I’ve gotten some great career advice over 35 years in the workforce.
I’ve also gotten the worst advice ever.
The best advice? “Make it happen.”
Over the past 35 years, I’ve been the lucky and grateful recipient of some excellent career advice.
- “Ride your strengths.” Bad bosses and career advisers will often tell you that, to succeed, you should “improve your weaknesses.” This is crap. Instead, you should improve your strengths — what you are naturally good at relative to others — and work your way into jobs and careers that take advantage of them. Jobs and careers are competitive. You need every edge you can get.
- “Be the CEO of your career.“ This is my summary of the advice I gleaned from a bunch of career books I read in the public library in my mid-20s when I was trying to figure out why I was lost and flailing and what I could do about it. It’s a reminder that there is only one person in charge of your career: You.
- “Kiss the ring.“ At one of my early jobs, I did a bad job. Worse, I blamed my boss! (How could he ask me to do such mindless, menial tasks? I went to Yale!). Not surprisingly, this led my boss to sit me down and tell me that I had a bad attitude. Well, I wanted to set my boss straight. But fortunately, before I did, a mentor gave me the wise advice above. It saved my job.
I’ve also gotten lousy career advice, including this:
- “Follow your bliss.”
The idea with this one is that, if you do what you love, the money will follow. Maybe that works for some people. It sure didn’t for me.
I can’t blame anyone for giving me that advice because I read it in an an interview with Joseph Campbell. Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence who dropped out of graduate school and spent five years reading mythology in a rented shack in the woods. Doing that, apparently, was Campbell’s “bliss.” For him, it led to an inspiring career.
My problem was that I didn’t know what my “bliss” was. I also had more pressing concerns — namely, the need to eat and pay rent. Also, as I began trying to find jobs, I realized that despite my Ivy League education, I didn’t really know how to do anything.
So better advice for me at that time would have been: Just get a job you think you might not hate, learn some skills, and go from there.
The best advice
The best career advice I ever got, meanwhile, came from one of my first bosses on Wall Street, an investment banker named Jonathan Morgan.
Jonathan’s advice — delivered as a command — was this:
“Make it happen.”
Jonathan would often say this after I pitched him some idea for how we could do something better.
What he meant was:
“That sounds like a fine idea. But ideas are a dime a dozen — what matters is execution. I’m busy, and I don’t have a bunch of minions hanging around waiting to do stuff. So if you want that idea to become reality, well, make it happen.”
Like “be the CEO of your career,” this advice reminded me that, if I wanted to make positive changes in the world — in my job, my career, my company, my community, or my life — no one was going to make them happen but me.
This advice was empowering. It gave me the freedom to figure out and do what needed to be done. It was also sobering. Because it placed the responsibility for doing it where it belonged — with me.
Want to change your job, career, life, community, or world for the better?
Make it happen.