Ups and downs in a career are unavoidable — dictated by the economy, by decisions your employers make, and by the personal choices you make along the way.

The economy isn’t something you can control. You might be able to influence your employer, but not always. What you can govern are your own choices. And through deliberate, thoughtful decisions, you can (and should) own your career in some of the most meaningful, impactful ways possible. 

Here are the 5 areas to focus on:

  1. Think long term
  2. Keep learning and developing skills
  3. Control your social narrative
  4. Build a people network
  5. Be patient and persevere

Think Long Term: Embrace the Imperfect Opportunity

Like most people, I’ve had several employers and worked in a variety of roles. I love my current job (and I think I’m a perfect fit!), but finding and landing this dream job didn’t just happen. For one thing, I had to envision myself in a role like this long before it became attainable. 

Early in my career, I debated what felt at the time to be a big career move. I was working in marketing for a nonprofit that I truly believed in, and a manager who had taken a chance on me. The opportunity was in a new field, lower on the totem pole, in corporate America. But then something happened that put my dilemma into a context that instantly made it manageable. My dad asked me how the job I was considering would contribute to my ability to get my next job, and then eventually my dream job. I began to view good yet not-completely-perfect opportunities as valuable stepping stones towards my dream job. 

Keep Developing Skills: Your Currency of Advancement

Building your knowledge is one of the biggest keys to success and it’s critical. For better or worse, the skills we learn in school or early in our careers will quickly become irrelevant just a few short years later.

The good news is that it’s easier than ever to stay updated with the skills you need to be successful. Increasingly, employers are offering employees online learning opportunities on thousands of topics available on-demand as courses, videos, books, podcasts, and more. Outside of work, the Internet abounds with the same types of learning content, much of it free. Document the skills you have and those you need, then dive in!

And keep this in mind: It’s one thing to explore new skills, but it’s another to ingrain them into your everyday flow. To become truly proficient, you need to apply new skills in real-world ways. You can do this by taking on new projects, by volunteering in your community, and by mentoring or teaching other people interested in gaining the same capabilities. 

Control Your Social Narrative: Creating “The Brand of You”

How you choose to portray yourself professionally is as personal as it gets. It also can depend heavily on your line of work.

Maybe you’re an outgoing, entertaining people-person, working in a relaxed industry. Go ahead and dye your hair green – if that’s not a problem. Don’t think twice about posting emojis to your LinkedIn profile. It might help you get ahead. You know best.

Now let’s say you’re not the green hair type. Or you’re working in a buttoned-down industry. And that’s exactly where you want to be. Chances are you’ll want to play it straight.

However you portray yourself, realize that you’re creating a personal brand that signals your value to prospective future employers. Even if you make no effort to portray yourself one way or another, your lack of attention will, by default, reverberate and define you.

A final word on your personal brand . . . Don’t fake it.

Be yourself. Be authentic. You don’t have to be your entire self. But make sure that your personal brand is something you can “wear” consistently, comfortably, and confidently.

Build a People Network: It’s All About Connecting

The word “networking” can have negative connotations of opportunists on a mission to get in with all the “right” people. Of course, meeting people who can help you get ahead is important. But there’s a lot more to networking than pressing flesh at happy hour.

Engage with social media groups on topics that interest you. Seek out mentors or ask experts questions. Be willing to swallow your pride and ask for an assist like asking for a letter of recommendation or a referral. Everybody — even the best — has received career help at some point. When the time comes, be willing to return the favor by providing these things to your connections. Done right, networking is as much about helping others as it is about helping yourself. 

You can, and should, also network within your current workplace. Volunteer to do tasks you might not want to do. These are opportunities for growth. Network within your organization to learn all aspects of the business. You might discover new skills you’re interested in. In doing so, you’ll make key connections with people who can help you take the next steps in your career.

Be Realistic, Patient and Persevere

Most likely, you won’t be a VP your second job out of college. Most likely, 6 figure salary won’t be year 2 in the workforce. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dream big. 

You need to take smart, steady steps toward every goal. Don’t hold yourself back, especially when things get tough. You’re going to get negative feedback. But turn it into an opportunity. Let it sting for a second, then use it as fuel to get better and improve.

Lastly, don’t be “too big” for certain tasks. Sometimes, you have to work in the trenches first to earn your muddy stripes. And I would argue that does the body and mind good. I learned some of my BEST lessons waitressing early in my career. 

A Final Word…

Don’t underestimate yourself. You won’t know what’s possible until you try. And if you fail, don’t accept that failure as the inevitable reality for all time. 

Stay positive, keep learning, and keep trying.