If I knew then what I know now.

That's a sentiment many people feel when they look back at their career. If they knew something they learned later in life, they would have acted differently.

Sometimes it's something simple, and in other situations, it's a hard-won lesson learned over time, or through making multiple mistakes. Of course, it's always easier to make the right choice when you know what happened, but experience in general helps you make better choices.

Fortunately, that experience doesn't have to be your own. It's possible to avoid your own mistakes by learning from others. Here, three Motley Fool writers share the one thing they learned in their careers that they wish they would have known sooner.

A woman at a desk raises her arms in triumph.

Somtimes just one piece of knowledge can be the difference between success and failure. Image source Getty Images.

It's OK to change careers

Maurie Backman: One thing I really wish I knew back when I first started working is that it's OK to change careers if you're just not satisfied with your original choice.

My first job out of college was at a hedge fund, where I started out as a trading assistant and was quickly promoted to trading desk manager. The environment was fast-paced and exciting, and the pay, frankly, was terrific.

But after a year or so, the constant pressure and monotony started to get to me. I really wanted to do something more creative, but I pushed myself to stick it out, thinking it would look bad on my resume to have switched careers after just a couple of years in the workforce.

All told, I spent five years at a job that was wrong for me before I finally worked up the courage to venture out on my own and pursue a writing career. Since doing so, I've been fortunate to work in marketing and content-development environments that provided the creative backdrop I desperately craved during my hedge fund days. And now, of course, I get to combine two of my passions -- writing and finance -- as I help teach the world to invest better. And I'm much happier for it.

Start saving for retirement

Selena Maranjian: I wish, when I started working, that I'd also started saving for retirement. I'm lucky that I got my wake-up call in my early 30s, but if I'd gotten it in my early 20s, I'd have a bigger retirement nest egg by now.

A little fun with numbers makes this point painfully clear. Imagine aiming to retire at 65. If you socked away just $1,000 per year in the decade of your 20s and your money grew at an annual average rate of 8%, you'd end the decade with $15,645. It might not seem like much, but note that you're only 30 when you have it, and that sum now has a whopping 35 more years in which to grow.

If it grows at 8% annually with no additional money added to it, it will grow to more than $230,000 by the time you hit age 65. That $230,000 represents what I might have had in my nest egg at retirement just from my savings when I was in my 20s.

That means I left roughly a quarter of a million dollars on the table by not saving and investing while I was still very young. That was far from a fatal mistake, but the older you are when you start saving for retirement, the harder it will be for you to amass a hefty war chest for retirement.

Starting later means you'll need to save more each year. Odds are that you're not now in your 20s and that you can sock away much more than $1,000 per year. The following table shows how effective it is to make big annual contributions and to do so for as many years as possible.

Growing at 8% For: $5,000 Invested Annually $10,000 Invested Annually $15,000 Invested Annually
15 years $146,621 $293,243 $439,864
20 years $247,115 $494,229 $741,344
25 years $394,772 $789,544 $1.2 million
30 years $611,729 $1.2 million $1.8 million

Calculations by author.

Be willing to take risks

Daniel B. Kline: In the early days of my career, just having a job in my chosen field made me unique among my friends. The mid-'90s were slightly pre-internet boom, and the job market was not great. So in those first couple of years after college, I made safe choices.

Even though my dream then was to work in broadcast media hosting a radio talk show or maybe doing television reporting, I stayed safely rooted in the magazine world. Finding out if I could make it in radio or TV would have required moving to small markets, accepting that radio hosts get fired a lot, and generally sacrificing stability.

I didn't do that in my 20s, and by the time I hit 30, I was married with a child. That makes moving around the country much harder, if not entirely impractical.

When I was younger I could have taken risks, because all I was risking was my own pride. I didn't have a mortgage or other people depending upon me.

Ultimately, it was a lesson I learned and applied in a different situation, walking away from a stable job for a not-guaranteed future writing for The Motley Fool. That was a risk that paid off, as I now have a stable and incredibly rewarding work life.

And while I'm not the next Howard Stern, or even a local news personality, I do get to appear on Motley Fool podcasts. That, at least in my mind, proves that had I taken more risks early in my career, perhaps I might have been.