Actress Kerry Washington: To get ahead in your career, 'you have to enjoy being a beginner'

Kerry Washington speaks onstage during the 2020 13th Annual ESSENCE Black Women in Hollywood Luncheon on February 6, 2020, in Beverly Hills, California.
Randy Shropshire | Getty Images

The actress Kerry Washington, best known for her starring role as Olivia Pope in the ABC drama "Scandal," isn't afraid to admit she doesn't know it all. 

"If you think you're supposed to know how to do everything all the time, [that] you're supposed to have all the information and be perfect already, that's too much pressure," Washington told InStyle.

After years working as a successful actress in Hollywood and on Broadway, Washington founded her own production company, Simpson Street, in 2016. After the success of "Scandal," she felt a responsibly to to create more opportunities for people of color, she told InStyle. Her latest projects include directing an episode of Issa Rae's "Insecure" on HBO and an adaptation of the graphic novel series "Goldie Vance" with Rashida Jones

As she evolves from actress to director and producer, Washington is embracing her new roles and the challenges that come with them: "You have to enjoy being a beginner. Enjoy learning new things. Enjoy not being good at something, because that's how you get better at it," she says. 

Whether you're taking your career in a new direction like Washington or taking your first job, being a beginner can be humbling, even daunting. Here are two proven ways to start strong when you're just starting out.

Never pass up an opportunity, even if you feel unqualified 

If you are offered a chance to try something, take it. "Whether it's a job opportunity or a project opportunity, always present yourself as up for the task," Tanya Sam, a tech entrepreneur and founder of The Ambition Fundtold Grow last year. If you think you're not qualified, "you can figure it out later, but always say yes!" she adds.

And if you don't see opportunities for yourself, try creating them. On-camera personality Dolapo Sangokoya had zero production experience when she started her career in media. But she didn't let her beginner status stop her from jumping into producing. Her willingness to learn and go for what she wanted led Sangokoya toward a series of promotions that ultimately helped her reach her goal of hosting her own show.

"You have to be proactive," Sangokoya told Grow earlier this year. "You have to go for it. You're like, 'OK, I'm going to learn this. I'm going to hone this and I'm going to try to build up my skill set.'" 

Learn from other people's experience — and their mistakes 

When Washington started her own production company, she consulted her friend and fellow actress, Reese Witherspoon. The two co-produced and star in the adaptation of "Little Fires Everywhere" now on Hulu. 

Hello Sunshine, Witherspoon's media company, has produced the Oscar-nominated films like "Gone Girl" and the HBO series "Big Little Lies." Washington wanted her help navigating the business.

"I knew that Reese had several production companies through the years and had learned a lot during the various stages of their development," Washington says. "I said to her, 'You're killing it now, but tell me all the mistakes you made so I don't have to reinvent the wheel.'"

Washington counts industry pros like Witherspoon, Rae, and Jennifer Lopez among those in her support system. It's important to learn from the peers and mentors in your network and try to bring them up with you as you rise in the ranks.  

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington speak onstage during the Hulu Panel at Winter TCA 2020 on January 17, 2020, in Pasadena, California.
Erik Voake | Getty Images

If you don't have a network, work on creating one. That can mean reaching out to the right people who can support you and help you grow professionally. For example, if you're new to your field, send introductory emails, and attend professional conferences or events.

Even former "Bachelor" star Nick Viall had to draw on the expertise of others when he transitioned from the reality show franchise to business endeavors, including an essential oils company. When starting out, he says, "be humble enough to admit when you don't know something, then find someone who does."

And to soak up the knowledge of those around you, don't be afraid to "be the dumbest person in the room," Patty Delgado, founder of the lifestyle brand Hija de tu Madre, told Grow last year. "Constantly surround yourself with entrepreneurs, mentors, or advisors that know way more than you."

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