For a long time, I've wanted to share some hopefully sage advice about what I've learned after almost three decades in the work world. And I suppose no time feels more opportune than when so many of you are unemployed or underemployed in an economy that's getting tougher and more competitive all the time.
A lot of you have told me that when it comes to work, I'm the "cool" aunt. I suspect a lot of that actually has to do with your Uncle Mike. After all, it really helps in the "coolness" factor to have an aunt who's married to and worked with the guy who started a game company that delivered a title which rocketed to #1 in the world. I suppose it also also helps that I can answer yes to the question "Did you really get to work with Bill Gates?"
Many of you have asked me directly for work-related counsel; several of you have not. I'm not going to discriminate. This Top 10 list is to all of you.
1) Work to become the story you want to tell. All of us have the chance to shape our lives into a narrative that we can feel proud of. Ideally, you will all lead interesting lives that blend family, friendship, work, and community in ways that make you and others around you proud. If you're not, know that you alone hold the power to change the narrative for your own life.
2) Become a Net Contributor. On any job, always bring an attitute of "what can I do to add value to the business?" Then do it - without worrying about whether you're going to get direct praise and/or rewards immediately. The people who think of themselves as net contributors often seem showered in lucky breaks in the work world. There's a correlation.
3) Remember that your reputation follows you everywhere. The people you meet now might end up playing an important role for you many years or even decades ahead. If you don't think you're the type of person that other people will speak highly of and want to work with again, than figure out what changes you need to make now to become that person.
4) Be curious and keep learning. In the age of globalization and the Internet, you have access to the best minds and the best thinking on any range of topics. Find something that stimulates you and follow the path to keep learning and find out more until you become an expert - at which point, hopefully, you'll have gained an understanding of how fun it is to have some in-depth knowledge and an even greater appreciation for how much more there is to learn. All of which can easily become an attitude and a mindset that will make you much more valuable no matter what you do.
5) Have empathy for anyone who might consider hiring you. This means you need to understand things from their perspective. When you're applying or interviewing for a new job, keep in mind that the people who make hiring decisions have two big things on their mind: 1) Is this person going to add more value than anyone else I might hire; and 2) How do I know that hiring this person isn't going to be a mistake and a problem down the road.
When I first started in the work world, I didn't know what it was like to sit on the other side of the hiring desk interviewing streams of candidates. The secret is they want you to be a great candidate because they've got a job to fill and typically a lot of other things to do with their time. The sooner they find the right person, the better off they are.
I've made many hiring decisions where I knew the decision would have a profound impact on someone else's life. The candidates who stood out for me (many of whom got job offers) had two things in common: a) a track record that showed they loved working hard and delivering results; and 2) the ability to make me feel comfortable that any hiring risk (and there always is) was absolutely worth it.
Make sure that before you go to an interview you know how you're going to handle those two issues.
6) Understand that the best contacts are the ones you make for yourself. The whole notion that you have to have the right contacts starting out is simply false. Everyone who comes to know you as a good, hard worker is a potential contact. Over time, the number of the people who can vouch for you should grow....as long as you're thinking, "How can I be a contributor who always does more than I'm expected to do?"
7) Don't ask for an informational interview without understanding that it is an interview. You might not be interviewing for a specific job, but you are interviewing for the chance to demonstrate that you're the type of person who should be given access to whatever networks that person has. I learned this early in my career when I was woefully unprepared for an informational interview. I was left almost in tears when the person turned it into a rigorous interview and I came up short. The interviewer closed the session by giving me valuable advice that has always stayed with me: In the work world, you are constantly being evaluated. If you go to an informational interview with the idea that you want the person on the other end to help you, you have to demonstrate from the outset why and how you are worthy of that help.
8) Figure out how you can get the experience you need to compete for the job you want - even if you have to work at no or reduced pay for a time to do it. (This is a good reason to not take on heavy personal or financial obligations too early.) When I was working summers during college as a waitress at Crater Lake Lodge, I decided I'd rather be a ranger, so I volunteered in my limited off-time for whatever job the Park Service wanted done. The Chief Ranger noticed my initiative, and ended up being a friend and mentor who helped me get into the Park Service as a seasonal ranger (complete with Smokey the Bear hat). It's still the coolest summer job anyone I've ever known had.
Years later, after I was at Microsoft, I wanted to switch from being an editor to being a product manager -- which involves managing all aspects of marketing for a product. It was a very sought after job. Since no one had made that transition before, I found a way to do product management work in my "spare" time for eight months in order to become a better candidate. And I took classes at night to fill in some gaps in my knowledge. No one suggested I work two jobs or even go back to school - I just knew that's what it would take to get the job against all the Harvard and Stanford 4.0 MBAs I was competing against.
9) Be flexible in finding ways to make money from something you love. When I graduated with a journalism degree, the country was in a deep recession and it seemed no one was hiring new journalism graduates. I knew I loved writing so I figured out who was paying for writers and editors and found a way in - even though I had to work on subjects that I sometimes had no interest in. (I still remember the agony of editing a several-hundred page manual on "Women's Tailored Clothing.") I still write everyday as part of my work and love it - even though colleagues don't think of me as a "writer" - which is great, because that's not what I'm paid to do.
10) Do something good for the world beyond your job. Volunteer. Get involved in your community. Become an activist for causes you care about. Your good works might not lead you to a new, more interesting job in the near term, but they will help you become the type of person that others want to work with and be around over the longer term. And that's a key part of what it takes to have a successful career.