Recently, I spoke to an auditorium of high school/early college students as part of an alumni panel event focusing on professional development. As a panelist, I was asked to share a few insights from my own career. I came up with a list of 7 “virtues” of professional development, an adapted version of which appears below.
Note: These virtues are simply adaptive characteristics that have helped me navigate the ups and downs of my career. While I included them as part of a speech delivered to teenagers, these tips could very well resonate with professionals of any age, and in any industry.
Curiosity may have killed the cat, but -- via natural selection -- curiosity is also what helped many cats survive and thrive for millions of years. In school and in the work you pursue afterward, I urge you to stay curious. In college, I took classes in every subject imaginable, from art to sociology, linguistics to politics. This experience opened my eyes and made me a well-rounded citizen of the world. You won't know how good you are at something until you actually try it: you might love architecture, you might be the best pastry chef the world has ever seen, or the most respected historian, or the most creative glass-blower, or the most accomplished deep sea diver, etc. You get my drift.
After college, I remained curious and chose to work for companies that would allow me to wear many "hats." Startups, smaller agencies, and tiny departments within large organizations is where I felt most fulfilled. These environments allowed me to try a bit of customer operations, human resources, IT, office management, leadership & development, creative/copywriting, etc. All of these diverse skills are now extremely useful in my own copywriting and coaching practice. Had I pigeon-holed myself into one specialty early on, I would never have had the wonderful breadth of experience that I did. Now I can carry a conversation with anyone on virtually any topic.
So, I urge you to expand your horizons. Your scope of interest will naturally shrink as you get older, so take advantage of your youth to explore far and wide.
Hard work. Effort. Sweat. Blood. Tears. There is no magic pill that will automatically make things happen for you. Professional success requires hard work. Any successful person will tell you how much they’ve sacrificed to achieve their goals. When I started my first job, I didn't have a clue as to what I was doing. No idea how to write a professional email. Unsure about how to talk to bosses and interact with executives. No clue what all the office lingo meant. But in those first few months, I went above and beyond: I researched, I read, I “Googled” and I learned. Then again, the company was a tech startup, and for anyone who has ever worked at one, you’ll know that the cliché “work hard, play hard” is 100% true.
Today, I am a career coach and I help my clients find more meaningful, better-paying work. Even my best educated, most connected, most well-spoken and all-around most successful clients continue to work hard through every step of their career trajectory. No, they do not stop trying when they become managers, or directors, or VPs, or beyond. They know that growth often involves a bit of discomfort, a bit of pain. Hard work—in the form of ambition, research, preparation, practice, failure, reassessment, trial and error, and repetition—that’s the name of the game.
Earlier, I suggested that you should cast your net of curiosity far and wide. But once you choose a field of interest, a topic, a project for the day or week or year, commit to it and maintain focus throughout. Designate a specific time-frame for the project or goal, and give it your all. Whether it's a tough semester-long class you take in college, or the first 90 days at a job that makes you cry, try to stick with it for a while and learn as much from it as you possibly can. We live in an age of instant gratification, an on-demand economy, fluidity, and increased job hopping. If you’re truly miserable and you’ve given it you’re all, by all means move on to something else. Just make sure you’re honest with yourself and you’ve done everything within reason to make it work. If a job feels uninteresting or un-challenging, or your boss is horribly difficult, focus on the circumstances in the present moment and ask yourself: “What can I do today to make things better? What new skill can I learn? How can I communicate more effectively?” I’m not knocking job hopping (in fact, I’ve done a bit of it myself back in the day), but don’t go chasing that “perfect job” because it doesn’t exist. The grass is always greener on the other side. Focus on what you have now, and make the most of it every day.
It takes time to build a powerful portfolio and grow a respectable career. Don't expect to become a VP in the first 6 months of your first job. You've got to put in the time and pay your dues. If you do end up being a VP or CEO one day, those early experiences will prove invaluable. Don’t try to skip them or ignore them; embrace them, and learn from them. You’ll become a well-rounded manager and leader as a result.
Have patience with others. People won’t change, or rather, they will change very slowly, especially at larger, more established companies with fixed processes and procedures. For some of you, patience is innate, and for others (like me), it is a skill to be learned. Yes, it can be learned through practice and introspection.
Mostly, have patience with yourself. Give yourself the opportunity to explore various classes, subjects, books, travel destinations, fields, and industries (see Curiosity above). And allow yourself enough time to cultivate a given skill. If something isn't going right at school or at work, it can be easy to point the finger and blame a bad professor, a mean peer, or an incompetent boss. But you can't really change others. You can only, one step at a time, change yourself. Try a different tactic, build your own skill set, and see where that takes you.
Also, if I might plug meditation for a moment: practicing meditation is free, has no negative health effects, and has a long list of benefits to your mental and physical health. Meditation can help you become more patient with yourself and with other people in your life, both at home and at work. Meditation only “costs” a few minutes a day, and if you’d like to enjoy less stress in your life, I’m sure you can find some time. The other good news: there’s no “wrong” way to meditate, so find a way that feels right for you, and do it often.
Humility is a trait not often championed in our society. Most of the star athletes, celebrities, politicians and other leaders are far from humble. They are great at tooting their own horn. But humility has an important place in both academic and professional development. You may be the top math whiz in your class, or the most tech-savvy employee in the whole company, but at the end of the day you don’t and can't know it all (unless you’re a Google spider bot reading this sentence, in which case—hello!).
At school, at work and in life there are simply factors beyond our control. Some people will innately be better at certain skills than you are, and instead of being jealous or spiteful, exercise humility. Ask the person if you might pick their brain over lunch or coffee (if you’re a zombie, do not mention the brain part). It's called an “informational interview.” When you meet, ask good questions and then just shut up and let the other person talk. This beefs up your industry knowledge, builds your network and helps you grow both professionally and personally. It’s also a good tip for a job interview: yes, you have to appear confident (see Confidence below), but you can make a strong impression by exercising humility and asking well-thought out questions. The interviewer will end up talking for most of the interview and will walk away with a positive impression of you, yet you’ll have done almost no talking!
You may not know everything, but you know what you know. Act like it. Own it. Don't shy away from your existing knowledge and skill set. If a professor asks a question, and the class is silent, but you think you have at least a partial answer, raise your hand. Even if wrong, you stand to gain something from the experience: practice with public speaking, respect from peers, recognition from the professor, etc.
Likewise, if you're at work and see a problem that no one else has acknowledged, be proactive and offer a solution to your boss. Managers hate when employees only complain. They love it when employees bring forth viable solutions. A good boss will appreciate the initiative.
Confidence isn’t about avoiding failure. In fact, it's probably about failing quickly. People who allow themselves to fail frequently end up more successful than those who stay within the status quo, fearful of "getting it wrong." I used to be one of those failure-averse perfectionists. After years of life and work experience, I am now a true believer of “done is better than perfect.” I still maintain high standards of quality in my work, but I no longer waste time or energy chasing that impossible point of perfection.
Education and career are both serious matters, but it’s important to carve out enough time to celebrate, unwind, reward and relax. You wouldn’t want to burn out and become resentful your first year on the job (this is something that even seasoned professionals find challenging). As you hit your career milestones, it’s important to celebrate your own achievements, as well as the achievements of those around you: your friends and family, your colleagues, your bosses. You didn’t get to where you were alone. Express gratitude for the support you’ve received along the way.
Sometimes life sucks. Remember to be joyful. Happiness won't suddenly appear in your life just because you think you deserve it. You've got to make happiness happen. They say smiling releases endorphins, which are natural pain killers. Physical activity can also contribute to mental clarity, self-confidence, and an enhanced mood. Find your happy, and pursue it regularly. No one will do this for you.
The best companies expect you to work hard but also reward you handsomely. In the end, your happiness can't depend on whether or not an employer treats you right. You have to carve out time in your day/week/year to enjoy yourself. If you’re a workaholic, you might think that those long hours and weekends at the office are making you look good, but perhaps some colleagues and executives are perceiving you as inefficient or imbalanced. Plus, you’re probably burning yourself out, and killing any remaining passion for the job. A weekly break (whether it’s the gym, a good book, a night out with friends) will help to recharge your batteries. And something more special on a quarterly or annual basis (e.g. vacation) will give you the oomph to press forward. I’ve worked in corporate and non-profit environments, and I’m always shocked at how often Americans lose earned vacation days that don’t roll over because they worry they can't take all their vacation time. It's part of your compensation. Would you decline a fraction of your salary?
I've seen far too many colleagues work themselves nearly to death, burn out, and become resentful and surprised when they’re fired, laid off, or overlooked for a promotion. They can’t fathom how this could happen to them, especially since they’ve been slaving away for the company for many years. Sometimes, that’s the silver lining: the lesson that you can’t ignore your happiness. Let it serve as a reminder that the next job you pursue should allow you a bit more cheer, health and balance in your life.
In the comment section below, let me know if any of these so-called virtues have accompanied your career development, or if there are other characteristics that have helped to propel your professional growth. Thank you for reading and sharing. Have a beautiful day.
David is a career coach and copywriter. He helps professionals find more meaningful, better-paying jobs; he also crafts compelling copy for small-to-medium size businesses, both for print and digital media.
One of the great joys of working with clients across the US and internationally is that I interact with people of wonderfully diverse backgrounds—ethnic, racial, geopolitical, vegetable, animal, mineral—okay, maybe not the last three. As a career coach, I help job seekers leverage their background and core values (“where the client comes from”) as motivation to accelerate their job search or career development (“where the client wants to go”).
If you look at my photo on the About page, you’ll see that I’m a (formerly blond) white male and you might think: this guy knows nothing about discrimination.
So here’s a story that might get you thinking otherwise: after college, my first job was as a support specialist for an executive job search company. That’s just a glorified way of saying that I was a customer service representative for job seekers looking to make $100K+. In other words, the customers were much more successful and wealthier than me. In addition to helping America’s VPs and CEOs navigate the company’s online job search platform, I would offer industry advice, resume tips and interview strategies. It was an incredible experience for a 22-year-old kid to be offering counsel to the often-entitled, sometimes-pleasant, usually-affluent power players of the world. Needless to say, I learned a lot on the job.
One fine day at work, I answered a call from a gentleman who was livid about his experience with the company’s website. Before I could gather the necessary information to assist him, he asked to be transferred to another representative. At that moment, no other agents were available (we were a small and nimble team). As I tried to understand the root of his problem, he cut me off and asked to speak to someone “who has English as a first language.” After a few awkward moments, I transferred him over to my manager.
Now, before I get to the ironic twist, let me give you some background: my spoken English is above average; I studied linguistics and psychology in college on American soil; I am pretty well-read as far as English literature is concerned; I’ve taught English on several continents; I am a naturalized US citizen who passed his citizenship test with flying colors; and I am the resident “grammar Nazi” among my friends. More pertinently, I don’t have a discernible accent. In fact, people who don’t know that I grew up in both Poland and New York City guess that I was raised “somewhere out west,” often citing Colorado. Which reminds me, that’s another beautiful state to add to my travel bucket list.
So why did this Irate Ira (not his real name) refuse to speak with me? I’ll never be 100% sure, but I’ve got a good hunch. When I picked up the phone, I introduced myself as “Dawid” (pronounced “Dah-veed”), which is my birth name. I do this because I want to stay true to my given name, although it is nothing more than the Polish form of “David.” The man on the phone didn’t give me a chance. Maybe he thought I was sitting in a call center somewhere in Asia, with a clearly foreign name, and therefore unable to understand his issue or help him in any way. It was unfortunate, and at the moment the insult stung, but in my desire to remain professional, I fulfilled his request and transferred the call to my manager, who was sitting within earshot.
The irony, explained: It turns out that the reason this man was so frustrated was because his “saved search” for relevant jobs on the website was not yielding any results. And that was because he had misspelled several keywords, including (and I can’t make this up) the word “international.” It appears he was looking for job openings with an international scope, but a manual typo in the search query led to null results.
The sharp irony of this experience cut me on so many levels. First, this likely American-born customer had careless typos on his website, which directly impacted his ability to benefit from the service. And he had the idea to think less of my abilities because of my un-American name. Secondly, he was interested in jobs with a global scope, but—at least in this instance—he demonstrated little respect for his international fellow human beings.
This was one of those rare moments in my life that my naiveté was painfully shattered. I was in my early 20’s, wide-eyed and eager to help this man, but he let his pride and prejudice stand in the way of a resolution. I’m generally not a fan of schadenfreude, but that day I came pretty close.
The lesson: if you’re a job seeker, you should make it a point to spell words correctly, whether it’s on a job search website, a resume, a LinkedIn profile, a blog article you’ve penned, or anywhere else for that matter. Also, please be compassionate and kind to people you encounter, whether in person or on the phone: you never know which connection might lead to an interview or job offer; plus, it’s just a good thing to be kind to your fellow humans. Remember, karma can be a [female dog].
In fairness, this was an exception. I had always introduced myself as “Dawid” and roughly 99.9% of customers had a neutral or positive reaction to my atypical name; often, they were curious about its origin and showed genuine interest in my explanation.
The experience with the bigoted customer reminded me of when I was a boy, fresh off the plane from rural Poland, and just starting to settle in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Other kids started teasing me, calling me “Polak.” But rather than letting it get to me, I responded by explaining to them that “Polak” was actually the Polish word for “Polish man” and not a diss. I lauded them for the compliment and said I was impressed with their ability to speak Polish. Of course, the kids were confused, but it was my way of getting the bullies off my back. Sometimes you have to get creative. Dawid vs. Goliath-style.
Now that I’m much older, and (hopefully) somewhat wiser, I try to leverage all the lessons from my own life, and glean the good from the bad. Since my clients come from all over the country (and the world), I have a deep-seated respect for the challenges that come from diverse backgrounds. One tip that I’ve used in my own job search back in the day is to adopt a nickname. My resume used to say Dawid Wiacek. And I never got as many recruiter calls or interviews as I thought I could. As soon as I changed my resume name to David Wiacek, or even Dawid (David) Wiacek, I noticed that the frequency of recruiter calls increased, as if overnight.
Was the lack of recruiter interest all because of xenophobia? Well, it’s not that everyone is evil, or racist, or out to get me. Some people might think less of me because of my name, but I don’t think that’s the majority. I think other factors were at play. First, maybe some folks thought “Dawid” was a typo, and that would look pretty unprofessional on a resume. Secondly, some recruiters might not have known whether I was male or female (100% male, last time I checked!). Or they simply didn’t know how to pronounce my name. It would be awkward to pick up the phone to ask for me. If a recruiter was looking at my resume versus the resume of John Smith, all other things being equal, they might choose to call John first. I know it sounds preposterous to some of you, but humans are indeed flawed and biased, and we generally try to steer clear of awkward situations. Recruiters, candidate sourcers and hiring managers are no different.
At first I thought I was “selling out” by changing my name on the resume from Dawid to David, but then I realized that I was doing both myself and the prospective employer a service. If I was indeed a strong fit for the role, I’d get the interview, and then if I landed the job, I could ask my new boss and colleagues to call me by whatever name I desired. It was a small price to pay. And Dawid by any other name would smell as sweet, no?
All this is the reason my website URL is davidthefixer.com and not dawidthefixer.com. I’m also a copywriter--and who would hire me if they thought that Dawid was a misspelling, as some people do? “David the Fixer dot com” is a lot more memorable for marketing purposes, e.g., when I’m at the airport, on the street, in the subway, etc. It sticks in prospective clients’ minds.
Concluding this long treatise, I am aware that job candidates of all backgrounds face discrimination far worse than what I have personally witnessed, but my own experience was real. It has helped to ground me, and has provided me with gratitude and compassion for my career coaching clients, partners, vendors and yes, the occasional “Irate Ira.” I believe it makes me a more effective career coach, a more compelling copywriter, and a more caring citizen of the world.
If you’ve gleaned any lessons from your own experience with discrimination (whether based on race, ethnicity, gender, or any another type), either in the workplace or during the job search process, you’re welcome to share your story in the comments below. Thank you for reading and sharing. Have a beautiful day.
-Dawid (David) Wiacek
David is a career coach and copywriter. He helps professionals find more meaningful, better-paying jobs; he also crafts compelling copy for small-to-medium size businesses, both for print and digital media.
Growing up as a Polish immigrant in Brooklyn in the 90’s, I used to think that feminists were militant women who hated men. As a young man, I sure loved the women in my own life: my mother, my sister, my female friends… But I wasn’t too sure about “feminists.” Were they the women who refused to shave their armpits? Maybe they banned their own daughters from playing with dolls or talking to boys like me? I had no idea, because the truth is, back then I didn’t know any feminists -- or so I thought.
Fast forward a few years: I attended an ultra-liberal college in New England (go Wes!), learned a thing or two about (the theory of) sexism, read a few books on feminism, and one day it just dawned on me: I’m a feminist! Let’s get real here: feminism isn’t anything radical. It’s just a simple notion that all people should be treated fairly, irrespective of their gender. Of course, every person you ask will have a slightly different definition of feminism, but that’s to be expected--celebrated even.
Moving forward another decade, and here I am, a copywriter and career coach who has supported countless women on their professional trajectory. I didn’t “save” any of these women, nor did I coddle them, but I hope I did empower their journeys toward a more fulfilling, better-paying career. Just as I have done with all my male clients, but with a critical difference, which I’ll get to in a moment.
One thing that has often struck me is how few of my female friends describe themselves as feminists. Even in 2016 it’s a word that isn’t thrown around much, even in my circle of highly-intelligent, progressive friends. Maybe some of these women just don’t want to deal with the social stigma, backlash or annoyed eye-rolls people give when they encounter a bona fide “feminist.” Or perhaps my gal pals don’t think they’ve done anything great on behalf of women to deserve the honor of being called a feminist. I don’t really know, so I won’t speak for those women. But I will speak about the many women I’ve supported over the years, whether as a friend or a career coach, and sometimes both.
To be clear, I coach persons of all genders and backgrounds. I have a near-even split between male and female clients. It wouldn’t be such a remarkable thing except for a distressing pattern I’ve noticed: even in 2016, women are under-selling themselves in the professional marketplace. As a career coach, I’ve noticed that an unusually high percentage of my female clients stop short of fully owning their accomplishments and promoting themselves assertively to prospective employers. This is visible not just on their resumes or LinkedIn profiles—it’s also apparent in the reserved way they discuss their career accomplishments with me (whether via phone sessions or during in-person consultations).
Even the type-A, overachieving women-folk who rise quickly within their organizations, who make good money, and who are as smart as a whip still show signs of this phenomenon. Yes, it runs deep.
To clarify, my male clients have challenges with self-confidence and self-promotion, too. But in my experience, it’s more frequent and more pronounced in my female clients. Based on what I’ve heard and seen:
Women are more likely to settle for a lower salary offer.
Women are more likely to avoid negotiating.
Women are more likely to downplay or omit certifications, degrees and skill sets in their resumes.
Women are more likely to under-emphasize career accomplishments.
Women are more likely to leave out numbers/figures/data in their resumes.
Women are more likely to put themselves in the shoes of the employer, to their own detriment.
Women are less likely to ask for raises, title promotions and other perks.
Women are less likely to follow up on networking opportunities and job applications.
Women are more likely to experience some form of discrimination or harassment.
Women are more likely to stay at jobs in which they’re miserable.
Women are less likely to toot their own horn.
Now, please keep in mind that these are facts from my own limited experience only. And I’d be delighted to learn that this doesn’t happen elsewhere. But these realities illustrate the challenges women face every day. Sometimes the reasons are crystal-clear: for example, a single mother cannot be expected to jeopardize her only source of income by asking her arrogant boss for a raise when she’s otherwise content with her job. But the point remains that women end up making less money and earn fewer promotions than their male counterparts. They may also be less likely to switch jobs, which can negatively impact career/life satisfaction and lifetime earnings. I’m curious what the national and global trends are, and how my experience may or may not differ from yours.
So, in light of all these challenges, how have I supported my female clients? As a career strategist and coach, I work hard to ensure that all of my clients achieve their professional goals. As a feminist, sometimes it means that I hold my female clients to a slightly higher standard, because I know they're holding themselves to a lower one. Sometimes it means that I have a tough-but-needed conversation about the realities of sexism in the job marketplace, reminding my female clients that they might have to work a smidgeon harder to get the same results as men (this may not shock you, but it does surprise some of my clients). And other times my clients and I do a deep-dive into the various mental or emotional blocks contributing to their hang-ups and self-doubt. Though we don’t dwell in that space very long. After all, I’m not their shrink, and ultimately it doesn’t matter who or what is responsible. What really matters is that the clients acknowledge their current limitations, consider viable ways to overcome them, and then take clear, consistent steps to move forward with their job search. It's a strategy that works.
Some of my readers might think that me showing a little more love to my female clients is a form of affirmative action -- if that’s the case, let it be! Although, I don’t think “love” is the right word. Kind of a like fitness trainer who knows your limitations and makes you work even harder, I probably inflict a little more “pain” on my female clients, making them work even harder to achieve their professional goals.
At the end of the day, all of my coaching is customized to every individual’s needs and strengths. As it should be. I just hope to see the day when women’s earning power and career growth are not circumscribed by their gender.
Comment below: If you’ve experienced any sexism or self-doubt during your job search and wish to share your experience or any helpful strategies, please do leave a comment. It is greatly appreciated.
David Wiacek is a copywriter and career coach who writes about the complexities of the modern day job search. He uses a blend of industry-proven methods and his own creative approach to help clients find fulfilling, better-paying jobs.
Poly-creative writer, brand marketer and career coach. Bakes a mean eclair and snaps thought-provoking photos, but is best known for helping clients achieve personal and professional growth.