I wish career and leadership mentors had been more in vogue when I was young and impressionable. Sure, older people offered me plenty of advice, but it was typical rhetoric: set goals, work to the next level, stuff like that. It was all well-intentioned, but it was predictable, linear and uninspiring.
That sort of advice missed some very important elements, like explaining the power of understanding complicated systems, developing critical thinking talents and practicing those all-important soft skills of emotional and social intelligence. These are the real bastions of career growth, the stuff that makes what we do important, fulfilling, and fun.
Today, I’m a regular filling-station for up-and-comers wanting advice on career choices and life-planning. When chatting, I focus very few words on the work itself. The work parts can be learned, assuming the propensity to absorb is there. Instead, most discussion centers on the intangibles of leadership and careers, like issues related to personal brand and socialization.
My personal path…
My first undergraduate degree was in experimental psychology. My life plan didn’t pan out so well. Short story: couldn’t find work. My life’s direction was too tightly defined. The problem is my silly 20 year old something mind wouldn’t let me see, in reality, career options were endless.
So, I changed course. To make myself what I thought was more marketable (my 20 something mind rises again), I headed back to school for a second bachelor degree, this one in business administration and accounting (because accountants got jobs!) It worked, I got a job right out of school in an accounting department. Had fun for a year or two. My new life focus: finance.
But finance didn’t stick, either. I guess it wasn’t for me. (Those finance people are smart. Me? Hmm.). Deep down inside I wanted to be a professional musician. However, that vision was short sighted because, well, I was a horrible player. Fortunately, although I set my hopes on music (sadly placed), that line of thinking centering on performance ultimately led me to careers in the entertainment industry.
Through a few happenstance meet-ups and random conversations, I somehow landed a job as an entertainment analyst shortly after getting my MBA. For this discussion it doesn’t matter what an entertainment analyst does (I doubt the job even exists anymore). The point is my career path changed not by plan but by chance. From that first real entertainment industry job, I stepped through whatever doors opened. I studied each job like my life depended on it, not only for work success, but for personal satisfaction of a job well done.
Career Advice 101
Which leads me to my advice for the young-ones who don’t know what they want to do when they grow up. Plans are all very well, but be open to experimenting and taking risks, especially in those early years. For example, of the literally thousands of job-types in entertainment, I knew of maybe a dozen. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.
To our future leaders, always be in mental states of learning. For example, if a young person wants to be a mechanic, study engines and motors. Know how they work and are engineered. Innovate new ways to make them faster, more reliable and efficient. Form car clubs, talk groups, or Facebook pages about cars. Be known as the car guru, and be proud of it. From there, experiment. Who knows where that new-found inspiration will go? That emerging expert could be the next car talk-show host, or designer, or some really cool job not yet known.
Admittedly, some young folks know exactly what they want to do. Race car mechanic, ship’s crew, dancer, engineer, or computer programmer. They’ve plotted out their lives and things seem to be working for them. GREAT! I admire that. But I also caution they may be missing fun futures if they are too focused. If I had stayed put on my original finance path, I might be better off financially, but not as fulfilled personally. (Not a slam on finance folks, it just wasn’t right for me.)
Luckily, I somehow learned to think broadly. Sure, that skill grew over time (I wasn’t so good at it in my early adult years), but the seeds were there, probably planted by that first liberal arts degree. Psychology wasn’t necessarily a path to a new career. Instead, it was a path to new ways of thinking about our world. My studies took me to higher levels of enlightenment, of learning and wisdom.
I’m thankful my education changed my frame of reference of the world. That first degree wasn’t a path to careers (at least not in my case) as much as a way of making myself a more interesting human being. The jury is deliberating on whether that last purpose was achieved.
Generalists and Dreams
So, back to the story, my more generalist attitude to learning had to have influenced my future career and learning modes. My masters in management was a first leap and my doctorate, also in management/leadership, sent me in thinking directions I never knew existed.
Again, for the young ones, dream about the wonderful things you could do and be. Make plans, but don’t box yourselves in. Be adventurous. Experiment. Think outwardly. Take gambles while you’re young because it’s a lot more difficult when you get older. Know that your career doesn’t (necessarily) define you. I’ve said before, my tombstone won’t read, “Bureaucrat for a large entertainment company.” We are all capable of so much more.
“My career is wonderful, but you can’t curl up with it on a cold night.” [Marilyn Monroe].