It’s embarrassing, but it’s taken me the better part of a decade to understand stuff that I wish I knew when I was 21. And ever so often, I’ll work with magnificent, bright, tenacious 21-year olds, who help me bring a sense of perspective and artistry back to what I do.
Whether it’s setting up national YouTube gatherings like Tom Burns (well, he was 21 when I first met him), or making it as a young professional living in London for the first time, I’m often amazed by people’s ingenuity and tenacity.
I now get regular (weekly) LinkedIn requests from people in their early twenties to talk about “careers.” If you’d asked me five years ago, I’d have said planning a career felt impossible. Now I know different.
Below is a condensed version of the advice I normally give them.
1) Listen before you speak
When you’re starting out, it’s tempting to feel that you have to speak up at every opportunity. It’s easy to get sucked into bad habits, but I recommend following Abigail Van Buren’s advice: “The less you talk, the more you’re listened to.”
The best marketers and the best employees have found a way to connect with other people in an authentic, personal and humble way. That starts with not using social media as a loudhailer, and listening to others before speaking.
Chris Brogan was right to call out people who churn out garbage-y list articles. It turns out that communication has diminishing marginal returns – because the more you blab, the less people listen.
How do your social profiles reflect you, both personally and professionally? How will the approach you’re taking now reflect on you today – and how will it affect your prospects? Far too people take the approach of talking a lot and hoping that something worthwhile comes out, and it does them a lot of damage. I’ve gotten a lot better at dialing back my contributions – listening, reflecting and then speaking with conviction.
2) Do it for love first
While I was at uni, I wanted to get a job in an advertising agency or PR company. It was 2009. The world was going to hell in a hand-basket. As a 23-year old with a humanities degree, $50 a week to live off and no budget for attending night classes, I felt like it would be impossible. I remember going to a graduate seminar organised by L’Oreal. This isn’t me, I thought. How can I compete?
Still, I started to attend social media meetups, getting a picture of what was out there and how I could help. I’d sometimes spend up to half an hour thinking about how I could respond to a single tweet. I met Daren Forsyth and he helped me get an internship at MediaTrust. I started showing up at conferences and volunteering to help out if they would let me see a couple of the sessions.
As it turned out, I did have something to contribute after all. Because of my knowledge of the youth market, I won the trust of advertising industry execs and other marketing leaders. I started getting asked to talk at conferences. As a result of all of this, I was able to secure paid freelance work.
You can be doing some of what you love now. Your first efforts are going to suck. I ended up falling out of love with the speaker circuit – all of that attention is nice, but I wanted to be back delivering value. But it starts with making a start.
3) Be prepared to fail
At any point in your career, you need to be willing to fail – even if it’s painful. That may sound crazy, but it’s true.
One of the most limiting things, bar none, that you can do is stay in a job (or relationship) that’s no longer serving you well, because you’re scared of what might happen if you leave.
Great athletes and great employees aren’t discouraged by failure, but they learn from their missteps and allow themselves to learn the right lessons. It’s written for women, but here’s a lot of good stuff for men in Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” too.
4) Be prepared to step away
There’s no getting around it – building a reputation is about doing great work, and great work is often a solitary business. I don’t mean that you should sit in a corner and work on your own. That’s totally not what I mean. Success in your career is often about the hours you put in away from work.
But by definition, if you’re looking to do something great and creative and different, that’s going to involve breaking away from where everyone else is right now.
For you, your comfort zone might be Twitter and Instagram. It sure is for a lot of people. Ask yourself why that is. Is it because it’s cosy and warm there, and no one ever suggests you should do something different? If so, have you considered the cost of immersing yourself in other people’s noise? Sometimes, you just totally need to step away.
Like, right away. Even if you’re not sure where you’re going to go. Just go. Have the self belief and self confidence to deal with it when not everyone shares your focus and vision.
5) Silence the voice in your head
I didn’t promise you it was going to be easy now did I? Good, because this one is really tough. One of the things that almost everyone has – but no one admits to having, is a voice in their head that says “I’m tired. I’d like to eat now. Do we have to do this for much longer?”
Once this voice gets going, it is relentless.
For a lot of us, it’s that same whiny voice that we had in the car when we were on our way to see our grandparents is still there in adulthood – “Are we there yet?” – Still nagging away.
By the time we’ve got to adulthood, that voice has learned a few lines. Do I have to write the whole eBook? It’s not ready yet, let’s ship it later.”
Without fail, that voice is going to show up when you’re tired. It’ll show up and do its absolute utmost to screw over your best work.
It’s hard, but you have to learn to shut that voice down and push through. Over time, the universe bends towards people who follow through on their commitments and ship even if it’s not perfect. That means doing whatever it takes to do only your best work.
6) Learn what motivates you
I was seriously lucky early on in my career to work with some literally world class managers and mentors, and, to be honest, I took them for granted a little bit. I probably relied on them too much to motivate myself, so would end up procrastinating when no one was watching or when the pressure was off. It wasn’t until I hit a bit of a rough patch in my life and my business that I noticed.
But in truth, I’d taken my foot off the gas a little bit. Then I read Simon Sinek’s “Start With Why” and asked myself some tough questions. Why was I doing what I was doing? Why did I feel unhappy doing what I was doing?
I actually went on a climbing holiday in North Yorkshire (though I don’t think it has to be there. In the shadow of Ingleborough mountain, in the south-western corner of the Yorkshire Dales, I wrote down everything that I was feeling and got a much clearer picture of what I wanted and what would motivate me to get there.
7) Social Media is a career tool, not an IM
I mentioned earlier how it’s possible to get a little too comfortable on social media. Because we often perceive social media as a “safe space,” it can be possible to get into some bad habits. Being a little too forthright in your opinions. Sharing content from companies and people you look up to is a great start.
I actually landed an internship out in Japan with Naked Communications by doing just this. The founder of the agency (@jonnyrockunit) was following me on Twitter and we struck up a conversation. I saw that they had “Now Hiring” on their website – a few Skype calls later, they arranged for me to go over to Japan to work with them for a few months!
Also, make sure your LinkedIn is up to date. I get a lot of people asking me “So, I’ve signed up on LinkedIn, but I don’t know what I’m doing? Also, there are all sorts of creepy accounts sharing image memes, should I be doing that too?” It’s important to learn to use LinkedIn and use it well.
Advanced searches on LinkedIn can help you identify connections that you have in common with people and start making phonecalls. Reading influencer blogs can be a great way of finding out what matters to the people you want to work with. It’s super important to set up your social media profile for where you want to be, rather than where you are now.
8) You’ll never notice the big struggles
The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindside you at 4 PM on some idle Tuesday.
Baz Luhrmann was so right – the big struggles that you will face in your career don’t often announce themselves as great adventures at all. They often look a lot more like ‘Murphy’s Law‘ – that anything that can go wrong will go wrong.
Often though, the courage and character that we develop through difficult scenarios (the minimum-wage job, the period of unemployment, the relationship breakup) gives us the courage to push on through and achieve our goals.
The wisest words my friend Craig Beddis (@cbeddis) ever passed onto me: “I don’t judge people on how they are when things are going well. I judge them on how they respond to adversity.” So true, and so comforting when things aren’t going your way.
9) Take On The Big Challenges – And Start Small
I meet a lot of people who have big plans – like scary big, epic plans. Big people love big plans.
Absolutely look to how you can support those big plans. Lean in. Put both hands up to be involved in that big initiative. Take on the future with absolute gusto.
But often, our biggest plans are shaped by the smallest decisions. Today matters.
And often, when we’re busy making game changing plans, the details that get missed are “Okay, what’s happening next?” “And after that?” “And what’s happening when the work is done?” Sweat the small details. They matter.
10) Be teachable
I don’t think I got a place at Oxford University because I was the brightest one on the course. I can’t have been, surely? But, when I was sat there in the interview room in my suit that didn’t quite fit, I probably came across as more teachable and coachable.
Sure, there were people there with a better education than me. I was at college with a prince, people from Eton College and all these other fancy-pants places.
Doing that requires three things – reading voraciously (and I don’t just mean blogs and Buzzfeed), surrounding yourself with people who are better than you (and that you know are better than you), and listening to other people. Be gracious towards other people, particularly if they help you.
I’ve built a career around freelancing since I was at uni – almost by accident. Even for people who go down the route of signing up to work for a company full time, most people switch jobs every couple of years. It’s easy to feel confused, or that you are being “left behind” in some way. Hopefully these tips will help you make a start.