5 Career Mistakes I Made That You’re Smart Enough To Avoid

Shyna Zhang is the Founder of Rigging Academy, and a former Product Marketing Leader at Marketo and Microsoft. She shares with us five career mistakes she made and how you can avoid them

Domain expertise, a lot of hard work, critical thinking, problem solving, raw horsepower, strong leadership skills, and the ability to drive consensus across teams. Nothing controversial there, right? But none of this actually matters. For those that are myopically focused on this, I’ll let you out in a secret — you will plateau at some point.

As someone who has been in the room when decisions are made on who to promote or bring in for a People management role, I’ll add one more critical category that young professionals may overlook which hold them back: soft skills.

I recently put together gave a talk called ‘5 Career Mistakes that I Made that You’re Smart Enough to Avoid’ in an attempt to reflect on this topic. Frankly, I didn’t invest in the ‘soft skills’ enough because I greatly underestimated their place in the workplace. The longer that I worked, the more I realized that being smart and hardworking would only get one so far, and the ones that were at the leadership level, weren’t always the smartest and hardworking. Growing up as a first-generation immigrant, these skills weren’t as valued and emphasized in my household, but they are crucial in the individualistic society of corporate America, especially Silicon Valley.

Lesson 1: I didn’t realize hard work and long hours only leads to more hard work and long hours, unless you short circuit

School teaches us that achievement (grades, test scores, winning competitions, etc..) leads to rankings, which Universities deem important. In this system, working harder and being smart leads to direct outcomes.

Work is a very different place. Things like perceived impact on business, relationships with colleagues and management are paramount to getting visibility, promoted and recognized. Therefore, working harder and long hours only leads to burnout.

Instead, be cognizant to both physical and emotional burnout and truly pace yourself and ensure you’re setting up for success in the long run with things like visibility, working on high impact projects, aligning yourself with strong leaders, and getting shit done – the key is doing it over and over again. It’s truly a marathon, not a sprint.


Lesson 2: I let others define my value and didn’t advocate for myself

Everyone is in the business of marketing themselves as much as they are in the business of marketing their solution/product. Ensure you’re setting up a Coach, Advocate, and Sponsor within or outside of your organization that are helping to champion your cause. What’s the difference?

  • Coach: Day-to-day person that can be real as shit with you, providing regular constructive criticism
  • Advocate: Have similar experiences to you which allow her to empathize, understand your issues and offer you useful advice.
  • Sponsor: Person with a high status in an organization who can advocate for an individual’s future successes, when they are not in the room


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Lesson 3: I didn’t show up, because it wasn’t ‘mandatory’

I often found myself the only female or the only person under the age of 35 in a room and frankly, I had better things to do with my time than to go to social events – things like happy hours and get togethers outside of the office or outside of work hours. Because I didn’t feel like I had much in common with my colleagues, I often just didn’t show up. Big mistake.

In hindsight, those relationships and being open and curious about them would have been a great investment for my own growth and learning, not to mention, to develop a connection outside of work.

Lesson 4: I cared too much what other people thought – catastrophically

Whenever my boss or my skip level manager would do a drive by my desk with a, ‘Hey, do you have a few min to catch up?’ or a text popped up that said, ‘Can you chat?’ My heart fluttered with a bit of anxiety.

In My Head

•“Shit, that presentation didn’t go well”

•“They are going to let me go or cut my hours”

•“Someone had negative feedback about me or someone on my team”


•Update on a project

•Ask me a quick question

•Compliment me on a presentation

Too much catastrophic thinking and anxiety, unwarranted :). Manage Your Manager, Otherwise they will Manage You. I use the 5-15 template and methodology, although I’m sure there are others that work just as well.

Lesson 5: I tried to ‘make it work’ vs knowing when it’s time to leave.

Posters line hallways and Instagram is full of motivational statements about ‘never getting in’ and ‘leaning in’ and ‘hustling for your goals.’ Although I’m completely supportive of hard work and working your ass off, there’s something to be said about knowing about a sunk cost. A simple exercise I try to do yearly to ensure I’m working at a place that’s aligned tomy values:

1)Stack rank your values yearly as it relates to your stage in life

2)Stack rank your organization’s values

3)Is there overlap? Is there a glaring disparity?

4)Realistically, will this change in the near future?


Last thing I’ll say on this is that I’ve made many more than 5 career mistakes :). It’s been a journey of trial and error, with lots of learning and luck. Interested in more content like this? Sign up for Rigging’s newsletter. While you’re there, Rigging’s 9-week online program for highly motivated young professionals that looking for the knowledge, access, and community to achieve their professional and personal goals through learning the soft skills that school doesn’t teach.

What got you here, often doesn’t get you there.

Start 2019 Off Right With a Career Check-in

In my previous life, I was a management consultant. As a consultant, my job was to provide knowledge and expertise to clients on how to solve a problem or challenge and usually involved giving them a set of recommendations on how to proceed. In my experience, even when we were really familiar with the client or problem, the recommendation on what to do did not magically drop into our brains one day in a flash of insight.

Instead, it’s something we would discover, through a rapid but thoughtful process of gathering insight, testing, getting feedback, and then coming up with a recommendation on how to best proceed.


This notion is similar when it comes to making career decisions. As a Career Coach, a common question I get when working with my clients on building their careers is “How do you balance doing your everyday work with thinking about the next career move, or, how do you know when to look (or not look) for a new job?”

These are important and thoughtful concerns — we are not certainly defined by our jobs but they make up a significant portion of how we spend our time each week. And like anything important, putting in time to think and reflect before making a decision is a good thing to do. Over the years, to help me answer these questions I’ve built a series of questions to help me answer some of these questions and figure out how I am feeling about work, which helps inform if I need to make changes.

With that, I like to think of my career as 2-year sprints. During that sprint, I do a major check-in once every six months.  Given that it’s still early in 2019, now is a great time to reflect on where you’ve been, and to start thinking of where you want to go, which is a great time to conduct a quick check-in.  I ask myself the following questions:

  • Am I learning everyday? — I am at my best when I’m most engaged/immersed in my work, and that happens when I’m challenged or when I have to learn something in order to do my job. It’s important for me to make sure that I’m still learning and being challenge.
  • Do I like and respect the people that I am working for and with? — I get my energy by working on high-performing teams, and I do my best work in a supportive and collaborative environment. Furthermore, I value and respect people who treat others with respect. This environment ensures I can do my best work. For this question, it’s about making sure I still enjoy and like working with the people I am working with.


  • Am I committed 100% to doing my best work? — I do my best work and exceed my expectations when I’m fully committed to what I’m doing. I don’t meet my expectations when I’m sort of committed or ambivalent. For this question, it’s about making sure that I’m fully vested into what I’m doing.


  • What have I improved, or strengthened since my last check-in? — As someone who believes in the growth mindset, I believe it’s important to continue growing both strengths and weaknesses. If I can accurately pinpoint skills I’ve developed or development areas that I’ve improved since my last check in, I know that I’m probably happy where I am.


  • Is there something else that’s taking a significant portion of my mindshare or attention? — I think about the things that are on my mind, and pay attention to my thoughts. Can I identify a specific problem, challenge, or topic that I’m constantly thinking about? If my time is spend on what is currently in front of me, I know I’m probably progressing down the right path. But if it’s on something else, I’ll need to revisit what that is, and understand why I’m focusing on it so much.

For me, it’s about doing a check-in every once in awhile to take stock of what I am doing, how I am doing, and to get a sense of if I need to make changes. Changes can mean anything from adding additional things in my personal life to help with my well-being, to reaching out to mentors for advice, picking up a side project, or in some cases,  starting the process of finding a new job. The focus for me is getting clarity on what’s currently going on, and figuring out the best way to keep going. In some cases, nothing needs to be done, but in others, changes are needed.

As I’ve conducted these check-ins numerous times over my career, I’ve learned a few things along the way:

There are always ups and downs — That’s okay, and it’s part of life and your career. Work is just that — Work! Which mens, there are ups and downs and stressful weeks. This happens and is part of life

You need to give it time — In my experience both as a professional and career coach, I’ve come to believe you need at least 6–8 months to get a first set of hypotheses/feedback on a job. If you stay for anything less, you might not get the full cycle (save for a few exceptions)

Considering The Future is a good thing — It can be easy to put your blinders on and execute on the tasks in front of you, so thinking about what’s next is a good thing to do. However, it’s important to stay focused on the task at hand. Try to time box your future planning, or, save it for times when you have more energy/time to devote to other things

If I can answer yes with supporting evidence for all those questions, that’s usually a green light to keep going. If there is a no, or a lack of supporting evidence to any of those questions it means I need to do some additional probing to understand the root cause.

In some cases, there are factors that cause me to answer no that I recognize and appreciate but am OK with moving forward on. In other cases, I need to either A) dig further, B) create an action plan for how I am going to work through it or C) it’s time for me to put the wheels in motion for moving on to my next opportunity

It’s not a binary decision of Yes/No, but it’s a simple framework for how I like to evaluate my job in the arc of my career. The main takeaway here is not the questions or the check-ins but the ability to dig deeper into understanding what’s causing my feelings and to do something about it, whether that means keeping up the great work or starting to search for something new.

I encourage everyone to come up with their own framework and series of questions that they can reflect on every few months. I think you’ll find it will help you figure out what’s going on, what the root of it is, and what actions you can take to make the right next move.


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My 2018 Year in Review

And how you can write your own Year in Review Too!

For the past five years, I’ve conducted an end of the year review (see 2016 as an example) I find this to be a great opportunity to pause to examine and self-reflect but also to think about what I do in order to make the most of the year ahead. I got the inspiration for this because when I was working as a consultant, I used to do one of these each year to prepare for year end performance reviews and thought it would be a great tool to bring over into my personal life as well. While this version combines a bit of both the self-reflection and planning principles still remain the same.

Like every year, I have many blessings and things to be thankful for in 2018, namely, health, family, and friendships. In the past year, I moved apartments twice, took a new job, expanded my career and leadership coaching business and traveled across the United States for friends, family, weddings, vacation, etc. I decided to breakout my year in the following format:

  • Accomplishments
  • Room for Improvement
  • People and Relationships
  • Next Year’s Focus


Transitioning into a new Job — I started a new job of December 2017, so 2018 was all about transitioning and trying to succeed in the new job (I wrote about it here) and so far I would call it great progress.

Even for someone who has helped lots of people transition into new jobs it certainly felt uneasy at times during the transition. When I took the job, I knew I was ready to move on from being a consultant, and was excited to try Product Marketing, but I still had many questions that every job seeker goes through, such as “will this work out, will I be good, what happens if I fail?”

So this is “work” now

Overall, so far I would call it a great start. In addition to enjoying what i do and the people I work with, I feel I can point to a number of things where I made a tangible impact. Furthermore, I can also identify a handful of skills and experiences that I didn’t have a year ago that I now have. As someone who measures their progress and success by what they learn, this is a big win. There is much left to do and much more to learn, but I am happy with how it’s started.

Coaching and Speaking — While I took on less clients, the number of referrals grew and my hourly rates went up. I’ve also narrowed my focus as opposed to being more broad Furthermore, I booked the most speaking gigs I’ve ever had, and got the chance to speak into new markets/industries. In the past, I was a little hesitant to share that I was doing this, but this year I have gone all in, and have been much better about letting people know that I do these things and it’s opened up a lot more doors and opportunities, which is exciting.

Speaking at UNC-Chapel Hill

Writing — I continued to write and publish content through a variety of formats and outlets. I also was quoted and referenced in a number of others. For me, writing is a great way to synthesize what I’ve learned, what I am thinking about, get feedback from others and hopefully share my lessons so that it benefits other people.

Health and Wellness — Being healthy and living an active lifestyle is important to me, and this year I did a great job of maintaining a consistent gym and workout schedule throughout all 12 months of the year

Where I fell short

Less Volunteering and Community Engagement — My volunteer time was lower than I wanted and expect. Especially considering my employer gives me plenty of time to do it. I’ve always invested in the community wherever I have lived, and this is an area where I am falling short in.

Focusing efforts — This year, I had too many priorities, and not enough energy focused on a few priorities that can yield better results. As a natural optimist when I come across ideas or opportunities it’s easy for me to get excited and throw myself into them but doing so spreads myself thin and often leads to sub-optimal end results because I end up half-assing things or not being able to devote myself fully to them

West Coast Exploration — I have a list of places that I want to explore on the West Coast that I created when moved out here 3.5 years ago. I feel like there still are quite a few on there that I haven’t been to yet and ‘d like to change that.

People & Relationships

Building and Growing Relationships — I just turned 31 a few weeks ago, and friendships get interesting at this phase in your life. While some of my friends are starting to start families, get engaged, etc, others are in a similar position to me — people are kind of all at different speeds, and that’s okay.

However as your friends start evolving into new parts of their lives, it gets harder to maintain and grow those friendships, as priorities change. Friendships and relationships are important to me, and it starts with showing up and being there, but extends farther past that.

I’m fortunate to have lots of good friends in my life and I’m really grateful to be in touch and close to so many people, even if many of them are in different stages of their lives. In 2018, that meant weekend trips to the East coast to see friends and to meet their babies, 3rd or 5th wheel dates with newly married and engaged couples, hikes and strolls around town with new puppies and dogs, and mid-day coffee dates with friends with newborn children. These hangout sessions, visits, and check ups are highlights of my week and give me a lot of energy, but they also incredibly educational. I’ve learned more about the cost of childcare, selecting schools, Baby Shark and how to train a puppy this year than ever before!

Whether it’s all of these types of activities, or just simple emails and texts just to check in with folks who I can’t see on a regular basis I feel fortunate and happy to be a part of so many other people’s lives, and hope this continues.

Travel — I continue to spend a lot of time on airplanes and flying around, whether that’s for work (much less) weddings (still quite a bit) vacation (more than ever) or friends and family (still pretty high)In 2018, I had a great mix of both solo travel (Hawaii) friends travel (Phoenix/Scottsdale) and family travel (Boston, LA, Austin, New York)

Since I live on the West Coast but my family lives on the East Coast, family trips are a great way to spend time together. Furthermore, upon realizing a group of my friends all wanted to go to the same places group trips are awesome ways to see new places without going alone.

Wedding Season!

Next Year’s Priorities

Focus — Next year I will focus, and by focusing, I mean doing less but doing more with less. 2017–18 I did alot of things which was great, but they were at times all over the place, which made it hard to make tangible impact or progress.

Prioritizing and truly acknowledging that by choosing one thing that you are not going to do another thing is really hard, especially because I am an opportunistic person by nature, but to drive better results I need to be better about prioritizing my time. I’ve had to do this before (ex: business school is a great example) and I know it can be done.

Building and Growing Community — In college I had such a tight knit community. Honestly, it was easy, because I was literally surrounded by like-minded people, and since you are around them all the time, it becomes easy and natural to build relationships.

One of the low-key hard things about being a young adult/adult is that making friends, meeting people growing friendships (not to mention, dating) is really hard. It doesn’t just come naturally most of the time, and if you really want to have it you have to make it a priority and invest in it consistently.

I’ve lived in San Francisco for 3.5 years, and after a concerted effort I now have an awesome community of friends that I can see and spend time with and rely upon. I want to double down on this for next year and really grow that to deepen those friendships and relationships because I know that adds a lot of meaning and value to my life.

Writing Goals — I’m excited to say that next year I’m going to be launching my writing on a bigger scale than I have in the past. While I am still working on the details and the timelines, it will hopefully amount to something bigger than what I already do with CareerSchooled and publishing in places like The Muse and Business Insider. While I hope to continue to do a few of those things, an early 2019 priority is to help launch my brand on a bigger scale. More details to come!

Overall, 2018 was a great year, but in the spirit of “better better never best,” there’s plenty of room for growth and improvement. I’m looking forward to a relaxing few weeks of vacation and then gearing up for 2019 and will hopefully be another great year. If you have time over the holiday I encourage you to think about your year, and maybe even write your own year in review!

Note: if you want advice on how to do your own year in review, check out a few of these links



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