Go to school, get good grades, figure out what you want to do, find your dream job. If only a career journey was that simple. The truth is, as with every other aspect of life, forging a career path means overcoming setbacks, rejection, and a lot of uncertainty as to whether you’re on the right track, especially during the early stages of your career.
My career story started back in summer 2019 following my graduation. A few months later, my first tentative steps into working life soon became sidetracked by a global pandemic and a company bankruptcy that left me unemployed two months into my first “real” job.
But I am not alone when it comes to facing early career setbacks and fear of the future. Anxiety about job prospects is on the rise among young people, in fact 53% of 16–25-year–olds perceive their career prospects are worsening, according to a 2021 study by UCL Institute of Education (IOE) researchers. While a report by the UK Institute of Financial Studies found that 62 % of 16–24-year-olds feel the pandemic has made it harder to find high-quality work – due to factors including environment, job security, and work-life balance.
So how do you get back up and chase your career dreams when the universe keeps setting up roadblocks along the way?
Here are 5 tips to help you take your early career setbacks and come back stronger, braver, and wiser, from someone who came through the other side.
1. Breathe deep and don’t panic
When faced with rejection or an unexpected career setback, try your best to stay calm and put what is happening into perspective. After I lost a potential job opportunity due to the start of COVID-19 pandemic, I felt cheated and then I felt panic.
As a recent graduate searching for a job in the midst of an already competitive job market, the cloud of a global pandemic added to my anxiety both from a professional and personal perspective.
But in the wave of panic, I took a step back and realized that I was not alone in what was happening to me, far from it in fact. The whole world was gripped by uncertainty, and a general sense of anxiety and fear about the future of the economy, society, and people’s wellbeing.
Understanding this helped put my panic and privilege into perspective. We were, in a very real way, all in this together. Just as I had missed out on an opportunity, so too had many others. There were much bigger issues at play, and I would eventually find my feet again.
Once I realized that some things are out of my control, I was able to recenter and decide what steps I needed to take next.
Tip: Breathe deep, try listing five things you’re grateful for in this moment. Remember to focus on what you can control, worrying about anything else will just drain your energy.
2. Rejection is redirection, embrace the unexpected
After missing out on a dream job, I turned to unexpected opportunities that had the potential to help me grow, learn, and try new things. These opportunities meant I experienced new industries and roles that I might have previously dismissed.
For example, after unexpectedly losing a job due to a huge financial scandal and a company bankruptcy (feel free to stalk me on LinkedIn for more details), I was left in the position where I needed to find a job quickly.
After a few weeks of job hunting, I was offered a communications role within a small start-up focused on sales tech. The start-up environment was new to me, and sales technology was not something that had previously piqued my interested, but I took the leap and joined the team for the chance to continue working within communications.
Working for a young company meant wearing a lot of different hats. It meant I could experiment, form new insights, and understand which area of communications I enjoyed the most. This served me well when I went on to apply for other communications roles, as I had clearer idea of what kind of job would satisfy me the most.
When you are open to unexpected opportunities you can turn what you thought was early career setback into a growth opportunity.
Tip: When you’re deciding if an unexpected job opportunity is right for you here are some things to remember:
- Your early career should be about personal development, professional growth, and trying new things. Focus on opportunities that can provide you with new skills that are either transferable, or related to your chosen career path.
- Try not to focus exclusively on a specific industry or the size of a company especially early on in your career. Working in an industry that is unknown to you or venturing into the world of start-ups will give you the chance to learn about new areas and try new things that will help define what you do and don’t like about a company, industry, or role.
- Understand who you will be working with, they are experts in their field, and can they help you grow and develop.
- Look for companies that mirror your values, purpose, passion. You will find little joy working for a company that completely goes against your moral compass.
3. Forget your dream job – focus on the journey not the destination
Don’t get me wrong, dream big and aim high, but remember that the one dream job you’ve spent your life working towards might just be an illusion. If we spend our energy chasing the future, we often forget to enjoy and experience the present. We might even be left disappointed and disillusioned, believing that any job that that doesn’t match our criteria fully is a career setback.
Instead of focusing on the destination of your career path, see each step as a chance to grow and develop. You might find that your idea of a dream job shifts, or that your career path takes a completely unexpected turn for the better. Be open to embracing the journey and all the stops along the way. Don’t let the illusion of a dream job rob you of the job satisfaction you might already have, or could have if you take a different path.
Tip: Wherever you are in your career journey, take a look around and acknowledge how far you’ve come. Reflect on where you are, and understand what parts of your job satisfy you most. Take time to reassess your goals and make your next move with this information. How has your idea of a dream job changed since you started your career journey?
4. Build relationships with people who inspire you
Building a career also means building meaningful relationships with people who inspire and motivate you. Whether it’s a colleague, a manager, or mentor, seek out people you can learn from. This will ensure that regardless of the role, industry, or company you are in, you will have the opportunity to develop and create a network of people who might also be able to offer you opportunities later down the line.
The rest is up to you. Take the time to shadow them, ask them all your burning questions, discover their perspective on their field, look into their career background, perhaps their career journey will help you see your own path in a different light.
Tip: Prioritize meeting new people and set up coffee chats with your colleagues! We can learn a lot about overcoming our early career setbacks by understanding how people further along on their career journey have coped with challenges and found their way forward.
5. Ignore the noise, focus on you
When we face career setbacks, it’s easy to slip into a negative headspace and compare the progress of our careers with those of our peers. This is especially true during your 20s, when it may seem that everyone is doing better, growing faster, or earning more than you. The truth is we’re all on our own paths, and comparing yourself with friends in a different industry, with a different financial background, or with different life goals is just going to rob you of your self-confidence.
Whether its LinkedIn job announcements, Instagram engagement photos, or friends jumping on the property ladder, it can feel like you’re falling behind, especially if you’re facing setbacks or are in the midst of deciding what to do or where to go next. Try and tune out that voice in your head that seeks to compare your progress with the people around you. They’re doing their thing and you’re busy doing yours, so just focus on you and enjoy watching your peers succeed.
Tip: Ignore the noise and remember social media is just a snippet of somebody’s life. Put your career success and that of your peers around you into perspective. Finding a job and lifestyle that makes you happy, provides you with purpose, and helps you fulfil your life goals is far more important than ticking the boxes that society or social media might have you believe are the key to success.
I know firsthand how difficult it can be to figure out where to go next when you’re faced with unexpected challenges, hopefully these tips will help you overcome any career setbacks that might come your way. And take it from someone who has already overcome a couple of early setbacks and will surely face more in the future, you’ve got this!
Here’s a short recap of my key points:
- Breathe deep and don’t panic: You can’t change what is out of your control. Focus on actionable next steps.
- Rejection is redirection, embrace the unexpected: Your early career should be about trying new things, be open to unexpected opportunities that can help you grow. You might end up on a completely new career path.
- Forget your dream job, focus on the journey not the destination: Don’t forget to live in the present and focus on what you are gaining in your current role or situation.
- Build relationships with people who inspire you: Seek out colleges or mentors that you can learn from and ask them about their career journeys and how they overcame their own challenges.
- Ignore the noise, focus on you: Comparison is the thief of joy, remember we’re all on our own paths, don’t compare your setback with someone else’s success.