Career advice for my younger self

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2008’s The Incredible Hulk is – by far – the weakest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it has a few good lines. One of them is when the antagonist declares to General Ross that if he could take the knowledge and skills he has as a forty year old and put that into the body he had in his 20’s he’d be a truly dangerous soldier. It’s a moment that I think most people who’ve dedicated years to something could relate to.

Over the years I’ve thought a lot about what has driven my successes and failures. In the process, I’ve developed a set of rules for myself, rules I would love to share with my younger self if it was possible. Since it’s not, I’ll have to settle for sharing them with you.

1.  Kick ass.

“Good Enough” is never good enough.  Whether you’re a student, a wage slave stuck in some retail hellhole, or a white-color knowledge worker; make sure that when you do something you do it better then anyone else in the room could have.

The only part of this gigantically huge universe that any of us has real control over is ourselves.  I have failed over and over again and expect to continue to do so.  There’s always someone smarter, better looking, who came from a wealthier background or is better at something.  But no matter how many excuses I’ve made there was always something I could have done better, somewhere I could have improved.  Excuses don’t change anything, hard work does.

2.  Look Good. 

This is particularly true in the business world but applies everywhere.  When you walk into a room make sure heads turn.

This is true in both the literal and figurative sense.  When I was freelance I used to always wear a kilt – no one forgot the web developer in a kilt and being memorable was a huge boon for my business.  Nowadays I’ve left the kilt behind, it just doesn’t work well when commuting by motorcycle, but I still make an effort to express my unique style. Tailored shirts, cool cufflinks, and a color- coordinated hat go a long way in an industry where boring plaid button ups are the standard

“Look Good” also applies to the level of polish on your work.  A great product that looks unimpressive won’t sell as well as a mediocre product that’s pretty – just ask the folks at Apple computers!  Humans love shiny objects, so be shiny, and make sure your work is shiny too.

3. Reinvent Everything.  

It’s really easy to get attached to things, habits, and ideas and hold onto them long past their actual usefulness.

As that endlessly repeated Ghandi quote reminds us, changing the world requires changing yourself.  It’s trite, but it’s also true.  Doing so requires being willing to subject yourself, your beliefs, and behavior to intense and regular scrutiny.  Is this habit helping me achieve my goals? Does this way of looking at the world really fit with new information?  What can I do differently to get where I’m trying to go?   This is just about the hardest thing in the world but it’s necessary .  A person who can’t change can’t grow.  That doesn’t mean throwing away your core values and spinning on a dime whenever it’s convenient – we’re engineers, not politicians! It does mean identifying what’s important to you and constantly learning and iterating in support of those values.

4. Stay Positive.

Life can be hard and unkind and, like more than half of Americans, I’ve occasionally struggled with maintaining morale. What I’ve realized is that if I want to end up in a positive place I need to focus on helping the people around me feel positive. This is especially true in customer-facing roles, but is really just good life advice in general. As the old saying goes “Laugh and the world laughs with you, cry and you cry alone.” That may not seem fair, but it’s undeniably true.

So when people ask how I am and I’m tired and irritable I tell them “the world is a beautiful place”. Which is true even if it’s not really an answer; and oddly enough it usually makes me feel better.  I have a tendency to see the problems in everything – the flaws in every system. At some time in the last couple years I realized it’s actually a super-power as long as I can refocus on creating solutions and actionable plans to implement them. Weaponize your cynicism and wrap it in a smile. That’s the secret to great comedy and to success in the business world alike.

5.   You work for you.

 Always remember this – a job is just a job.  The more you can learn and the more connections you can make the better, but don’t expect permanence or security.

The days of lifetime employment are gone.  The odds of any of us getting a job at one company and working up through the ranks over the course of decades is minimal.  Most of us are going to change careers – not just jobs but careers – at least 3 times before retirement.   That means that the only constant in my professional journey is me and it’s fundamentally up to me whether and how I’m going to succeed.  So when I go to interview for a job I’m evaluating my potential employer and team mates as much as they’re evaluating me.  If you see me looking across that desk I’m asking myself what I can learn from you, whether this position will challenge me, how and how much I can grow my skill set. And if I don’t like the answers I’m going to keep moving.

What would you add to this list?