- Michael Thompson
“Knowing what you know now, if you were starting your career today, what advice would you give yourself?”
This past winter I began teaching leadership and communication skills to MBA students and I was asked a variation of the question above numerous times.
In addition to prioritizing hobbies that strengthened my brain cells instead of ones that stole them, below are the pieces of advice I touched upon along with a few extras I’ve been thinking about.
1. Choose blisters over bliss
For over a decade, Oliver Burkeman — the author of the new hit book “Four Thousand Weeks” — ran a weekly advice column for The Guardian. I was devasted when I learned he was publishing his last post. But my tears quickly dried when I began to read his parting words and came across this whopper of a statement —
“When stumped by a life choice, choose ‘enlargement’ over happiness.”
I couldn’t agree more with this. Nothing worth having comes cheap. Every single aspect of my career I love today initially hurt.
If given the choice, follow Oliver’s lead and choose to take on projects that stretch over how happy you think you’re going to be.
You’ll learn a ton while also learning what you’re made of — which is the very definition of career advancement.
2. Get to know people playing in the same arena but holding a different weapon
I made a smart decision five years ago when I began writing by making a commitment to reach out once a week to speak with someone who wrote words I admire. This habit sped up my learning curve when developing this new skill. It also made my days more enjoyable as I was making new friends.
But the opportunities didn’t begin to flood in until I mixed the calls up and began to also connect with people who were playing in the same arena but holding a different weapon.
- If you want to be a writer, get to know photographers.
- If you want to be a marketer, get to know writers.
- If you want to be a web designer, get to know small business owners.
- If you want to be more productive, get to know single moms.
In today’s world, very few things can be done alone.
A diverse network of people with varying skills who share ideas, contacts, and opportunities with each other is the equivalent of career gold.
3. Live in the space of the next 5 minutes
“They say think big, have a compelling vision. I say think small and do something super cool by the end of the day. Most people see excellence as some grand aspiration. Wrong. Dead wrong. Excellence is the next five minutes or nothing at all. It’s the quality of your next five-minute conversation. It’s the quality of your next email. Forget the long-term. Make the next five minutes rock!”
I love this piece of advice from management legend Tom Peters. It’s one of the 3 quotes I have hanging on my office wall. Focus on writing the best sentence you can in the next five minutes.
- Focus on exercising as hard as you can for the next five minutes.
- Focus on giving people your full presence for the next five minutes.
Most people think about what lies ahead of them or get paralyzed by what’s behind them.
The future belongs to the focused — those who develop the discipline to zero in on what’s directly in front of them instead of building castles in the sky.
4. Focus on honing your “And”
Who’s more attractive — a talented coder or someone with strong coding skills “and” a commanding stage presence?
Who’s more attractive — a talented writer or someone with strong writing skills “and” a master community builder?
Make a list of the qualities and skills you possess that other people compliment you on.
Then look at how you can merge these qualities together to make a unique pairing.
The days of being one-dimensional are over.
It’s your “AND” that also makes you indispensable in your career.
5. Develop the discipline to smile at trouble
I asked one of my closest childhood friends — who’s built and sold multiple 8-figure businesses in the national security space — for his best piece of advice. Without hesitation, he gave a nod to a woman he worked under while studying at West Point —
“When faced with adversity, be punctual, be present, and be positive.
The reason most jobs exist is to solve a problem. Yet, many people break when facing them. Remember the 3Ps and be punctual, present, and positive. Remind yourself that all progress is made in the present and nothing has ever been solved by complaining.
Choosing to be the type of person who’s a calming presence when things go wrong is a seriously attractive quality.
The same goes for deciding to be a forward-thinker when life pushes you back.
6. Become a master at distilling complicated ideas into simple language
Write down the names of the successful people you know. Without even knowing them, I’d be willing to bet all of them are strong communicators.
But this doesn’t mean they’re all super charismatic.
It simply means they’ve done the hard work to learn how to distill complicated ideas and feelings into words the average person can understand.
Start a blog. Lean into Linkedin or Twitter or any other platform with character limits to tighten your message while testing it out to see if it resonates with the masses. Suck it up and pay an interview coach to learn how to sell yourself. Take a public speaking course. In a few weeks you’ll develop a skill that will never go out of style while paying you handsomely for the rest of your career.
“If you can’t communicate and talk to other people and get across your ideas, you’re giving up your potential.”
Warren Buffett said that.
He’s done well for himself.
7. Embrace the 30% Rule
“Leave 30 percent of your day unscheduled!” Dan Sullivan, one of the world’s leading business coaches said this is his number one piece of career advice.
If you’re anything like me, at first glance, this recommendation may seem dramatic or impossible.
But the benefits of carving out time for yourself each day are too big to ignore.
- Prioritizing white space forces you to get clear on the work that matters while helping you weed out which tasks don’t.
- Prioritizing white space will teach you how to pace yourself which is crucial in achieving long-term success without burning out.
- Prioritizing white space gives you time to get to know yourself and chase your curiosity.
Every Sunday, or better yet, every Friday afternoon so you can truly disconnect over the weekend — grab your calendar and block two hours each day for yourself and fight like hell to make it non-negotiable.
Use the time to ask yourself better questions, reach out to old friends or make new ones, tinker, explore, or do nothing at all.
Some people think being busy all the time is a sign of importance. But it’s not. It’s a sign of a lack of clarity.
You can collect all the dots in the world but they don’t do you very much good if you don’t give yourself the space to allow them to connect.
Always being ‘on’ truly is the enemy of productivity.
Reserve time to sit and think.
8. Chase advice, not money
I teach MBA students. I’ve also been a mentor at leading accelerators like Startupbootcamp. Without a doubt, the people who receive the most attention when starting out are those who focus on chasing advice instead of stressing out about how to make money.
Maybe most billionaires are assholes like many people today seem to imply.
From my experience, most moderately — or even very successful people — are pretty solid and they take pride in doing what they can to help other people reach their goals.
But these people will never invest in you if you approach them as a way to get rich instead of viewing them as a wealth of potential knowledge.
“Who should I be learning from?” is the single most important question you can ask yourself throughout your career.
Position yourself as a learner and be curious about others.
Al Firth, Peter Diamandis’s mentor said it best —
“If you ask for money, you’ll get advice.
But if you ask for advice, you may get money.”
9. Look behind and lift as you climb
Most people get tunnel vision and only think about how they can get on the radar of people ahead of them without realizing a big part of fulfillment comes from helping those behind them.
- Be thoughtful and make the new person feel appreciated on their first day of work.
- Be patient and sit down and talk with someone who you can tell is having a bad day.
- Be kind and tell the people around you they are talented and you sure are glad they are on your side.
Most of all, don’t worry about finding a mentor and instead be a mentor to others.
The right people will notice.
The fastest way to carve your own path is to help other people carve theirs.