[ A few thoughts on career coaching, resume writing, and professional development ]
By Dr. Dinorah Nieves and David Wiacek
With tax season upon us, many are wondering how to get the biggest bang for each buck of our refund. Save it for a rainy day? Take that trip your family's been talking about? The list goes on. It's one of the few times each year that we find ourselves check-in-hand and uncertain of how it would be best spent. Sound familiar? If so, consider investing that refund back into your career! Studies show a strong correlation between job satisfaction and overall happiness, so every dollar invested in furthering your career is a dollar well spent all-around.
Here are eight ways to get that refund working for you:
1. Take an online course for a specific skill.
This doesn’t mean you have to shell out thousands of dollars or return to school full-time. These days, there are tons of online courses available, many of which are free or low in cost. If there’s a particular skill set that is well-regarded in your line of work but absent from your resume, now is the time to add it. Whether it’s a technical skill (e.g. software, statistics) or a soft skill (e.g. management, leadership), learning a new skill can boost your confidence, impress prospective employers and command a higher salary. Don’t forget to add it to your resume.
2. Attend an industry training or trade conference.
Whether you work in a common industry (e.g. healthcare, finance), or one that is a bit more obscure (say, underwater hospitality), nearly all industries have trade conferences, expos, trainings, and other events where you can network, pitch, sell and brush up on your field-specific knowledge. For just the cost of registration (and maybe associated travel), you’ll meet prospective clients, business partners and mentors. Plus, you’ll learn what’s brand spankin’ new in the industry, which you can leverage in the name of a promotion.
3. Buy a modern, well-fitting suit.
We don’t advocate blowing through your entire refund check on all the latest fashions, but there is one item of clothing that is a must in every professional’s closet: a modern, industry-appropriate, well-fitting and comfortable suit. Even if you don't believe that style matters in your particular line of work, a sharp suit can make a strong impression and boost your self-confidence at the next interview, business meeting or networking event. Have at least one neutral-colored, clean and pressed suit, ready to roll at all times. You never know when the next opportunity will arise.
4. Hire a career coach.
Consider the benefits of hiring a professional coach. If you feel stagnated, confused about next steps, or exhausted by the job search, an experienced coach can help breathe new life into your work ambitions. A good coach can beef up your resume and LinkedIn profile, boost your networking presence, prep you for challenging interviews, and teach you critical negotiation techniques. Securing a successful job transition can be difficult (whether we're talking a promotion, a new job or a whole new field). The money you invest in a career coach is likely to come back to you tenfold in the form of higher pay and greater fulfillment.
5. Upgrade your professional tool belt.
Sharpen your competitive edge by ensuring that your professional tools are top-notch. Whether you're an accountant who depends on complex software or an artist ready to try a different canvas, the advice is the same. New products and materials are constantly hitting the market, increasing efficiency and pushing the limits of creativity. Do your research and purchase the best equipment your trade has to offer. Armed with the right hardware, software and supplies… you’ll be unstoppable.
6. Download good "apps."
Your time, money and connections are your three most valuable career-related resources. Yet, with so much going on in your life, it probably seems hard to keep track of any of them, doesn't it? Lucky for us, there are apps out there to help you do just that. Use your computer, tablet and/or smartphone to access "applications" that mange your money, schedule your time and organize your networks. You can find "To-Do" lists for your tasks and deadlines, sophisticated calendars that help structure your schedule, expenditure trackers for your finances and phone books that re-arrange your contacts by job title and other helpful networking categories. Flip through the demos, read the reviews and then buy one or two to get you started.
7. Take your colleagues to lunch.
Part of what makes a job satisfying is the feeling of community that one gets from their team. So, whether you currently have a group of co-workers that you feel grateful for, or want to make a friend or two to "talk shop" with, treating a few folks to lunch is a great way to foster some business bonding. Take them to that little bistro you like so much, or just have a few pizza pies delivered to the office during lunchtime. It can help to offset the daily stresses of hard work and foster communication between you and your comrades.
8. Decorate your work space.
Statistics show that employees who decorate their work space are more productive than their counterparts. So, think about what gets you motivated and make sure your space reflects those stimulating sounds, sights and scents that keep your spirits at their highest. Paint your home office a warm color, spruce up your cubicle with colorful flowers or keep soothing oils in the car for your days "out in the field."
Too often people spend their refund check on impulsive purchases, only to find that the clothes quickly go out of style or the gadget is obsolete a few months later. Your refund check can be so much more useful for your career and general life satisfaction. Take a moment to assess your professional trajectory—everything from your office desk to your industry skill set, from your business suit to your networking opportunities—and find the best way to invest the money in yourself. You’ll reap those career benefits for a lifetime.
Dr. Dinorah Nieves is a life coach, writer and motivational speaker known for her unique brand of edgy enlightenment designed to help you to get focused and grow hard. For more information, visit: http://www.DinorahNieves.com
David Wiacek is an experienced career coach and copywriter. His clients range from recent college grads to C-level executives. He helps professionals navigate the complex modern-day job search to find more fulfilling, better-paying jobs. For more information, visit: davidthefixer.com
Photo by David Wiacek
Gratitude X Attitude = Grattitude. Bronx, NYC, 2016 - Photo by D. Wiacek
Humanity has some room for improvement.
I’m here in my living room, having just recovered from a flu-like cold (or maybe a cold-like flu?), with a residual cough so loud it could cause an avalanche. And, yet, despite my unpleasant physical state, the only thing on my mind is gratitude. I used to commute via MetroNorth from Westchester to Manhattan every day (the above photo was taken from the train as we passed through the Bronx), and I used to be bummed not about how sad or exhausted my fellow commuters looked, but about the fact that I probably looked just as bad as everyone else. It wasn’t a pleasant realization. Of course, most of my fellow passengers came from at least middle-class if not upper-class households, so the misery was all the more striking. After all, most of the train’s occupants had no reason to look so wretched—at least from a material standpoint.
I’m a recovering psychology major, and over the years, I’ve leafed through thousands of books, journal articles, online blogs, and other digital clippings devoted to various self-help topics. One theme that permeates most of the literature is the idea that harnessing gratitude can help get you unstuck from life’s ruts. For the longest time I didn’t believe that anyone could use gratitude as a tool to combat real troubles, whether professional or personal. I’ll save you the time-consuming burden of reading all those books and articles (and I won’t charge you a dime for the thousands of hours I’ve saved you, either—it’s my gift to you!). Below is a distillation of those countless and very valuable books and blogs, colored by my own experience and that of my friends, relatives and career coaching clients on the “how/what/why” of practicing gratitude.
Consider making it a regular practice.
As with any good habit, daily practice yields maximum benefits. If not every day, then practice gratitude as often as you remember to do it. Certainly not just once a year at the Thanksgiving table. That’s often just for show, or because of social pressure. Rather, set up a daily reminder on your phone, but during a time of day that makes sense for you. If your mornings are hectic, you’ll just hit snooze and ignore the reminder. You know yourself better than that! Be honest with yourself. Find that minute or 5 in the day or night when you have some time to pause and reflect.
Start it first thing in the morning.
I know that above I said find time either in the day or night, but I’m a huge proponent of starting the day off on the right foot (which in my case, being a leftie, is my left foot). I do my best, as we all do, to avoid my phone as the first interaction of the day, though sometimes I fail. I even go so far as to “hack” my internet browsing experience: I set my browser’s default home page to show positive news (inspirational, funny, nature-related, cute, etc.). Rather than reading an urgent email from a client to make my heart pump, or seeing the tragic news of the day to make my heart sink, I make sure the first thing I do in the morning is pause and reflect on all the good things in my life. I have a job—no, a career—that I absolutely love (it wasn’t always that way). I have a roof over my head, and clothes, and a puppy who makes my heart melt at least thrice a day (I lied! He’s a 6-year-old dog but he looks and acts like a puppy; he even taught me a few things about the job search). Practicing gratitude as the day's first order of business colors the experience of my entire day. I’m that much more upbeat and resilient, no matter how tough the day may become. And that’s no lie.
Make it viral.
Share gratitude with others. I call gratitude-sharing the “contagious silver lining syndrome.” Think about it: when you come across someone who is joyful and grateful, it rubs off on you. It immediately elevates your mood and reminds you to find the good in your life; whereas when you encounter a miserable creature--whether at work or at home--it just drains your mood and depletes your energy, clouds your judgment, and decreases productivity/creativity/desire. Well, you can become that inspirational person for others. If you are grateful for something, it doesn’t hurt to share that sentiment (it can be gratitude for anything, and doesn’t have to gratitude for that person specifically, although you do earn karmic bonus points if that’s the case.). A smile, a kind word or gesture… these things go a long way. Whether you’re heading to an interview or you see someone else who is, share the love. It’ll come back to you some day, in some way (or at the very least you’ll feel good about it in the moment).
Workplace gratitude for your talents… and limitations.
Be grateful for your own strengths. Own what you know! Be proud of what you have already accomplished—whether it’s a technical task or an interpersonal achievement, like leading a team to success on a tough cookie of a project. But also be grateful for your own limitations. These shortcomings may feel uncomfortable and cause bouts of low self-esteem, but they are the universe’s way of forcing you to interact with others, to lean on other minds and hearts. Other people will fill in the gaps, complementing the skills and knowledge you don’t yet have. Praise others (within reason), and actively learn from them. I often recommend to my career coaching clients that they invite industry leaders to an informational interview by treating them to lunch or coffee. It works wonders for building networks, and sometimes leads to a real job interview. This sort of interpersonal gratitude is, in my humble and flawed opinion, a cornerstone of any successful individual, team, organization, or work initiative (e.g. diversity/inclusiveness). Start to replace fear/doubt/inadequacy/jealousy with gratitude and you’ll go far.
Dig a little deeper. Be specific.
How should one practice gratitude? Well, that’s really a personal matter. You’ll figure it out, if you haven’t already. One thing that works for me, though, is that I don’t just perform a rote Thanksgiving Day-esque list of what I’m grateful for (i.e. home, family, health). I pick one or two things each day and get much more specific. For example, I am grateful for my legs, because they let me walk, and run, and dance, and travel. I am grateful for my friends, who gently (although sometimes not-so-gently) remind me of my shortcomings, and help me become a better human being. I’m grateful for my dog, because he shows unconditional love and gets me enjoying the outdoors several times a day. I’m grateful for this laptop: it’s light as a feather, very fast, and it connects me with friends, family and clients around the world without ever complaining (okay, maybe the occasional error message). The more specific I am, the more meaningful the exercise, and the better I feel. The gratitude spills into everything else: interactions with clients, with friends, with relatives, and even with my dog. Now if only I could learn to practice unconditional gratitude like Nacho...
Don’t force it on other people, but maybe force it on yourself.
You can’t force other people to be grateful. In fact, it might even backfire because humans can easily get jealous/righteous and respond with a “$%^@, you don’t know me! You don’t know my life! Let me be miserable!” It might seem like I’m trying to convince people in this post, but really that's not the case. I just wanted to share some insights, and if you're reading this, I'm grateful for that alone. Don’t worry; I won’t get offended if you think gratitude is a waste of time. Or maybe you practice gratitude on a regular basis, in which case you can probably skip this so-called lecture (but if you are still reading, maybe teach me a thing or two by sharing your experience in the Comments section below). After all, I’m only a novice gratitude practitioner, if that’s even the technical term for it. Sure, I hope more people would focus on gratitude rather than blame, on strengths rather than weaknesses; but at the end of the day, I can’t force anyone—except for myself. And I choose to make the effort to practice gratitude. Sometimes it feels like a chore, but not often. Even so, getting your chores done is important for a happy, fulfilling life.
Perhaps this is a stretch, but I even go so far as to be grateful for the people who drive me crazy. Whether it’s that rare but precious prospective client who contacts me 14 times before deciding to purchase my services, or a friend who knows which of my buttons to press—it’s all just a playground of life’s twists and turns, and gratitude helps me deal with it best I know how: with a patient smile.
If with this post I happen to remind just one person, in one moment, to pause and reflect on the wonder in their lives, then that’s just dandy. Icing on the cake, really. Oh, man, do I love cake. I also love my clients, and nature, and equality... so as a token of my gratitude I proudly earmark 5% of my profits toward environmental and social causes. 5% isn't much but it is something and, besides, that overpriced cup of fancy coffee can wait.
If you have any personal insights on how practicing gratitude has changed your life, feel free to share below. Thank you for reading. Have the loveliest 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.
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.
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.