What I Wish I Knew When I Started My Career (Part One)

I’m blessed enough to get the opportunity to speak at universities all over the country and the question I’m most often asked by students is, “What do you know now that you wish you knew, back then, when you started your career?”

I thought I’d share a response to this question in an attempt to serve any of the younger, or younger at heart, Lead Change readers.

First of all, I try not to think about the fact that “back then” was over 25 years ago, back when an app was still a delicious pre-dinner treat and über was just a word you used in your English essays to get a chance to use the cool umlaut symbol above the “u." When I get past this mental sidebar, I settle in.

Here are eight of the things I say; tomorrow I will share seven more:

You Own Your Career

Young professionals often like to believe that if they keep their heads down and crank, the Great Career Planner in the sky will simply move them from job to job in a stepwise fashion until career dreams are fully realized. Don’t fall into this trap. Yes, people will help you along the way, but you really are in the driver’s seat. Early in my career I was doing too much assuming and not enough asserting.  It’s important to be clear on what you want, and understand that you have to be proactive in making it so. For more on being clear on what you want, see the next point.

Meaning Starts with “Me”

You are the only one who can ascribe meaning (or not) to what you spend your time on. It is sooo critical that early on you commit to pursuing the life and career that you want, not the life and career someone else expects of you. The word “meaning” starts with “me” for a reason. This is the key to having a truly meaningful, fulfilling career – and life.  Bronnie Ware is a palliative nurse (a nurse that tends to the dying) who has written a great book and blog titled The Top 5 Regrets of the Dying. Learn more here. Number one on the list of regrets? “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

Zap, Don’t Sap

You will soon learn there are two kinds of people you’ll work with. There are those who zap energy into a workplace with their enthusiasm, passion, and optimistic outlook, and those who sap energy with their pessimism, gossip, and negative attitude. Despite my best intentions, I’ve found myself occasionally spiraling down with the debbie-downers over my career. This, from someone who prides himself on his attitude! It speaks to the incredible corrosive power that negative ions can have in the workplace. Don’t get sucked into the vortex of energy-sucking vampires. And closely related to the idea of zapping is to live the 10/90 principle – believe that life is 10% what happens to you and 90% how you react to it. Many times I’ve seen great attitudes be the tiebreaker as to who got what coveted job.

Character Reveals Itself in Times of Crisis

Use times of crisis to show your character. You really get to know someone when you watch them in times of adversity and crisis. It’s easy to be awesome when things are going great. But when the chips are down, how will you show up? What an opportunity to leave a lasting impression. And I can assure you, people will remember how you acted in times of adversity, one way or another. One of the greatest regrets I have in my career came from an impression I left during a time of crisis where I was lashing out and blaming well-meaning coworkers. They didn’t forget my reaction, and I never will either.

Lift as You Climb

Rising up the chain is nice. Lifting others up as you do so is what it means to be a caring human being with a servant leader mindset.  The position you gain should be used not just to further your own, but to help others improve theirs. Starting a new chain of “Pay It Forward” never, ever, gets old. I stopped getting my jollies from my own promotions years ago.

Go from Being…to Becoming

I often wonder why we call ourselves human beings. We should call ourselves humans doing. Go, go, go, do ,do, do - we attack our harried lives with cell phone in one hand, latte in the other, rushing on our way to work each day. We barely have enough time to be, let alone become. And going from merely being, to becoming – becoming a better version of yourself - is how fulfillment enters your work life. Commit early in your career to the practice of constantly becoming. Place learning and growth on a pedestal. I think back now to the times in my career when I was least happy and I can tell you with great clarity, it was when I wasn’t learning and growing.  It was when I found myself wondering, “Am I wasting my time here?” Don’t waste any of yours – stay in constant pursuit of learning and growth.

Go from Success…to Significance

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being focused on success early in your career. Or even later in your career, for that matter. It’s about evolution though. The sooner you commit to being not just successful, but significant, in the lives of others, the deeper the ultimate fulfillment experienced at work. I made this discovery about halfway through my career. I was struggling with why I was working so hard - for what reason? I was spending too much time away from loved ones, committing to a pursuit of success that was starting to feel empty. A series of events in my life got me focused on making a difference in the lives of others in addition to pursuing success per se, and I’ve never looked back.

Be an Original Thinker

In the book Orbiting the Giant Hairball, an art teacher talks of a simple question he asks students every time before the class activities start. “Who here thinks they are a genius?” he shouts. In response, every kindergartner whips their hand straight into the air with reckless abandon. When he asks this same question to the 12th graders he teaches, how many do you think raise their hand? Not one.  And so it can go in our career. We land in a company somewhere that expects us to think and act in a certain way, and we face retribution when we don’t. The human nature of human preservation kicks in. Over time, as we elevate to higher “grade levels," we begin to parrot what our bosses say and think. Somewhere along the line, we realize our original thinking has been stuffed back down into our souls, and we begin to doubt ourselves. Don’t let this happen – protect the unique gifts and original thinking you have to contribute to the world. I still fight each day to do just that.

All the best as you accelerate your own careers. May each of these lessons looking back help you in moving forward. I look forward to sharing more with you tomorrow.

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Editor's note: To access Part Two easily, please click here.

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