }

  1. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)

    Love this. Thank you!

    I’d love to hear more of your thoughts – and participate in a conversation with other commenters – about this piece:

    “What you’re good at and what you’re not so good at. Early in your career, it’s pretty normal not to have a well-refined sense of where you shine and where you don’t. But if you’ve been working for most of your 20s, by the end of them you should have fairly nuanced information about what you’re better at than others, what you’re much better at than others, what you want to work on improving in and what you should probably avoid altogether.”

    That is SUCH a tough process. I still struggle with it (and I’m 37). I think it’s in part because I have an internal commitment/obsession/perfectionism/whatever to being good at evvvvvvvertything.

    1. Clever Name

      Well, what are you known for at your company? I have a very broad range of skills, but I’m most known for my attention to detail and just plain getting things done.

      1. The Other Dawn

        “Well, what are you known for at your company?”

        That’s a great way to think about it. I’ve been at my current job for about a year and a half, and just found out last week that I’m known for being unflappable, which is true; it takes a lot for me to get visibly worked up (key word: visibly). I just didn’t realize people actually see me that way.

        1. Rebecca in Dallas

          Haha same here! I’m always so surprised when someone tells me that because I feel like I’m always stressed.

      2. Camellia

        My manager says she can give me anything to do, whether I’ve ever done it or anything like it before, and I just say “Okay!” (with that weird lilt in my voice that she can mimic perfectly) and figure out how to get it done.

    2. themmases

      For me, it’s easier to think about in the context of what I do or don’t want for my career.

      I used to coordinate clinical research and on my own I am really just medium organized. You can’t really be like that as a coordinator. Your IRB and the feds care where you put things. I knew I didn’t want to coordinate other people’s research forever, so I would comply but I hated every minute of it. I definitely didn’t put any extra effort into learning about project management or new ways of thinking and working that would make me better at it long-term. I just got along until I could get out. I could admit I was bad at it because it wasn’t important to me.

      On the other hand as an analyst I care very much about organizing my own work and making it useful to my collaborators. I will absolutely keep a project log, reread and rewrite my SAS code to make sure it runs in one step with no garbage, and generally try to get better at working methodically. I do it because I like being an analyst and want to get better at it. I can admit I need to work on it because it’s the only way forward.

    3. Amber Rose

      You may have the drive to be perfect at everything, but are there some things you work harder at with less results? Or things you just plain don’t enjoy?

      I’m currently in five different departments. Of them, I hate sales. And I suck at it. I didn’t tell anyone that because I wanted to be the perfect worker and take on everything but my sales supervisor said “you never talk about yourself. I could give you the shittiest task and you’d just do it. What do you want?” And it was kind of frustrating for her. Bit of an eye opener for me too.

      I like paperwork. The 200 page qualification questionnaires that everyone else hates are my work happy place. That leaves me open to a lot of things still but it’s what I’m good at and that’s good to know.

    4. AnotherAlison

      I’m right in your age range, and I relate to what you are saying. I only know what I’m better at than others (in my job) because of the feedback I receive from management. As a fellow perfectionist, I feel like I suck at anything I am not instantly perfect at. In a challenging job, no one is instantly perfect. Early in my career, I quit a few positions early because of this. It’s a big regret.

      (Outside of my job, I know there are a lot of things I’m not good at. Sales, relationships, hands-on labor. . .)

      1. Christopher Tracy

        Those are my weaknesses, too. I have to work on the relationships thing though because my current division is very relationship-focused and, if I want to move up, I’ve got to make friends with the higher-ups. *sigh*

    5. SophieChotek

      I agree; that was the one thing on my list that made me think “Nope…not as certain as I would like to be on about that.”

      There were certainly other aspects that I need work on also–talking to people in authority, how to run a meeting…taking criticism well (I think I’ve improved from where I used to be–except when it’s from my mother–but I know I still have a long way to go!)…

    6. Manders

      I’m there too! For me, the problem is that I’m still in the process of learning everything that’s out there in my field, so every time something “clicks” for me it’s a rabbit hole of new skills to learn and new choices to make about what I want to specialize in.

      I think there’s a natural point in careers in certain fields where you stop being a jack of all trades and start developing a deeper knowledge of a select few areas.

    7. Remy

      I am 34 and struggle with this one too, but it’s because I’ve worked in so many various industries. I haven’t had time to actually figure out what I’m really good at. In retail, I was good at customer service. At a newspaper, I was good at explaining technical things to laypeople. In post-production, I was good at transcribing. While those things help in my current role, none of them are technically my job, so I’m still figuring out what it is I’m good at in this industry.

      1. Libervermis

        All of those things seem like versions of communication skills, especially to non-experts. Transcribing suggests a strong attention to detail, too. Perhaps your strengths in your current industry are similar.

        1. Christopher Tracy

          I was going to say that too. Remy, you’re a good communicator with strong attention to detail.

    8. Rob Lowe can't read

      I could not agree more about struggling with a drive/obligation to be equally good at everything I do in my job! I’m an elementary school teacher, so I do a lot of different things in my job, and I feel like there is an expectation (both in the profession as a whole and at my school in particular) that I will be awesome at all of them – and honestly, I’m not. It’s been really liberating this year to come out and tell my team that teaching writing has been a huge disaster this year, and I’ve noticed more teachers on my content team talking about their challenges (especially in writing) since I opened up about it.

  2. Laura (Needs a New Name)

    I turn 30 on Thursday, so I saw this title and was like “aww yeah, Alison wrote a post for me!” Luckily I feel pretty good about everything on the list, otherwise I’d have a lot to get done in the next 3 days.

    1. Lillian McGee

      Happy Birthday! I turn 30 this year too. It seems like a good time to reflect!

  3. Amber Rose

    At 28, I’ve got most of that down except for the money stuff. I am so so awful at anything related to money. :(

  4. De Minimis

    In my mid-40s, and I’ve still never ran a meeting and have never negotiated my salary, but I’ve had a somewhat atypical working life.

    I do have a good handle on workplace communication and also what I’m good/bad at…..

    1. Megs

      I’ve never done those either, but I kind of feel like those are more specific skills than the rest of the list (particularly running meetings – tons of jobs will never need you to run a meeting). As for negotiating salary, I’ve worked largely in the public sector where that just isn’t a thing you do.

      1. De Minimis

        Same here on that….I’ve always either been public sector, entry level, or else had an initial offer that I felt was more than fair. I’m also only now just started to get into what might be considered mid-level so in the future I might have the chance to develop some of those other items.

      2. Stranger than fiction

        I’ve never negotiated but once becauseibe mostly been offered something I thought fair and acceptable. Thee one time I did, they wouldn’t budge. After accepting (regrettably), on the job I learned what truly dire financial straits the company was in and if they had offered me even 2k more, I would have made more than the lead/supervisor who’d been working there for years and straight out of high school.

    2. Jennifer

      I think running meetings and that sort of thing is probably more for the folks on the managerial track.

      I haven’t negotiated salary either, but that isn’t an option in my line of work.

      1. Ife

        Programmer here — it’s not just managers! :) Most of the meetings I go to are run by project managers (not people-managers) or other programmers. I can think of a fair number of jobs where you would expect need to run a meeting, but I think the potential is there in a lot of jobs.

      2. Ex Resume Reviewer

        My first entry level job required periodically running staff meetings and coming up with agenda items to fill the time if no one had anything. It was very challenging to come up with relevant information for a group of professionals as the admin assistant, and I never felt like I had people’s full attention. All I really learned was that I absolutely hate running meetings and so did management, since they always seemed to be out of the office when their turn came round….

  5. Brett

    Strangely enough, I learned how to talk to people more senior than me in grad school because my grad advisor was already so good at it. She thought nothing casually introducing me to major company owners to chat with them about my work and eventually this led to me not being intimidated by anyone.

    1. Elizabeth West

      I’m good at this too–I just talk to them. You could sit me next to any celebrity and I could make conversation if the person wanted to talk. I might not say anything to open if they were ignoring me, but if they smiled or whatever, I’d just say hi and go from there.

      I don’t really consider executives to be celebrities, but it’s the same kind of intimidation factor for some people.

      1. Stranger than fiction

        I generally just consider them normal people too, except at current job they’re a bit intimidating. There’s three execs, the owner sort of is somewhat a celebrity in our little niche, is really nice but don’t see him often. The other two have very large sticks up their bums and make it a point to always go through the layers of mgmt to request something of you, and barely say hi unless I make it a point to wave and say hello. Otherwise they act like you’re invisible.

    2. Kat

      Yep, it’s such a good skill that can sometimes develop in the weirdest ways. Admins tend to be great at this. I spent 2 years as an EA to a big law managing partner, and we developed such a casual and personal relationship that I haven’t really been intimidated meeting anyone else since. Also I have found that high level execs tend to respond better to normal, respectful, conversational language, rather than extreme deference and a** kissing that people sometimes feel the need to display.

    3. Emmy

      I got used to it because I started out as a writer and have had to interview a fair number of executives and bigwigs. Eventually you realize they’re just regular people like everybody else.

  6. The Alias Gloria Has Been Living Under, A.A., B.S.

    Oy. I’m nearly 40 and I’m missing 4 of these. :\

  7. sillyquiet

    It strikes me that this excellent advice, generalized a bit, can be categorized as ‘things you should know as an adult by the time you’re 30’.

  8. Sarianna

    I graduated college at 30 last year, and while I’d worked in retail and tech support prior, some of the things Alison mentioned are definitely career-job-specific in my experience. Not quite up to speed yet, but… getting there. And definitely not feeling as bad about my delayed track right now :)

  9. Laura

    I’m 22 and I feel good about most of these– but I know there’s lots of room for improvement. Thanks!

  10. hmmmm

    I’ve never had a job interview that let me negotiate. The salary was set and that was it. Whenever I asked, it was take what was offered or move on. Even negotiating for more vacation time or work from home instead of a higher salary was off limits.

    I don’t even think this is industry specific since a lot of my friends in different industries have encountered the same thing. :(

  11. Artemesia

    Great list. I am sure I didn’t have most of that by the time I was 30 and had to learn most of those things the hard way.

  12. Bag of Jedi Mind Tricks

    Another good article. I’ve always been good at speaking to and dealing with people more senior ranking than myself. Definitely a good skill to have by the time you reach your 30’s.

  13. The Other Dawn

    I would say at 41 I have a handle on most of these things, which makes me feel good. I still sometimes struggle with the tough conversations, but I have absolutely no problem chatting up the executives and Board members. I worry sometimes that I’m actually a little too informal, but I always get good feedback that I’m “candid” and “personable.”

  14. LQ

    I hate negotiations. They are one of the big things that just makes me feel like entirely worthless. Go back to my house and hide in bed forever. Hate, hate, hate.

  15. TCO

    Timely! My 30th birthday is next week and I’ve made solid progress on all of these. I look forward to how much more growth I must be able to find in the several remaining decades of my career, but I feel good about where my skills are at for age 30. (Now if only I could find a better job/title to match those skills…)

  16. KW

    I would like to think that I have a good grasp on #2, “How to respond to critical feedback” but many of my older coworkers do not. Many of them respond very poorly to any kind of critical feedback which sucks because in return, we just don’t give them any. It’s not worth them freaking out and in some cases avoiding/cold shouldering you for a month. Then it just keeps going because no one is willing to say anything negative.

    1. Stranger than fiction

      Ha, then the one last piece of feedback I’d give them is that they suck at receiving feedback and it’s only going to hurt them.

  17. Improveshionist

    Would you expect to find these same skills in someone who is thirty and has never had a job (for example, someone finishing up a long-base PhD programme)?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      I think it’s more about the skills you want to pick up during your first years in the workforce … but at the same time, I do think people expect a certain professional maturity from a 30-year-old in their first job that they don’t expect from a 22-year-old in their first job.

  18. Heni

    “What you’re good at” always raises the spectre of the Dunning-Kruger effect in my mind.

    I think I’m good at X and Y. According to Dunning-Kruger, I could actually be lousy at X and Y, but would still make the same self-assessment. How do I find out what category I really fit, especially given that generally people are reluctant to tell you how bad you really are?

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Getting feedback. Asking for feedback. Observing how your work is valued — what do people trust you with? What do they give you greater responsibility in? Results — where are the results of your work most successful?

    2. Emmy

      Yes, I know what I’m good at because people have told me I’m good at those things.

  19. Suave Milton Waddams

    An important (if somewhat depressing) supplement to knowing the market rate is that knowing that the market rate doesn’t matter whatsoever if you can’t afford to say no.

    Probably one of the most important concepts of business education that I wish would be taught in general education is that of “demand elasticity”. It is actually a fairly intuitive concept — that a person dying of thirst will do anything for a drink, but would hardly do anything in exchange for water otherwise.

    If your mortgaged house will be foreclosed on, you can’t afford to say no.

    If your car will be impounded and you live in the middle of nowhere, you can’t afford to say no.

    If your industry has anti-competitive norms that all but guarantee that they will not engage in a wage war over your services or anyone’s services, you (probably) can’t afford to say no.

    If your industry has raised successful barriers to entry against professional employees, such that competing against companies directly as entrepreneurs is either illegal or so expensive that it is unlikely without patronage, you can’t afford to say no.

    The more ways that you can’t afford to say no, the lower your salary becomes.

    The converse is, that the more ways you can allow yourself to say no, the higher it has the chance to grow.

    I mean, look at programmers — they have fought and for the most part erased the stigma against “job hopping”. All programmers are flight risks, and companies must pay for them to stay, rather than in more mature industries where employees are for the most part stationary and must be paid for them to go. The barrier to entry to programming is almost entirely technical — they weren’t kidding when they said you could start a software company out of a garage with a computer from Walmart, home internet, and free software. Sometimes companies pay more for what essentially is a form of protection money — it seems cheaper to add an extra $20,000 to the salary or perks of a hot-shot programmer than to take on a 1 in 4 chance that he will make good on his threat of leaving and starting his own successful competing company, costing the company ten to a hundred times as much. Through the development of the industry hype cycle, they’ve been able to bring some of the pressure of boom-bust commodities industries into the software life-cycle, squeezing employers against their own greed as customers demand the latest and greatest new software fad, and businesses who wait for wages to drop lose out on contracts.

    These are people who understand elasticity of demand, and I wish more folks would receive that education.

  20. A Definite Beta Guy

    So, turning 30 next year, and here’s something I can’t pick up.

    How do I call “humbug” professionally?

    Great list. Wish I knew these things when I was 22. Talking to management is still a struggle for me, but I’m getting better with almost everyone. Standing up for myself professionally is an even bigger hurdle, and I envy people who don’t mind sticking up for their interests.

  21. Not So NewReader

    Boy. Why don’t they teach this in schools? It’s all so straightforward when I see it gathered on one page like this. Why not teach, “this is where you are going and this is what you need to get there”?

    1. Jean

      +1. My age is [classified aka ” 50+” ;-) ]. I present as a poised adult with workplace skills, but I still have much to learn in some areas.

      >“this is where you are going and this is what you need to get there”
      Maybe the estate of Dr. Seuss could issue an updated edition with this information.
      Some of the information is probably in Scott Adams’ “Dilbert” cartoons, but you have to read it in a mirror and then decipher the code. Dilbert concentrates on the negative/don’t-do-this! examples.

    2. Kiki

      I actually learned most of this in grad school. The not-being-intimidated in a conversation bit, I learned at Toastmasters. The rest I learned in high school, believe it or not.

      (At my HS, you simply could not graduate unless you did three things: proved you could balance a checkbook, complete a CPR course, and pass sex education.)

  22. Miserable

    I don’t think I tick any of these boxes.

    As if I wasn’t already depressed enough about being a thirty-year-old failure.

    1. i'm anon

      Whoa, having skills to learn and experience to pick up doesn’t make you failure. It makes you unskilled or inexperienced. Both of those states can and should be fixed by trying new things and working at it day by day.

      1. Miserable

        But when you’re still unskilled and inexperienced after thirty years of being alive, it begs the question of what you’ve actually been wasting time on. In my case, I don’t have a good answer because I’ve been trying very hard to get by. It seems I have nothing to show for it.

  23. Wo Fat

    These are all very interesting and applicable. I think I could expound on one of these points, however.

    What to do when you make a mistake

    I have a four step process for this. Allison covered the first step well.
    1. Admit your mistake. Take ownership of it. Don’t make excuses or try to pass the buck.
    2. Rectify it. Fix it to whatever extent it can be fixed. Not all mistakes are fixable of course. But do what you can to repair any damage whether it’s physical, emotional, whatever.
    3. Learn from it. Make sure you get whatever lesson or lessons there are to learn. You don’t want to repeat the mistake.
    4. Move on. Don’t dwell on it or develop a guilt complex over it. We all make mistakes and you will make your share of them. As long as you got the lesson, put it behind you.

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