Thanks for sharing, Sarah! As "just" a literature major myself, I understand the feeling of being grateful to have a job that uses my skills to the slightest degree and the temptation to sell myself short in order to get the opportunities I really want. I've finally been realizing it's time to change that!
Welcome to The Daily Muse’s first-ever essay contest, “My Biggest Mistake at My First Job—And What I Learned From It.” We were blown away by your stories, and we’ve narrowed them down to six amazing finalists. Read all of the entries here, then vote for your favorite!
After I started my first job out of college as an editorial assistant, my family and friends gave me a lot of good advice and encouragement—which I rejected. They told me I was doing more than my job description entailed and that I should be making more money than I was. It was true, but for years my distorted thinking kept me from realizing it.
I had been an editorial assistant at a textbook publisher for a little over a year when my boss approached me with the opportunity to serve as the editor on a textbook. Excited for the chance to do more than process invoices and route contracts, I readily accepted the project. I did a great job on it, and the next year I was the editor on four textbooks—the same workload as that of a full-time editor—while still performing all my editorial assistant duties.
My manager and other senior people noticed that I was doing a lot and doing it well. But my response to my manager’s praise was always simply to say “I’m just so glad to have the opportunity—thank you for the chance to do this.” I didn’t acknowledge my developing skills or ask for a raise, a promotion, or help with my assistant-level duties. When an editor retired, I told my manager that I was very interested in applying for the now-open position, but I then waited patiently and quietly for two more years before the company finally filled it.
During the years I spent as an editorial assistant, my family and friends encouraged me to ask for a raise or get a new job, but I thought I didn’t need more for myself—after all, I’d only majored in English in college. English! Didn’t they understand that, as an English major, I should be so lucky to have gainful employment in an actual office, as opposed to at a Denny’s? It didn’t seem unfair that my salary was pitifully low; I was happy just to be able to afford my own apartment, save a little money every month, and hopefully become an editor someday. To me, their encouragement sounded like they were telling me I wasn’t doing well enough, and I resented it. Plus, no one outside the company understood how thick the bureaucracy was there. I couldn’t just ask for more money or a promotion and get it—I had to play by the rules and wait for things to happen.
I didn’t realize how skewed my thinking had been until I left the editorial department for a production position. In that role, I felt my career horizon expand and I realized that I had the potential to make more money than I had previously expected for myself, and with it, I gained an appreciation for my education, talents, and hard work and what they could do—and could have done—for me. Even when I was “just” an editorial assistant, I had talents, worth, and power. I could have asked my supportive manager to advocate for accelerating the hiring process for the open editor position. Barring that, I could have asked him to promote me to senior editorial assistant and increase my salary to the top of the salary range for the position. Even if I wasn’t successful in getting anything for myself, I would rather the company to have known that I was savvy enough to recognize that I was giving them more than they were giving me.
I’m still reaping the financial consequences of my mistake seven years later; I’m still at the same company, where my current salary is the accumulation of all the raises and promotions I have—and haven’t—gotten over the years. But at the same time, it’s OK that I learned this lesson the hard way. To paraphrase the Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa, I embrace my mistakes and use them as fuel for my journey.