Advice to 25-Year-Old Me


Technically speaking, I’m now on my third career. I started as a journalist, became a civil servant in my late 20s and a teacher the year that I turned 40.

Mine is a history of serial employment. I’ve never stayed in a job longer than five years, other than in teaching. Most of the time, my feet start to get itchy around the two-three year mark. I like to think that’s because I’m always seeking new challenges. Some might say it’s because I have a short attention span and perhaps some issues with authority figures. It’s possible that all these things are true, or perhaps none of them, or something else all together.

Whatever the case, I’ve learned to accept who I am – and more than accept it – to embrace it. It took me a long time to figure out how to do that.

Part of how I’ve done it – a big part – is by making mistakes. I’ve pursued jobs that weren’t right for me, nor I for them. I’ve fought with bosses over stupid stuff, and let my emotions get the better of me. I’ve wasted time agonizing over situations I couldn’t control.

These mistakes are as much a part of me as are my successes. It’s all about what you do with those experiences.

Mistakes are how we learn. If you do something perfectly the first time you try, you have no room for growth. Or to put it differently, as Leonard Cohen would say, “There is a crack (a crack in everything). That’s how the light gets in.”

In fact, one of my pet ideas is that perfect is the enemy of good. To me, that suggests if we wait until everything is just so, we’ll never accomplish anything.

If I were to look back and give myself advice on starting out in government, here’s what I would say:

  • Take responsibility. I’ve written about this one before, based on advice that’s stuck with me for more than 30 years.
  • Be authentic and use your voice. That means you have to be brave enough to be who you are, warts and all. It’s a sign of strength, not weakness, to know when to ask for help.
  • Fit is everything. You can always find a job that pays more money or offers more security or a sexier subject matter. If the workplace is poisoned, you’ll end up hating it eventually. You spend more waking hours during the week with your co-workers than your family. If you don’t like them, nothing else matters.
  • Make it your goal to be able to look at yourself in the mirror. When you come home, you want to be able to say, honestly, “I made the right choice more often than not today.” Not everything is a crisis. Learn to pick your battles.
  • Be open with yourself, and your boss, about your career ambitions. If that person truly believes in your success, they’ll help you. If they don’t, you probably don’t want stay there any longer than absolutely necessary.
  • Consider your options. If you find yourself regularly disagreeing with your employer’s chosen course of action, consider seriously whether you want to stay. Some things are worse than unemployment.
  • If you see something wrong – from policy choices to abusive behavior – speak up. We owe our leaders and our colleagues our best advice and nothing less. Then, when the decision is made, find a way to make yourself ok with it. If you can’t, see the point above.
  • Above all, network, network, network. I’ll have more to say on this next week. My view is simple: building and sustaining a network requires constant and on-going attention. It is precisely a reflection of the energy you put into it (or don’t); nothing more and nothing less.

Your choices are your own. You can seek advice, you can weigh pros and cons, you can make lists. Ultimately, you have to choose. And every choice has consequences, including the choice not to decide.

This is the framework I use for my career decisions. I hope it helps you. If it doesn’t, that’s cool, too. You’ll find your own.



Larry Till is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Yvonne Mikalopas

Excellent piece, thank you. I think people really underestimate the importance of work environment and culture and it’s importance to work happiness. I have worked in several industries and now in public health and for me, this has always been a key factor. And you’re right, there are things worse than unemployment, however, leaving a position should always be weighed with financial realities. Look for and obtain that next position before walking away from the current one.

Larry Till

Thanks for the feedback, Yvonne. While financial considerations are always paramount (at least for most of us), the point I want to make is that if work is jeopardizing your mental or physical well-being, that’s something you should absolutely consider, as well.

Joan MacDonald

Excellent advice Larry! Really well written blog that should be included in all orientation packages for public sector workers. In particular I think your final point about choice and decision making is extremely important. I’ve seen too often, in myself and others, the unwillingness/inability to make the choice to move on and the damaging consequences that flow from that. Thanks for the great blog!

SC Mack

My word. Your career mirrors mine quite closely. I am now considering a “third” career as I believe I have outgrown my current line of work. Your response to Yvonne: “the point I want to make is that if work is jeopardizing your mental or physical well-being, that’s something you should absolutely consider, as well…” also hits home as I am finding it harder and harder to reconcile the employee that I am with the one that I want to be and I feel that my environment (and my reactions to it) are what’s causing this issue. Of course, one of the hardest things for gov workers to weigh is the relinquishing of benefits that aren’t so easy to come by even for people in the same employ but who started later (I have 20 years in and the packages for current new hires doesn’t compare to mine). But, that being said, I’ve been wrestling with one simple thought: “Is this it? Is this how I end my career? Being “that employee” for the next 10 years? The one who I looked at when I started 20 years ago and swore I’d never become?” Thought provoking blog.

Larry Till

That’s a really thoughtful reflection, SC. My mother is fond of saying, “We are where we are because we choose to be.” Self-advocacy becomes more important with age. One way that quality manifests itself is by through the recognition of what makes you happy, and then the pursuit of it. For me, nothing beats a solid, healthy workplace where people watch each others’ backs. And like you, I’ve turned down jobs because of considerations such as benefits. Those things matter more all the time, too.

Mary Macharia

Brilliant piece Larry…you made me cry and laugh at the same time.
Your Leonard Cohen quote is now my favourite self-motivation line because I’ve been living in a world where I saw my cracks as signs of immaturity but I’m not going to let my light shine 🙂
Looking forward to the networking piece because that’s my Achilles heel for sure