An afternoon spent with six impressive entrepreneurs showed me one thing: the nature of the world economy and careers has changed forever
I had the chance to spend an afternoon/evening at Coca-Cola’s headquarters here in Atlanta during their 2013-2014 annual business strategy and planning meetings with Coke’s entire senior executive team and six other peers of mine from an organization called the Global Shapers.
Each of my peers had founded or co-founded a company that is successful in its own right already: W&T George Group of Companies; iStrategy labs; Mizzen + Main; Equitable Payments & Network Under 40; Ascension Aviation Services; and Frozen Pints.
Those of us who dare to do things differently will see the rewards
I took time to jot down observations about my impressive peers throughout the day. Perhaps the most important insight I had after processing the event is this:
In this new economy we have entered, the nature of careers has changed forever. There is more opportunity for freedom, fulfillment, and impact in our work than ever before, but less guarantee of a lifelong career doing any one thing for any one employer. For those that are willing to take calculated risks and invest in themselves, especially during the first 10 years of their working lives, the opportunities available to us will only grow with time.
When I looked at these six peers of mine, it became increasingly clear that they have not necessarily built successful businesses and careers because they are any more talented or intelligent than you or I (although they might be). Instead, they have built more freedom, fulfillment, and impact into their work by embracing the idea that calculated risks in the first ten years of their career are well worth the upside.
For many people this concept and post will be a threatening idea. It challenges the assumptions we have had about careers for our entire lives. Your initial reaction will be to define the ways in which you’re different from the examples I use. You’ll say things like:
“But I don’t want to start my own business.”
“Those people have better networks, more family money, less student debt, blah blah blah.”
“Does this apply to MY industry, MY sector, or MY interests?”
If you find yourself asking these kinds of questions, there is a deeper issue at stake. Ramit Sethi likes to call it the “special snowflake syndrome” in which we each believe that our circumstances are different than those of any other.
And guess what? Your circumstances ARE unique. They are different in so many ways that you could find an excuse to avoid any framework or piece of advice in the world.
Instead, I want to challenge you to do one of two things if you find yourself thinking the excuses I listed up above:
- Take some time to yourself and challenge these thoughts. Think through the ways in which you could apply this advice to your own life and career.
- If you truly cannot find a way to apply it, then create a calendar reminder for six months from now to re-read the article. Be sure to include the link in your reminder. I suspect you’ll find that this advice will eventually hit you at the right time if you keep coming back to it.
As much as anything, this post is a reminder to myself that I can come back to time and again no matter what happens over the next ten years. It’s a reminder of the mindset and practices of top performers, and I hope it helps you accelerate your performance and growth every bit as much as it does mine.
How to make the most of your first (or next) ten years
Tell a Ten-Year Story
First things first, stop trying to do everything today. (I’m talking to me too.) Living a remarkable life and career takes time. Get ok with that so you can start building towards a meaningful impact over time and stop focusing on how much money, how many subscribers, or how many major features have been run on you in the media. Those things come from focusing on the quality and remarkability of the work. What work do you need to do to tell a great ten-year story instead of a great two week story?
Selwin George at W&T George Group of Companies invested part of his career in venture capital so that he could return to the family businesses as Executive Director. If he had a two-week mindset, he may have went straight to work in the family business with little to offer. Instead, he told a ten-year story by focusing on how to become the best executive director for the company. That meant going elsewhere first.
Take some time to sit down and write your ten year story. You don’t have to know the exact experiences you’ll have just yet. But do describe the journey, what you felt, built, and saw along the way. Perhaps most importantly, act as if you’re looking back across the ten years and describe what you now have to offer the world.
Get to Know Yourself
I cannot stress enough how important it is to get to know yourself over the next ten years. The most approachable and enjoyable conversations I’ve had with successful young professionals are with those who have a sense of who they are and why on earth they’re here on earth.
This is a constant challenge and struggle, but there is a noticeable difference between the people who are still trying to find themselves and those who are comfortable in their own skin.
When you look at Darrah Brustein’s level of success at such a young age (29 as of 2013), you might wonder how she’s managed to build three successful businesses in such a short period of time. She runs a payments company, a networking events company, and has published a financial literacy book for children. Yet when you meet her, you get the sense that she doesn’t need those businesses to define her. In fact, you’ll probably have to dig pretty hard to get her to even talk about her level of success.
People who take the time to define themselves based on who they are tend to avoid the trap of letting their career/success/others define them. They take more smart risks and less foolish ones. And they’re often more enjoyable to build relationships with.
Take the time to understand your purpose, passions, values, strengths, and vision for the future. Stay close to those things regardless of the success you see and it’ll be hard to go wrong.
ABC: Always Be Building Career Capital
This one is inspired by Alec Baldwin’s inspiring performance in Glengarry Glen Ross + Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You. If I’ve learned anything about building skills, it’s that there are two types.
First, there are the skills that are specific to your field. Engineers, professors, and venture capitalists all need very different skill sets to succeed in their respective fields.
Second, if you take a closer look at the skills that the most successful young professionals have in any given field, there are surprising commonalities.
Whether we’re looking at Kevin LaVelle from Mizzen + Main, Peter Corbett from iStrategy Labs, or Danny Gizzi from Ascension Aircraft, there is a certain set of skills that will benefit any single one of them. Some combination of the following will be crucial to any career in the new economy:
- Strategic planning
- Consultative problem solving
- Public speaking
- Building relationships
The list goes on, but this gets the point across. Yes, build career-specific skills. But don’t stop there. Work on building the skills that will allow you to grow as a person and impact more people over time. That will likely require you to get outside of your industry from time to time and draw the lesson back into your work.
Think in Terms of W9 Instead of W2
A W9 is the US tax form you fill out when you’re working as a contractor for a company or individual. A W2 is the US tax form you fill out when taking a job as a full-time employee with benefits.
Before we go any further, I’m not saying every person in the world should immediately jump ship and move to a contract worker position. What I am saying is that over time, more and more people will be on W9 arrangements, so you might as well plan for it now. The sooner you accept the fact that at least 90% of you will not have one stalwart career with one employer, the sooner we can all move on to a more exciting way to work.
Peter Corbett of iStrategy labs is the perfect example. iStrategy has done groundbreaking marketing and strategic work for iconic companies from the Fortune 500 to startups you’ve never heard of. With every new contract, Peter’s company becomes a contractor for their client with a defined goal, timeline, and budget for the project. By thinking like a W9er, Peter has managed to build a business that puts food on the table for nearly 30 people.
This applies whether you want to build a business or not. Think of it this way: you could think like a W2er and take one job for $50k per year, or you could think like a W9er and find three organizations that will pay you $25k per year each. That’s a 50% raise and you get to work on your own time, while learning to manage multiple priorities and getting a broad base of experience. Not to mention the fact that you’ll waste less time during “work hours.”
Is this the move you should make right out of school? Probably not. Is it a viable move after you’ve started to build the common core skills that we discussed earlier? Absolutely.
Take on Daring, but Doable Projects
By combining the thought process of a ten-year story and a W9 mindset, you open yourself up to opportunities you would have no shot at otherwise.
First of all, instead of thinking that your next job is a lifelong career move, you can think of it like a project, just like iStrategy does. Establish a goal, timeline, and amount you’ll be paid. Work your tail off to reach the goal on time and under budget while delighting your customer (employer), building new skills, and adding a case study to your portfolio.
Second, pick your head up like a prairie dog after each project and take a look around at what’s out there. Leverage your portfolio, skills, and results to hop to a new project that is daring (aka pushes you to the edge of your comfort zone), but doable (aka uses some subset of the skills and knowledge you’ve already built).
Let’s take a jump back in time in my career to illustrate. I left my consulting gig at E&Y right in the middle of the implementation of a project I had initiating and was leading. I was impatient and perhaps a bit foolish. I should have busted my ass to deliver the project on time and under budget. It would have delighted our Fortune 5 client, built a case study of my potential turned into performance, and also built my common core skillset. Instead, I took the two-week approach and left immediately. I survived, thankfully, but I could have done a better job with a ten-year perspective and the intention of completing a daring, but doable project before moving on.
So, define your current work situation in terms of a goal, timeline, and budget. How can you delight your customer, build a case study, and build your common core skillset? When you finish, pick your head up and check out what’s available to you. Go for the most daring, but doable opportunity and repeat.
Recognize Opportunity When it Slaps You Across the Face
Aly Moler co-founded Frozen Pints (beer ice cream – yes, it has an alcohol content) after she was at a party and a beer spilled next to an ice cream maker. The people at the party decided it was a good idea to add the beer to the ice cream. Out popped a delicious treat and an opportunity slapped Aly and her business partner, Ari, across the face.
They could have gotten up the next day and went about their business. Instead, they decided to take the opportunity and run with it. Now they’ve built Frozen Pints into one of the darling brands of the Atlanta community in just one short year.
When opportunity slaps you across the face with a call to go on an exciting and profitable adventure, it’s just another way of finding your next project. If you’re already in the middle of a daring, but doable project, pursue the new opportunity on nights and weekends until the current one is complete.
Whatever you do, don’t let a good opportunity slap you without taking any notice. Explore the opportunity and then jump in with a goal, timeline, and budget.
Find the People Who Will Push You
We’ve all heard the Jim Rohn quote a million times, so I’ll spare you. But the reason it’s become cliché is that it hits on one of the most consistently powerful pieces of advice to ever grace the world. If you can surround yourself with people who will push you to get out of your comfort zone and continue growing, then you can avoid the complacency trap so many people fall into.
None of us are invincible. We all face the reality that without good people to prompt us, challenge us, and encourage us, we’re likely to fail in a vacuum.
I love the story Adam Grant tells in his book, Give and Take. He tells the story of one of the world’s greatest architects who went into isolation to continue his work. Before long, he had produced exactly zero work of any value. He immediately created an apprenticeship program and returned to a career of prolific and valuable creation.
This serves my point perfectly. Even the most talented and intelligent amongst us need the motivation that comes from great people. Find the people who will push you and invite them into your life and career. The Global Shapers, Young Entrepreneur Council, and mastermind groups are perfect outlets for this.
Give, Give, Give
If we choose to neglect the years from 16 – 19, I’ve almost always been a giver, through and through. It comes from my parents, who give and give of their time, energy, and love. Now, there’s evidence that being a giver is actually a valuable proposition, thanks to Adam Grant’s compilation of some of the best research on the subject in his book, Give and Take, which I mentioned earlier.
Here’s the basics of this. Young people who give freely of advice, time, energy, love, etc experience a period of income disparity with their peers early on in their careers. But as they learn to be strategic givers, avoiding the traps of takers over time, they actually reverse the income disparity in their own favor. That is to say, by giving generously you will at first earn less than your peers and then over time grow to earn quite a bit more.
This is incredibly evident in Kevin LaVelle’s story with Mizzen + Main. Kevin made the decision early on to create an internship program for military veterans because it was the right thing to do. As the program continues to grow, he finds that the vets work especially hard and display remarkable leadership skills, even under tight deadlines (which he attributes to the relative stress of a clothing company to the stress of war). Kevin is already seeing the dividends from his giving, even though that is not why he set out to create the program.
For you, that means you should pick up Grant’s book and then set out to build giving tendencies into your routine without any expectation of return. Again, it’s a ten-year strategy instead of a two-week strategy. Accept that and do it anyways.
Keep Your Eyes Peeled for the Thing You Want to Be Best in the World At
Along the way, as you build relationships and a performance portfolio, you’ll begin to learn about the things that really interest you. Eventually you’ll hone in on the thing you want to be the best in the world at. If I’ve learned anything from my peers at the Coke event and beyond, it’s that none of us will know what that thing is immediately.
That makes the first (or next) ten years largely a journey of faith. Faith in the fact that putting this framework to work will open up doors we never knew existed. Faith in the fact that investing in career capital, relationships, and ten-year decisions will help us build the life we’re proud of.
If you asked that crew what they want to be the best in the world at, I’m not sure any of them would relate their best in the world strategy to the exact work they do every day. Kevin may not say he wants to be the best shirt stitcher in the world. Peter might not say he wants to be the best beer delivery guy in the world (one of his implemented marketing strategies). Darrah might not say she wants to be the best in the world at knowing the difference between Equitable Payments and every other payment processor on the planet. Danny might not want to be the best in the world at maintaining his fleet of planes.
Each of these people likely want their companies to be the best in the world at each of the tasks I listed above. But for their specific careers, they would likely tell you something else. Perhaps Kevin wants to be the best in the world at starting a Made in the USA movement through the production of a physical good. Perhaps Darrah wants to provide the best customer service in the world through the delivery of financial services.
You get the point. Along the way, you’ll learn what you want to be the best in the world at. As you do, start transitioning your ten year plan towards that aspect of your career. Start new projects that help you become the best in the world. Give towards building that reality.
It’s all One Big Adventure: Think Holistically Rather than Life vs. Work
One thing I hear repeatedly from other young professionals is the desire to integrate life and work. As in, there is not life AND work, but simply life in which work is one aspect.
I think we need to continue fostering this view in order to build more fulfilling careers that allow us to have more freedom, make a bigger impact, and ultimately live on purpose. Towards that end, you’ve heard about the seven fulfillment factors from me before, but I think they’re worth revisiting:
- Faith & Spirit
- Money & Finances
- Health & Fitness
- Travel & Adventure
- Family & Friends
- Growth & Learning
As I look at the people who seem to be living their ideal lives, they appear to have the right balance of these seven factors according to their own preferences. They find a way to integrate them into one formula that is intertwined to create synergy between every aspect.
When they work out, they have more energy for career and family. When they take a ten-year approach to career, they end up with more financial independence and are able to travel more often. When they pursue new learning, they become better people at work and at home. When they focus on family, they are more energized at work and more likely to build up their spirit.
A quote from Richard Branson here is appropriate. He was asked how to be more productive, have more energy, be more successful, etc. His response: “I can achieve twice as much in a day by keeping fit.”
Life and work are not two entities existing within the same being. They are both parts of your one, precious life. By focusing intently on integrating the various aspects of your life, you can actually create more fulfillment in each given area than you could by simply focusing on one area alone.
The Moral of the Story
The nature of work in the new economy will never be the same as it was in the past. Embracing change will provide us with more opportunities for freedom, fulfillment, and impact than ever before. However, opportunities also come with the responsibility to take calculated risks as opposed to settling into the complacency of one lifetime career with one employer.
Opportunities will only grow with time, especially for those young professionals who are willing to take smart risks and invest in themselves during the first 10 years of their working lives.
** Mountain Photo: Mt. Shasta, Kevin, Dave, and Darcy by Darcy McCarty