Career Advice from 15 Women Who’ve Been There

Career Advice from 15 Women Who've Been There | Positively Smitten

Back in December, “Mistakes I Made At Work” edited by Jessica Bacal made my Christmas wish list. The book features a collection of stories, life lessons, and pieces of advice from 25 successful women who had failed at something or in some situation, sometimes more than once, and lived to tell the tale. 

The premise had me hooked.

As someone who fears failure most of all, I knew I needed to hear what these women who I otherwise respected and admired had to say about the F-word.

The book itself is a relatively quick read. Divided into four sections, “Mistakes I Made At Work” tackles telling your own story, asking, saying no, and being resilient. Stories come from 25 different successful women — writers, scientists, doctors, athletes, inventors, teachers, entrepreneurs, politicians, artists — who open up and share some of their most vulnerable career-related failures.

You can read the book chronologically, or jump around to the sections or women you’re most interested in. However you read it, you’ll walk away from the book having learned something not just about the women who share their stories, but about yourself, too. It’s packed with excellent advice for furthering your career, following your dreams, bouncing back from mistakes, embracing error, and learning to go easy on yourself.

And it’s so refreshing. I was tickled to read that these women were human. They, too, in all their infinite greatness experienced self-doubt! And frustration! And big, fat failure! But they didn’t let themselves be defined by these things. So often, women are told and taught they need to be some variation of “perfect” in order to be successful; this book shatters that illusion and points out that failure is a natural part of life. It’s how we learn and how we grow.

I’d wholeheartedly recommend this book to any career-minded woman, especially young ones, who have ever felt unsure of themselves, worried about making a mistake, questioned their career, or just need to feel reassured that they’re not alone.

Beyond that, “Mistakes I Made at Work” has so much good information that I know I’ll be referencing it for a while to come. (The list of books I read about within the book along is embarrassingly long!)

I also wanted to share some of my favorite quotes from 14 of the women who are part of the book, as well as one piece of advice from the book’s editor.

15 Quotes from 15 Inspiring Women

[W]herever you go, whatever job you take, you always want to be working on boosting your career skills, not in the hopes that you’l get a reward from your current company or boss — because they might not be there one day. Instead, you almost need to see yourself as a freelancer, building skills and capabilities to take with you to the next job and the next job and the next job.

— Laurel Touby, journalist and founder of


Don’t be afraid to quit. Who cares what others think? They’re not the ones living your life. You are.

— Rachel Simmons, Rhodes Scholar and author of the book “Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls”


Sometimes each of us has to prioritize, even if it means disappointing someone or quitting a commitment. In a society where we’re expected to be busy all the time, where people tout their overwhelmedness as if it means they’re winning at some crazy game, saying no can actually be a wonderful feeling.

— Jessica Bacal, editor of “Mistakes I Made at Work” 


I think taking risks can be hard for women, but it helps to have a “what’s the worst that can happen?” attitude. … I think that we all might be able to value our mess-ups and mistakes a little more if we saw them as a part of the process of developing as people.

— Corinna Lathan, founder and CEO of AnthroTronix, a research and development company


In general, a lot of good can come from not needing to be in control of everything. I would encourage every young woman to find at least one beautifully mucky place in which you’re not the expert — and then to wade in.

— Lisa Lutz, author of “The Spellman Files” series


Know that even if you start out with a certain idea of what you’re going to do in your life, almost no one ends up following a straight line. … Careers are long, and they evolve and change over time.

— Kim Gorden, musician, artist, and bassist, guitarist, and vocalist of alternative rock band Sonic Youth


[F]ail fast, fail hard, and fail often.

— Reshma Saujani, lawyer, politician, and founder of the tech organization Girls Who Code.


Real success is rooted in learning how to turn mistakes into successes; losses into gains; failures into the things of value that propel you forward rather than hold you back.

— Cheryl Strayed, memoirist, novelist, essayist, and author of the New York Times bestseller “Wild” 


You don’t have to be the model of perfection to be good at your job.

— Danielle Ofri, essayist, editor, and attending physician at Bellevue Hospital


I’ve noticed that young people are often afraid of “living the wrong life.” Every decision becomes momentous because they just haven’t made many of them! They become afraid to decide anything, which can be a mistake in itself. Instead, start with what you really want to create and if the decision takes you a step forward, go for it. If you don’t know what you want to create, focus on gaining a skill.

— Joanna Barsh, director emeritus at McKinsey & Company and best-selling author


It’s not easy for either sex — except for those who are born negotiators — to discuss salary, but women tend to personalize things more than men. We have to try to know we’re worth the money, be able to ask for it, and not feel crushed if it doesn’t come through. [W]e also need to leave a place that undervalues and underpays us.

— Alina Tugend, author and award-winning New York Times columnist


Sometimes being comfortable in a place isn’t a good enough reason to stay there. It’s okay to take risks.
— Lani Guinier, American civil rights theorist and professor of law at Harvard


When you get the alumni quarterly and you read about your friends who are PhDs or MacArthur fellows or Rhodes scholars, have a shot for each one and keep a good sense of humor. Life is about doing what you love.

— Luma Mufleh, founder and director of the nonprofit organization Fugees Family, Inc.


If you’re not blessed enough to be able to banish the voice of self-doubt and self-criticism from your head, then develop compensatory strategies — like getting out of the house, exercising, and connecting with friends.

— Judith Warner, bestselling author and former New York Times columnist


Your best investment is yourself.

— Ruth Reichl, chef, food critic, author, and former editor-in-chief of Gourmet Magazine

Photo credit FaceMePls/Flickr

1 Comment

  1. I must buy this book! I might add, perhaps if we started thinking of “failures” as simply “lessons” or “stepping stones”, it would help the case as well!

    These quotes are awesome. I very curious to hear more about this one from Lisa: “In general, a lot of good can come from not needing to be in control of everything. I would encourage every young woman to find at least one beautifully mucky place in which you’re not the expert — and then to wade in.”

    But the one that speaks to me the most is the one about “living the wrong life” by Joanna. Wow.

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