Looking back on 20 years of working life
Tuesday February 19th, 2002 was my first day as a working professional. In the 20 years since, I have gathered amazing advice, feedback, and insight. I have learned how to be better — better at working and better at sharing what I have learned. Below are four pieces of advice I received and how I reframed them to work for me and share them with others.
I recently heard in a job seeker forum that one should see their job as transactional. A company wants your skills, and they pay you for the time you use them to their advantage. This is accurate, but incomplete. At work, I found friends, community, coaching, and (anti-)role models.
I have spent a staggering 40,000 hours at work! Or about 1,645 of my 15,783 days on this Earth so far. According to this article, I will likely work over 4,750 days during the course of my lifetime. So if spending 10%+ of our lives at work is inevitable, why not make the best of it?!
Advice I got: Work hard
Advice I offer: Work with intention
We often say “work hard” or “be a hard worker” and things will work out. Long hours and doubling your effort only gets you as far as your physical and mental health allows. Exhaustion, burnout, and languishing are a few results of over extending yourself. If you work in front of a screen all day, working hard is not going to cut it. Like me, you will deal with chronic back pain or some other issue you had no idea could come from sitting all day. And it doesn’t matter how good your chair or posture is; we, as humans, are not meant to sit for 8 hours straight.
So instead of working hard, work with intention. What does that actually mean? Pay attention and be present.
Concretely, be alert at work. Attend meetings, read documents, browse decks, and join conversations with intent and wonder. Remain open-minded, attentive, and expect to learn. Are you in a job where your cynicism has gotten the best of you, and you are unable to do it? It might be a signal that it is time to change your environment.
Advice I got: Actively seek opportunities to take center stage
Advice I offer: Understand your environment before you get up on stage
I started my career so eager to learn and show what I could do. I recognize now that I was tiresome to those around me. In my world then, I didn’t have time to take a breather because I had to be successful NOW.
At the start of our careers, we are impatient for growth and advancement. We want more responsibility, and the compensation to match. In that journey, we miss the joy of being new and inexperienced. We tend to overlook our managers’ busy schedules and extensive responsibilities. We are so focused on our own growth path that we forget to slow down and make allies along the way.
Don’t take the center stage too early. What I mean is, don’t suck time and energy from those around you in the search for YOUR opportunity to shine. Instead, be patient and remain attentive for the right moment. The big leap opportunities will come. The important client presentation, sharing your product idea with the CEO, the promotion that makes you a manager… Whatever it is that you seek, trust you are building towards it.
Then, when you take center stage, use the floor wisely. You will be ready, and those around will be rooting for your success.
Advice I got: You are talented and you deserve that promotion
Advice I offer: Earn your advancement by staying the course
Your school, degree, title, and company might hint at your career and financial success. It is easy to compare yourself against college friends, peers at work, and the string of achievement posts from your network. And yet, financial status and public recognition are not the best measures of success. People you know will hit milestones, get promoted, and get rewarded before you do (and some after you).
“The spirit of envy can destroy; it can never build.” ― Margaret Thatcher
Learn to see that, celebrate with them, but do not let it influence your path. We can compare titles and salaries, but your whole work life has many success indicators. Among the most under-discussed measures of career success:
- What you learn in a role
- The inspiring leaders you meet and those who coach you
- The real, lifelong friends you make at work
Do not derail you from your path. Stay the course. Like any good adventure, you might be feeling lost, wondering if it is worthwhile. You might need to take a break (to catch your breath, to find your center). Do that, and then, take that next step and move forward. Work with intention, use the stage wisely, and you will achieve the goals you set for yourself. You are you. Someone else’s accomplishments and career might be what you hope for yourself. And yet, with every smart decision you make, you are carving your destined path.
Advice I got: Always say thanks to those who help you
Advice I offer: Be grateful deliberately and out loud
No one can survive life alone or as John Donne proclaimed: No man is an island. As humans, we find joy in interacting and supporting one another. So saying thank you and acknowledging those around you is, of course, important and polite. Add intent to this advice to take it to the next level: be grateful out loud.
Write and speak about those who have given you time, space, feedback, and energy. We believe we say thank you and I love you more than we do. Thinking it is not the same as sharing it, especially in the right moment with the right people. Not everyone will want a public thank you. Say it to that person directly. Sharing with others how instrumental people in your life are, makes a difference. As humans, we follow the leader. Being grateful out loud opens the door for others to do the same. When you do it, it opens the door for others to seek guidance. It opens the door for others to believe there are people who will help them and support them, too.
Being deliberately grateful is to pay it forward. Be grateful to those around you, and be grateful for you. Recognize yourself, your growth, and your achievements. Reward yourself for a job well done. Learn to celebrate you (as it will make you better at celebrating others). Then, share the learnings, the joy, and the advice with others.
Who will you say thank you to today?