Best Career Advice: Nobody Knows What They're Doing
"if you're lucky, you'll have many challenging moments in your career." — Makinde Adeagbo
An article was recently shared on Quibb, a social news sharing platform I love.
At first glance, what odd advice that is. The author, a well-known engineer who has had stints at Facebook, Dropbox, and others, wrote an excellent piece on diving in and knowing that everyone will support you in your efforts to learn.
And I love that.
But I also remembered my recent 30-year high school reunion, and hearing a series of stories about people who didn't make it, and a kind of antithesis to that thesis.
And that antithesis might be: Stay Humble; You Don't Know What You're Doing.
Because it occurred to me that career advice in a vacuum is never a good idea, I thought it might be nice to follow up with a few pieces of advice that have served many people well over the years.
And to wrap this up neatly, all this advice is centred around this quote by M. Scott Peck:
Our finest moments are most likely to occur when we are feeling deeply uncomfortable, unhappy, or unfulfilled. For it is only in such moments, propelled by our discomfort, that we are likely to step out of our ruts and start searching for different ways or truer answers.
Thesis: Nobody Knows What They're Doing
Antithesis: STAY HUMBLE: YOU DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE DOING
Makinde Adeagbo wrote recently at Dev/Color in the article with the above title that, "if you're lucky, you'll have many challenging moments in your career." Wow.
His advice is to note that, when you feel in over your head, you're surrounded by people who want you to succeed and who will help you succeed.
It's great advice, and true almost to a fault. the only caveat to it is a bit of a cautionary tale I learned at my recent elementary school reunion.
Many of the people in the room had come from interesting careers on Wall Street, in Silicon Valley, in the film industry, in publishing in New York, and the like.
Everyone shared stories of how seemingly luck had played a huge role in their successes, but I noticed too that most everyone present was humble, kind and generally easy to get along with.
There were a few people missing.
I asked about them. To a fault, those who were notably missing had something in common: they were not only not easy to get along with, they all had really fascinating stories of larger-than-life egos that followed them around and helped them fail. Spectacularly.
So I think it's apt to add on to that great advice about not knowing what you are doing that you should stay humble as you work through learning new things.
Thesis: Focus on Improving Your Strengths
Antithesis: DON'T FOCUS ON IMPROVING YOUR WEAKNESSES
This piece of advice is one that I learned back when I was a student teacher in San Fransisco. We learned to find the strengths in the students and allow those to flourish, using those strengths to help the kids learn the material.
The idea was to help each boy get into the best high school for him by the end of eighth grade. That there was a perfect high school for each boy was understood.
We each have things that we are more interested in, that we are better at doing, and that we can excel at. Focus on what you can achieve greatness in and you will become great.
Mira Zaslove notes over on Quora that you should craft your career around your strengths. When you are in a performance review, ask what your strengths are and how you can improve and use those strengths.
Zaslove quotes from Auren Hoffman's blog post, "People -- all people -- have very obvious flaws. Instead of spending massive amounts of energy on those flaws, spend it on making yourself great."
One thing that might not be clear to you yet is that just because you'll be focusing on your strengths does not mean that things will be easy. In fact, it can be very reassuring to stay in a small rut of improving your weaknesses.
Think about it: You can probably improve quite a few things from poor to mediocre (this was said beautifully by Mira Zaslove on Quora).
And going from poor to mediocre has that feeling that you are doing something. Making progress. The thing is, though, by making small amounts of progress you are not making waves. You are not being noticed.
Thesis: Make Your Own Path - Maya Anjelou
Antithesis: Don't just follow your passion but something larger than yourself. - Steve Jobs
Maya Angelou said "Make your own path" and you can find several very famous leaders who say similar things. Be authentic, be yourself.
And those things are true. But the antithesis to that might be Steve Jobs words "Don't just follow your passion but something larger than yourself."
In other words, make your own path, but also learn from those who have gone before you. Find mentors and listen to them. Learn from them.
Making your own path, forging your own way on new ground in a way that will require you to be great at something (note numbers one and two) will feel uncomfortable at times. Get used to it.
Thesis: If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try - Seth Godin
Antithesis: Too many of us are not living our dreams because we are living our fears. - Les Brown
Seth Godin said that first quote, and it sure does sound like something he'd say. In fact, it sounds like a lot of career advice.
Over on that Quora question "What's the single best piece of career advice you've ever received," one that stuck out for me was " Fill out the application."
It's that "just do it" mentality. The important piece to figure out within that advice is the fear. You're going to be afraid.
If you're not afraid, if you're not courting failure, in fact, as J.K. Rowling would say, if you're not failing; you're not trying hard enough.
So why does Les Brown say that many of us are "living our fears" (and not our dreams)? It's that state of mind between jumping in and doing that thing that scares us and deciding that we are exhilarated by it. It's part and parcel what M. Scott Peck stated in that quote I started with: we're propelled by our discomfort.
But then, propelled, we move beyond our discomfort into territory where, according to Makinde Adeagbo we know we're supported, we know people are rooting for us.
As he says in that original article, it's a lot like public speaking. And I'd carry that metaphor a bit further.
Public speaking is one of the most feared things a person can do. But when called, we do it. And once we begin, public speakers would say that they begin to enjoy it.
They may always be a bit scared before stepping out onto the stage, but the support they feel from the audience, the knowledge that everyone wants you to succeed (as much for themselves as for you) carries them onward.
Much in the same way a person who is willing to work on developing their strengths from good to great may begin feeling as though they know nothing.
But, humbled by the fact that the team has their back, they sully forth, forging their own path while listening to their mentors.
Finally, still afraid, they gain confidence and begin living their dream.
Here's to our dreams. And we are the stuff that dreams are made on, so carry on, keep creating, and enjoy the ride.