Career Advice That Doesn't Suck
Today at a Glance
- I recently got a message from a 22-year-old reader asking for career advice. Career advice is a topic area that I have always found interesting, probably because I feel it so often misses the mark. I take this as a challenge.
- I sat down and synthesized the advice I would have wanted to receive early in my career (or what I would tell my own son if he were just starting out).
- The 7 pieces of career advice everyone needs to hear: (1) Swallow the frog, (2) Do the old fashioned things well, (3) Work hard first and smart later, (4) Build storytelling skills, (5) Build a rep for figuring it out, (6) Show up early and stay late, and (7) Dive through cracked doors.
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I recently got a message from a 22-year-old reader asking for career advice.
As you can imagine, I get a lot of these messages and requests at this point, but I still do my best to respond, particularly when I feel I have a differentiated perspective or value add to bring to the conversation.
Career advice is a topic area that I have always found interesting, probably because I feel it so often misses the mark.
As Atlantic writer Derek Thompson once appropriately remarked, "With workers across thousands of occupations in hundreds of industries, saying anything that is of use to all of them is practically impossible. The most common counsel is almost always too personal to be broadly applicable."
So, of course, being wired the way I am, I take this as a challenge.
In response to my reader's request, I sat down and synthesized the advice I would have wanted to receive early in my career (or what I would tell my own son if he were just starting out).
Importantly, all of the items on the list are:
- Applicable across domains and career paths
- Useful and relevant across all seasons and stages of your career
Here are the 7 pieces of career advice I shared with my 22-year-old reader...
#1: Swallow the Frog
"If it's your job to eat a frog, it's best to do it first thing in the morning. And if it's your job to eat two frogs, it's best to eat the biggest one first." - Mark Twain
For Mark Twain, the "frog" is the thing you don't want to do. By eating it first thing in the morning, you build momentum from doing the toughest thing first.
This "wisdom" provides one of the greatest hacks to get ahead early in your career: Swallow the frog for your boss.
- Observe your boss and figure out what they hate doing (their "frog").
- Learn to do it.
- Take it off their plate (swallow their frog).
This is a clear way to add value, put up a win, and build momentum.
#2: Do the "Old Fashioned" Things Well
In a world that has lost sight of the basics, there are simple things that still stand out.
- Look people in the eye
- Do what you say you'll do
- Be on time (or early!)
- Practice good posture
- Have a confident handshake
- Hold the door
- Be kind (never gossip!)
It may sound silly, but these things are all free, entirely within your control, and will never go out of style.
#3: Work Hard First (& Smart Later)
Over the last several years, it has become very trendy to say that hard work is overrated—that working smart is all that matters.
If you want to accomplish anything meaningful, you have to start by working hard.
Build a reputation for hard work—take pride in it. Then you can start to build leverage to work smart.
If you've been a reader for a while, you know that I'm a big believer in balance. But I’m an even bigger believer that the early years of your career are the ideal time to do hard, unscalable, unbalanced things to build a foundation for future balance.
Leverage is earned—not found.
When you’re starting out, you shouldn’t be focused on leverage. You should be focused on creating value anywhere and everywhere.
Hard now, smart later. Earn your leverage.
#4: Build Storytelling Skills
An observation from having the privilege of spending time with some incredible leaders:
World-changing CEOs aren't the smartest people in their organizations.
They are exceptional at:
- Aggregating data, and
- Communicating it simply & effectively
Data in, story out.
If you can build that storytelling skill, you'll always be valuable.
#5: Build a Reputation for Figuring It Out
At every step of your career, you'll be given a lot of tasks you have no idea how to complete.
Imposter syndrome will inevitably set in—you'll wonder how you can possibly be expected to do this thing that you've never done before (let alone do it well!).
There's nothing more valuable than someone who can just figure it out.
- Do some work
- Ask the key questions
- Get it done
If you do that, people will fight over you.
#6: Show Up Early (& Stay Late)
Showing up early and staying late is a free way to materially increase your luck surface area.
In my experience, the most interesting side conversations and opportunities came up before meetings started or after they ended.
When you're in the room, you're more likely to get pulled into a follow-up call, coffee, or discussion. At worst, you learn from observing the off-camera interactions.
Being in the room pays off handsomely in the long run.
Note: This is harder to do in a fully-remote or hybrid setting. Seek out luck-expanding situations as much as possible (in-person team get togethers, optional office days, in-person coffee chats, etc.).
#7: Dive Through Cracked Doors
Saving my favorite piece of advice for last: If someone cracks open a door that may present an opportunity, dive through it.
I recently had two experiences that bring this to life...
These two young guys (18 and 22) were trying to work with me on a project, but my schedule was proving tough for a call. They said they had to be in NYC for a meeting the next day and offered to meet in person. I agreed, because it was more convenient for me (and I always prefer in-person to a call). We met, hit it off, and agreed to start working together on the project.
They later told me they didn’t need to be in NYC at all. They had booked it after I said yes to the meeting! I cracked open a door, they saw the opportunity, and dove headfirst through it.
Another example happened just last week when I met up with the young reader who had reached out to connect. He said he would meet me wherever I wanted, so I sent him a coffee shop near my house. We chatted for an hour and as we were leaving, I asked how far away he lived.
Turns out he had driven in from Pittsburgh (7 hours!) for the coffee. I cracked open a door, he saw the opportunity, and dove headfirst through it.
I’d bet the house on all three of them.
Career Advice That Doesn't Suck
In your career, there will always be a lot that feels uncomfortably out of your control. But as with all things in life, if you focus your attention and energy on what is within your control, you'll always be better off.
Wherever you are in your career journey, if you embrace these 7 pieces of advice, you're controlling the things that matter.
Do that and I guarantee you'll find a way to win.