15 Things I Wish I Knew When I Started My Career

With each New Year, I take time to reflect on a lifetime of lessons I’ve learned on the front lines of living and building a thriving career. And in case I need a reminder to reflect, when I speak at universities all over the country I’m often asked by students, “What do you know now that you wish you knew, back then, when you started your career?”

First of all, I try not to think about the fact that “back then” was over 25 years ago, back when an app was only 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. And here’s what I say:

You Own Your Career

Young professionals often like to believe 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. And 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 so critical that you commit early on to pursuing the life and career you want, not what 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. 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 incredibly 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 career regrets I have 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 excited about 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 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 focusing 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 boss says and thinks. 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.

Be Interested in What’s Right, Not Who’s Right

I’ve seen too many talented people along the way focus their energy in all the wrong places, most commonly by obsessing over winning an argument. Intellectual Integrity is much more important than perceived Intellectual Prowess – which by the way is not automatically prescribed to the winner of an argument. Be interested in what the right thing is, then do that right thing. That’s energy well spent.    

The Biggest Risk You Can Take is Not Taking Any Risk

The Navy’s first female Rear Admiral, Grace Murray Hopper, once said “Ships in port are safe. But that’s not what ships are made for.” Wayne Gretzky once said “I guarantee you’ll miss 100% of the shots you never take”. Henry Ford said “Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.”

The biggest difference I’ve seen between mediocre and magnificent leaders comes down to their willingness to take risks, learn from them, and keep moving forward. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

Be Resilient and Relentless

Fortune favors the flexible and the fervent.

Being agile and ready to bend and adapt to changing circumstances is an absolutely vital skill set to develop if you want to have a career that’s as frustration free as possible. The same holds true for maintaining an unbending commitment to keep trying, no matter the conditions. The fortitude to do both of these things is quite often the difference between success and failure.

If there’s one set of undeniable truths I’ve seen repeatedly in my career, it’s that perseverance pays and resiliency rewards.

Don’t Run for Office When You’re Already Elected

I have zero patience for office politics as the way to get ahead, and you should too. Think about it this way – along your career you will be placed in a position many times because someone has already “voted” you in; they already believe you to be worthy.  You don’t need to politic any further than that. Do your job to the best of your ability and leave the politics for those with less ability.

Sometimes, yes, politics will pay off for someone else in their career. But not over the long run. And do you want to advance in that fashion anyway?

Get the Right People on the Bus, and the People on the Bus Right

As you progress in your career, you’ll eventually have opportunities to select who will be on your team through hiring or staffing decisions. That’s good. It’s important to learn the skill of getting and keeping a great team to surround you.

But too often I’ve seen a manager focused on getting the right people on the bus, but not investing enough in the people who already had a seat. It’s all too easy to choose not to invest in those who might not be your first choice or might not be the obvious superstars. But everyone has talents just waiting to be brought out – if only you’d take the time to invest.

Integrity Can Have no Breach – Ever

I’ve never seen anyone in the real world of professionalism truly recover from a major breach in integrity. Wear yours on your sleeve and never compromise it. Sadly, in today’s world of Enron’s and Lehman Brothers, being stoic in your integrity is often quietly noted and can actually draw admiration.  

Leave a Legacy

You’re never too young to start thinking about what you want your mark to be. It’s a mathematical fact that we all have a “born on” and “end” date in life, and in each job we’re currently in or are going to. What do you want that time in between to say about you as a person? What do you want it to say about what you accomplished or whose life you touched?

We can only hope that in the end we carved our names on hearts and minds, not just on tombstones. And we can only hope that we lived in avoidance of what poet Oliver Wendell Holmes called the greatest human regret – “to have gone to our graves with our music still inside of us”. None of us wants that, of course.  

So start now with a mindset of leaving a legacy behind in each and every role you take on in your career. Same goes with how you live your life each day. The daily little impressions we leave can add up to a huge permanent impression.  

All the best as you accelerate your own careers. May each of these lessons looking back help you move forward.


ScottAbout the Author: Scott Mautz is a 20+ year veteran of Procter & Gamble, having run several thriving, multi-billion dollar divisions along the way. Scott is also an award winning keynote speaker and author of the bestselling book Make It Matter: How Managers Can Motivate by Creating Meaning, a book named to the “Best of 2015” list by Soundview Business Books. Connect with Scott at www.makeitmatterbook.com.   

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