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.