If I could go back in time what advice would I give to a younger me?
I asked myself this question last month as I reflected upon the approach of a new school year. Next month will mark the 46th anniversary since I started my post-secondary education. I recall travelling in the car with my parents on a stiflingly hot September afternoon to my residence at Woodstock Hall at McMaster University in Hamilton. I remember the anticipation, fear, excitement and outright dread that overwhelmed me that day, and wondering whether/how/if I would survive my first year. To my surprise and utter amazement I did. Looking back it was a lot of hard work, more than a bit of luck, and probably a good measure of divine intervention.
With the advantages of hindsight, I sometimes wonder what counsel I would have offered to a younger version of myself regarding academic studies, career choices, or life in general that would have been meaningful. If I were advising young people today on these matters here are ten pieces of advice I would offer:
1. Academic success isn’t everything.
I was a very good student, and my marks were usually in the eighties and nineties. However, things didn’t come naturally to me, and I really had to work at it.
In retrospect, I sometimes wonder whether the extra time spent re-writing an essay to secure two or three additional marks might have been better spent socializing or being more involved in extracurricular activities. Finding that balance, that sweet spot between earning great marks and engaging in other meaningful activities, social events or recreational pursuits is difficult.
2. You can never have enough friends.
The merits of friendship were brought home to me several years ago as I was dealing with a family crisis. The support provided by friends, family and neighbours were what sustained me during this difficult period. Friends can be a source of comfort, solace and support in time of need. Thinking that one can endure adversity without the aid of others is probably one of the most misguided conceptions around. No one is Superman or Superwoman, but unfortunately it sometimes takes a crisis to realize this.
3. Take time to “smell the roses”, and celebrate your successes.
Everyone wants to get ahead, and sadly, most of us are focused on their next opportunity or success. However, too often we lose the ability to celebrate successes or revel in the moment. It is too easy to fixate on the next opportunity, the next goal or the next run on the career ladder without taking time to savour the benefits of what we have.
Success is fleeting. Too often our lives are made up of a series of peaks, valleys and plateaus. The latter two are probably more common than the first.
4. Networking is a crucial and underrated life skill.
Kevin Ferrazzi’s book “Never Eat Alone” is a powerful testimonial and demonstration of the value of networking. I wish this book had been written in the 1970’s, and I wish I had learned and adopted this advice much earlier in life. Networking is a lifelong skill, and too often we recognize the value and merits too late.
Knowing how and where to develop, maintain and sustain relationships and contacts is crucial in an inter-connected world. This is especially true in job search. Most of my clients find employment through networking, and the old the client the more important this technique. Since job security is passé the best safeguard to your professional future is a large reservoir of professional contacts who you can leverage for multiple purposes.
5. Find a good mentor.
Earlier in my career I was fortunate to have met two exceptional gentlemen who willingly gave of their advice and expertise. Unfortunately, neither worked in the same company where I did.
A good mentor can help you circumvent roadblocks, overcome obstacles, and offer guidance at critical moments. Having someone in whom you can confide and who “has your back”, is crucial in overcoming the inevitable roadblocks in one’s career. If you are a student or a young professional I would urge you to seek out an older individual in your school or place of employment who can help you grow and develop. Nurture that relationship with care, and recognize it as the rare gift that it is.
6. Be a life long learner.
I walked out of the Ivor Wynne Stadium at McMaster in April 1977 thinking, naively, that I had written my final exam. Looking back from the standpoint of two graduate degrees, three professional designations and countless classroom and online courses, I realize now how foolish that assumption had been.
Knowledge is power, and knowledge today is changing rapidly. Any professional desirous of moving ahead needs to upgrade their skills, and often. If you are starting out in your career one of the things you need to do is allocate a portion of your budget to educational upgrading. Don’t rely on your employer to do it for you. I’d like to tell you that employers are concerned with your professional development, but truth is, most aren’t. The onus is on you to take control of both your career and your professional development.
7. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side. Sometimes, it’s just painted cement.
There are times in my career when I moved to another opportunity thinking it would be better. On several occasions I learned it wasn’t.
Things aren’t always as they seem. Sometimes we put our trust in people and they let us down. That doesn’t necessarily mean those people are inherently deceitful, but the fact is that a lot of the time those who promote a cause or opportunity do so from a limited perspective or frame of reference. One way to safeguard against jumping prematurely is to ask questions. Don’t take things at face value, and if someone balks at answering questions you can bet their focus is more on what’s in it for them rather than what’s best for you.
8. Be kind to people on the way up. You may be seeing them on the downward escalator.
I have just finished reading the book “Trust” by Canada’s former Governor- General David Johnston. In his book, he devotes a chapter to the issue of kindness.
As a Career Coach one of the things I hear constantly from my clients is the lack of kindness and professional courtesy in the workplace. In job search this takes many different forms. Recruiters who don’t return calls or e-mails. Hiring managers who mislead applicants. Search consultants who make demeaning comments about applicants or their qualifications.
In business courtesy and kindness go a long way. Earlier this year I told the following story at a speaking engagement. Even though it happened over thirty years ago I’m still embarrassed by it.
I was working at a company in northwest Toronto. The firm was in the midst of a major downsizing. Tensions and emotions were on edge. One day I was in the office dealing with a crisis. The phone rang. In hindsight, I should have just let it go to voice mail. Instead, I answered it. The person on the other end of the line was a job applicant inquiring about employment opportunities. Feeling pressured and under stress I answered brusquely, told him to forward his resume, and shut down the conversation abruptly.
A few months later my employment was terminated following the sale of the company. At a job search seminar a few weeks later, the individual I had spoken to earlier came up and introduced himself. I recalled our earlier conversation, apologized profusely for the way I had treated him, and offered my support in his job search. Suffice to say it was one of the most humiliating experiences in my career. However, the hard lesson it taught me was that you reap what you sow, and treating clients, colleagues and people with kindness and respect goes a long way.
9. Words are powerful, and you don’t always get a do over when they leave your lips.
One quality I admittedly possess is the ability to speak truth to power. I’m not intimidated by people in powerful positions, and more than once I have spoken up and challenged authority. I don’t ever regret what I said, but in retrospect, there are times when I wish I had couched my words with a bit more tact and diplomacy.
If you are going to challenge authority, choose your moment, and think carefully about the implications of what you say and how your words may be perceived or interpreted.
10. Don’t take things for granted.
When we are younger we naturally assume that the successes, friends, resources, time and family we have are timeless. What we realize too late is that these things aren’t guaranteed in perpetuity. Impasses in one’s career typically increase during the latter career stages. Friends come and go, and sometimes they move or they end up drifting away. A crisis or emergency can erode our earning power. As we get older time seems to speed up. Families break up, divorce, and often those with whom we are close to die.
Be grateful for what you have, and savour what you can when you have it.
A Final Thought
Singer Kylie Minogue in an interview a couple of years ago was quoted as saying:
“Hindsight is illuminating but not always what we want to see”.
For me, the value of hindsight is that it provides an extraordinary learning opportunity. Successes are important, but I truly believe we learn more from our failures than our triumphs. If time travel were a reality maybe we could go back and re-do those decisions or events which we regret. Since that is impossible, the next best thing is to share our experiences with others on the assumption that they can avoid making the same errors in judgement.