Dear younger self,
Somebody asked me to write you this letter, to give you some advice along the way of your early career. I think you are doing great – I mean, you navigated teenage angst, survived the out-of-date educational system and managed your parents’ loving but sometimes amateurish attempts at raising you pretty well.
Now you are here: you’ve got your first job, your first colleagues, still lots of friends, probably wondering what’s to come your way. If you are not wondering, then you wouldn’t read on.
And by the way, even 20 years on, I am still wondering, so don’t think that experienced people know. We don’t know, but our judgement has had more practice.
So in addition to all the things you already do, and do very well, here are some thoughts on what might make the difference for your own life and career. Remember, the race is long and it’s only against yourself. So whilst competing hard every day, don’t compare yourself to other people too much, as it only makes you unhappy. There’s always someone ahead of you and someone behind you. Be gracious to both.
Without further ado, here are my top three tips to you.
1. Find your purpose in life
The toughest question of all to answer is: why are you here, what is your purpose in life? When running through our busy lives we often forget the fundamentals, which is so easy to do as our diaries are always full. I encourage you to take a step back and find some answers sooner. It took being faced with a personal crisis to get round to asking myself this question, and I wish I had done it sooner.
This is also a searching question, where answers will be defined, refined and changed over time. I suggest you write it down; elaborate on what cathedral you are building, who are you trying to be and what makes you tick.
Often, reflecting upon your early life experiences and understanding how they impact who you are and what you are going to do going forward is a helpful exercise. If you find the courage, share your thoughts with your closest allies; they can help you reflect and refine what you are thinking.
2. Feedback, feedback, feedback
This brings me nicely to point number two on the list, which is feedback. It is the breakfast, lunch, and dinner of champions. It is so often forgotten, pushed away, solicited once a year, and not taken seriously.
Go out of your way to ask people around you for feedback. Not just your boss, ask your peers, your clients, your team, your direct reports. Consistently, continuously, frequently. After meetings, projects, campaigns, in one-on-ones – there is always an opportunity to ask for and receive it.
The majority of experienced people I know would love to be mentors, so it is sometimes as simple as asking them.
I wish I had done less second-guessing and more direct questioning of my performance, but you need to be open to hearing less comfortable things. Never, ever become defensive. Always say thank you. The other person is spending some time thinking about you and that’s a gift worth receiving. This is the key to continuous improvement, which in turn is your key to a great and fulfilling career.
In one of my first jobs I received feedback that my communication skills lacked clarity. I hated it, I got defensive and I wanted to blame everything else but my own ability. How could I not be a great communicator?
Well, it turned out it was the correct feedback and once I heard it again, this time from someone new, I did take it seriously. I immediately took steps to improve, which meant I managed to become more self-aware, and noticeably better at communicating.
In this context, having a mentor is a great way to stay alert and have a sounding board. The majority of experienced people I know would love to be mentors, so it is sometimes as simple as asking them, and if they can’t do it, they will know someone who can.
Hopefully they will tell you number three on my list.
3. Never take a job for the money
There are two important pieces to this.
Firstly, new experiences are what will get you ahead in your career because brilliance ultimately needs to be supported by experience to make you a strong contender for the next level. So if you look for a new opportunity, don’t do the same thing for more money, or on a bigger scale. Even in my current job, I am learning every day. Be grateful for every day that turns out to be a day you learn something you didn’t know before.
Secondly, don’t be afraid to follow your heart. I moved countries, and jobs, because of my wife. She did the same for me. Be purposeful about this. Your personal life is as important as your professional life. Actually, they go hand in hand.
Have the ambition to make both work for you. You will find that most bosses are more understanding than you think and they will know that you will work far more effectively if your personal life is well-balanced and on track.
Someone once told me that I needed to decide who in my relationship has the lead career, and that the partner’s career should come second. I didn’t buy it, despite a tremendous amount of pressure. It was after this that I made the decision to leave one of the biggest marketing jobs in the UK, to move to a fringe brand in the US so my wife could be where she needed to be. Ultimately, it was a completely new experience, which allowed me to prove I could be an entrepreneur. It enabled me to make the switch from big corporations to startups.
So, my younger self and those reading this, of course you will find some reason to agree or disagree with all my advice, but I don’t need you to do either. I am writing to you simply so you might stop in your tracks and think a bit harder about your life’s fundamental truths.
When you are young it’s perhaps not a priority to do so, but I promise you that it’s well worth doing. It sets you up for personal success which, I believe, is a life you can look back on happy with the decisions you made along the way.
It’s a privilege to be able to share this with you, and I hope to see you grow and expand your wings beyond what anyone ever thought possible.
PS: Don’t forget to thank the people along the way who helped you achieve your dreams. No one can do it alone.