I vividly remember the night before my first internship in Corporate America. I could barely sleep. I was a graduate student in my early twenties, full of dreams, and excited to start my career. Also, I was nervous. I worked hard and made many sacrifices to get to that point. I did not want to kick off my career the wrong way. That was 20 years ago.
To everyone who relates to my younger self, there are key experience-based principles I wish I would have understood as I embarked on the professional journey we call career.
9 Experience-Based Principles to Help Kick Off Your Career
1. Be prepared to roll up your sleeves
There is no such a thing as a perfect job. Even under ideal conditions, jobs do not perfectly match our interests and abilities. In fact, to a certain extent, all jobs are demanding, stressful, unfair, peppered with difficult people, and outside of our direct control. However, we still need to deliver positive and tangible results to thrive in our careers. This makes work hard but also rewarding if you are up to the challenge.
2. A broader foundation enables a sustainable career.
Many young professionals are eager to get promoted and make more money as they move along in their careers. However, many people who finally reach the top will admit it is not as gratifying as they expected, and that their ability to remain at the top is short-lived due to a weak foundation. Thus, I recommend that your early career goal should be setting a broad professional foundation rather than blindly chasing bigger titles and more money. What I mean by this is developing skills in more than one area or department. This is why experience-based principles come in to play!
To do this, take lateral assignments (laterals) as early in your career as possible. These assignments are easier to find the more junior you are in your career. Being a “Jack-of-all-trades’ so to speak will give you more options and flexibility for career success.
3. Networking is a lot more important than you think.
Networking comes naturally to some. For others, like me, networking requires a lot of work. Regardless of what camp you belong to, networking, even when you have a job, is key to ensure a successful career. As it pertains to your current job, your network serves as a group of knowledgeable friends you can go to with questions or ask for help. Also, networking allows you to hear about job openings before they even get posted.
This becomes very helpful when you are looking to make a professional move or if you find yourself in need of a new job (layoffs are more frequent than people think). Finally, assuming you have built a strong foundation that makes you a qualified candidate for a job, your network can help you when competing for jobs that require the sponsorship from the decision makers. In other words, whether we like it or not, who you know does matter.
4. Culture and people make or break the day.
Our careers lead us to spend a decent amount of our lives at work. Unfortunately, many (my younger self included) neglect to appreciate the importance of the environment in which we work. The culture of the company matters. It affects our productivity, well-being, and overall job satisfaction. Earlier in my career, I only cared about the work to be done. However, this led me to jobs that I loved in environments that made me feel exhausted and stressed out. Hence, I have learned to ask about company values and how they become tangible in the day-to-day tasks. You will be surprised with the answers (or the lack thereof).
The people we work with also directly influence how we feel and perform in our jobs. Make no mistake about it, you will have to interact with people more than you think in your career. Thus, when possible, choose to work with people who will elevate you, not bring you down. This is particularly important when you are considering a new role or a new company. Think of the interviewing process as a two-way street. Your goal should be to determine whether you would actually enjoy working with your new team and following the lead of your new boss.
5. Ask for help and offer help.
Early in my career, I thought that asking for help was a sign of weakness. The reality is that asking for help is a sign of maturity and confidence. I think highly of leaders who are humble enough to ask for help when needed. Thus, rely on your network, mentors, coaches, coworkers and your manager to find the help you need to be successful. This will only accelerate your learning process and your career. On the flip side, offer help to others when you can. You have more to offer than you think. At the very minimum, you can share your time and opinions with others. You will be surprised how much you learn and how rewarding the experience is. Remember, what goes around comes around.
6. Playing to win is more effective and fun.
There is a difference between playing to win and playing to not lose. The former motivates you to take risks and expand your career, while the latter constrains you to protect what you have the way it is. There is a lot of research supporting the fact that playing to win is a conduit to higher intrinsic motivation and enjoyment in your career. Playing to win allows you to identify your full potential and to pursue it without any fear or limitations.
7. Work hard and play hard.
I started my career focusing on work only. Everyone praised the results that delivered, but I had no life outside of work. This led to dissatisfaction and eventual burnout. I switched jobs and companies, but the results were still the same. It turns out I was the enabler of my misery. Work smarter, not harder.
I had to learn to sometimes let good replace great, so I can get enough sleep to function the next day. I had to learn that you can have hobbies, family life, and a successful career all at the same time. Most importantly, work is more enjoyable and even more productive when it is not the only aspect of your life.
8. Accept the gift of feedback.
Many of us grew up thinking of feedback as a negative term. Hence, we treat feedback as a punitive exercise instead of a powerful tool that allows us to improve. After many years of proper mentoring and coaching, I have learned that feedback is truly a gift. We decide what to do with it.
Sometimes it is applicable and sometimes it is not. However, without any doubt, when feedback is delivered and received properly, only good things happen. We become better versions of ourselves when we acknowledge that we can always get better and act upon it.
9. Prepare for a bumpy yet enjoyable ride.
Some envision their careers as a straightforward happy path that ends in success. The reality is that our careers are bumpy rides. You will experience failures in the course of your career. You might taste the bitterness of betrayal. You might be laid off for no reason within your control. You might make poor decisions despite your best intentions. You might have bad performance years.
On the other hand, careers do allow us to experience many victories. You might receive help from the least expected persons. You might get promoted and get an office with a nice view. You might feel accomplished by what you do because it matters to you and others. The bumpy nature of our careers is what makes them journeys worth pursuing though. The temporary failures make us wiser and stronger in the big scheme of our careers.
These failures remind us to remain humble and to keep learning. On the other hand, the peaks allow us to maintain a healthy amount of ambition toward our long-term goals. These peaks remind us that we can enjoy the journey more than the destination. After all, our attitude toward the journey is what we can control.
P.S. If you are wondering, my initial internship was a tremendous success despite of how much I needed to learn about the corporate world. I learned a lot through great mentorship and a fair amount of mistakes in a controlled environment. I hope these experience-based principles help guide you to success—just imagine what you could achieve already knowing what I did not know then!
Gonzalo Cordova discovered early in life a passion for continuous improvement, which led him to become an engineer with focus on optimization of processes and systems. As his career evolved, his passion for continuous improvement intersected with his desire to serve people. Hence, he now devotes a meaningful amount of his time to mentoring other professionals who desire to advance their careers. Additionally, Gonzalo is a long-distance triathlete and an avid reader. He enjoys spending quality time with his wife and two children in the northern suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia.