By Ben Carpenter, author of “The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live A Happy Life“
An innocent question from my daughter — “Is this okay to send?” — was all it took to convince me that today’s young people are woefully unprepared for a harsh work world. Those five fateful words were the subject line of an email Avery sent me after getting her first “real” post-college job offer with a network daytime TV talk show (a stepping stone to her dream career). Until I stopped her, Avery was about to ask her new boss for a later start date so she’d have more time to “tie up loose ends” (i.e., move out of her parents’ home and into her own apartment).
This was when I realized that while Avery had received a top-notch academic education, she had no clue how the working world actually, well, worked. And it occurred to me that Avery probably wasn’t the only one. Through no fault of their own, most recent college graduates and young professionals are naïve about the realities of the real world.
Maybe this has always been true of inexperienced workers. The difference is that my daughter and her peers must navigate the “big leagues” in an economy as unforgiving as any in history. Still struggling to emerge from the long shadow of the Great Recession, today’s job market is incredibly tough and exhausting. (Around 40 percent of recent college graduates are underemployed.) And once they have secured a position, most are caught unawares by the demanding and often cutthroat environment in which they find themselves.
I learned a lot of lessons because I made a lot of mistakes, and watched others make even more. Conventional advice is easy to come by, but it’s the same advice everyone else is getting. You may not like hearing everything I have to say — in fact, some of it may fly in the face of what you wish were true — but it will help you get ahead in the real world.
Here are 22 bite-sized pieces of advice that will help any employee, regardless of age, experience level, or industry, survive (and even have fun) in the big leagues:
1. Do what you’re good at, not what you love.
Much of the career advice that’s doled out these days encourages young people to “follow their dreams” and “feed their passion.” Doing what makes you happy is all well and good, but first and foremost you should seek out a career that you’re good at.
Choosing a career you can do well, rather than one that seems fun and exciting, might sound unappealing — but it isn’t. The satisfaction you get from doing your job well will far outweigh how entertaining it is. Plus, think about how unhappy you’d be if your heart’s desire failed to pay the bills. From personal experience, as well as from observing family, friends, and coworkers, I can state that most professionals are happiest doing what they are good at, while pursuing other passions — that their careers give them the means to finance — on the side.
2. Try out different fields when you’re young.
For most people, it generally takes at least a few tries to find the best field, company, and/or position from which to build a career. And your rookie years — when you’re young and before you have children — are the ideal time to aggressively seek out the best match for your personality and talents.
All of my major career moves occurred before my wife and I had children. They were relatively easy, because I didn’t have to worry about uprooting my entire family, and financial concerns weren’t as pressing. I compare this to my friend Blue, who really struggled with the decision to pursue a promising opportunity because he was concerned about caring for his children. Blue’s decision would have been much easier if he’d moved earlier.
Of course, all of this comes with the caveat that you should not leave one job — even if you’re unhappy with it — before you have another paying job lined up.
3. Always ask yourself, What’s my edge?
In other words, what makes you unique and different? Why should other people pay attention to you? What do you have to offer? What gives you an edge over the competition?
This is a great question to ask yourself in a multitude of professional scenarios. If you’re starting a business, it can help you to define your product or service’s niche. If you’re going after a promotion, it can help differentiate you from your coworkers. In all situations, it will help you define how you can become your personal best.
4. Think of your boss and your company before yourself.
This principle was the driving force behind my insistence that my daughter not ask her new boss for a later start date, and it extends well beyond the first day of work. When you’re a rookie in the big leagues, you have to prove that you’re going to be an asset to the team, not a drain on its resources or a liability for the coach. Often, that means putting your boss’s wants and needs ahead of your own.
For instance, it’s a good idea to: show up before your boss and leave after she does… schedule personal appointments after business hours… work six months before you take vacation days… respond to phone calls and emails ASAP, even at night, on the weekends, during vacations.
I get that many of these things don’t sound like your idea of fun. You might even think some of them are ‘unfair.’ But remember — it’s your job to make your boss’s life easier, not the other way around. Everyone has to start at the bottom and work their way up. And when you show that you’re willing to sacrifice your own interests for the good of the team, you’ll have gotten a huge head start on being named Rookie of the Year.
5. Be creative and bold.
Long gone are the days of being handed a job just because you have a diploma. There are millions of job seekers with the same qualifications as you, so if you want to receive one of a limited number of opportunities, you’ll need to stand out.
Instead of sending out a résumé that will probably get lost in HR Purgatory, stand outside Company XYZ’s offices with a cardboard sign that reads, ‘Please let me tell you why I’m the person you want to fill the junior systems analyst position you posted on Monster.com. Or take a page from a friend of mine’s book: After identifying her dream job, she walked right into the ‘big boss’s’ office, handed him her résumé, and told him she’d call him later that afternoon.
My point is, the tougher the situation, the less you have to lose — so the more radical your actions should be. The worst that can happen is that you don’t get the job.
6. Comfort and success rarely go hand in hand.
In my book I wrote about liking and respecting my first real boss, “The Professor,” (so named for his resemblance to the Professor on Gilligan’s Island) tremendously. However, the more I learned while at the job, the more determined I became to move on. While The Professor was a great teacher and salesman, he wasn’t fully engaged in his career. And none of his other colleagues seemed very “amped up” about their jobs, either.
The tipping point came when I was reprimanded because of entertainment expenses, not because he was spending too much but because he was spending too little. The Professor was concerned their department would have its entertainment budget cut if I didn’t “shape up” quickly. That’s when I realized that along with most other people in the department, The Professor’s number-one goal was to milk his career, not maximize it.
I realized that if I stayed in this position, I might be comfortable, but I’d always be stuck in a professional backwater. I made the difficult choice to leave this cushy environment for a higher-stakes opportunity. At some point, you too will have to decide which is more important: sticking with the familiarity of the status quo or taking a chance on reaching the next rung of the ladder. Opportunity won’t find you within your comfort zone.
7. Stay in the driver’s seat of your career.
After making the decision to leave the safety of The Professor’s nest, I was told by my employer’s HR department that sure, I could transfer to a new department — but first, I’d have to stick with his current job for three more years! My response? “I will give you two months to help me get transferred; then I am going to start interviewing elsewhere.”
A few weeks later, I was taking the subway to my new position in the department I’d asked to be transferred to. I was glad that my unorthodox tactic paid off, but I was fully prepared for it not to— I really would have been interviewing elsewhere two months later! Remember, life is short, and the same opportunities rarely come twice. Don’t agree to just ‘go along for the ride,’ especially when your own goals and potential for success are at stake. Take an active hand in charting your course forward.
8. Don’t agree to anything you don’t fully understand.
Once you do have your foot in the door, you’ll likely want to impress your colleagues and higher-ups at every turn. And in an attempt to avoid looking like you don’t know what you’re doing, you may be tempted to feign understanding and nod your head, even though you really have no clue what’s going on. Don’t.
Early in my career, a client bullied me into saying ‘yes’ to a request I didn’t understand — and it cost my employer $25,000. While covering up your own ignorance might not come with such a steep price tag, it’s still something you should avoid at all costs. Your integrity, credibility, and reputation — and possibly your job! — are all at stake. It’s always better to swallow your pride and say, ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t understand. I need you to explain.’ Oh — and that’s just as applicable in your personal dealings as it is in your career.
9. When you’re upset, choose to look forward, not back.
You can’t always control what happens to you, but you can control how you react and move forward.
Maybe you’ve been handed an undesirable task at work, been blamed for your boss’s mistake, or been interrupted by an overzealous colleague during a client meeting for the thousandth time. Sure, you can choose to focus on your anger and irritation for hours, or even days. But that doesn’t do you a bit of good. Instead, resolve to channel your thoughts and efforts toward playing the hand you’ve been dealt in a way that will benefit you the most.
10. Learn to appreciate diverse work styles.
In life and in work, we all tend to gravitate toward others who think like us and who see the world through a similar lens. If you don’t push yourself past the familiar, though, you’ll be severely limiting yourself.
Yes, it can be difficult, uncomfortable, and downright frustrating to work with people who take a different approach from you. For example, maybe you’re a Type A personality who is totally frustrated by your coworker’s seat-of-her-pants approach to projects. Remember, though, by shutting her out you’ll also deprive yourself of her creative solutions and outside-the-box insights.
No matter what the situation is, always try to seek out and utilize your team’s talents, even if you don’t understand their methods. You can never be sure you have the best answer until you’ve heard all viewpoints.
11. Know when to overlook selfish advice.
In “The Bigs” I shared how my boss’s boss, Mack, reacted when I announced his intention to resign my position and move to another company: “After gliding confidently around the ring a few times, he settled on a plan of attack and started swinging — not wildly, but with deliberate and measured blows. A right jab, ‘you’re making a huge mistake’… a left jab, ‘that firm is too small’… setting me up for a right uppercut,‘you will regret this.’ For 10 minutes Mack worked me over the best he could.
If I’d been a newbie, I might have believed that Mack really did have my best interests in mind. Fortunately, I was six years into my career and had already changed jobs twice, so this Mack Attack didn’t faze me. I knew that Mack didn’t care about me or what was best for my career; he was working toward the best interests of the company.
I certainly don’t hold that against Mack, but the incident did serve as an important lesson: Look after your own career interests. Nobody else is going to do it for you.
12. Own your mistakes.
No matter how much you know or how hard you try, you are going to make mistakes as you pursue your career. The question is, how will you handle them? I caution you not to follow in the footsteps of a former coworker I refer to as “Never,” who never took responsibility for any mistakes and never apologized for anything.
Never was actually very good at what she did, but her insistence on passing the blame and refusing to admit her errors cost her all of the respect, support, and goodwill she could have earned. Here’s the lesson: Refusing to own your mistakes doesn’t make you seem more competent; it reveals cowardice, callousness, and untrustworthiness.
I promise, if you’re a hardworking, valued employee, when you do own up to your mistakes, your confession will be viewed as a sign of strength, not weakness, by your coworkers. Plus, you’ll be in a position to learn and improve.
13. Be a good steward of the “little” things.
For example, always proofread your emails for errors before pressing “send.” Don’t leave voicemails unanswered at the end of the day. Keep your desk and computer files organized. Call your clients to share progress, even when a report isn’t required.
Most people don’t think much of letting the so-called ‘little things’ slide. They think it’s okay to cut ‘unimportant’ corners. So when you pay attention to small, often-overlooked details, you’ll distinguish yourself from the pack. Trust me, putting in just a little more work than most people are willing to is a great way to propel yourself toward success.
14. If you want to be a leader, act like one.
If your goal is to be at the forefront of your field’s innovation and growth, you may feel discouraged when your first job is composed of tasks a trained monkey could do. But don’t succumb to the I’ll never get there from here or the What I do in this position doesn’t matter line of thinking. Instead, get a head start developing the leadership qualities you’ll need in the future.
The best way to move up in the ranks is to lead in whatever position you’re in now. Even if you’re the lowest man or woman on the totem pole, you can still display leadership qualities like having integrity and a good attitude, providing others with helpful feedback, and treating them with respect. The fact is, very few employees consistently show leadership skills. If you’re the exception from day one, the Powers That Be will notice.
15. Do what you say you’re going to do, when you say you’re going to do it.
One basic requirement for doing an outstanding job is to handle all your work-related tasks, large or small, in a timely manner. If your job is to get a report done by Friday, get it done by Friday. If HR asks you to fill out a form today, do it promptly.
Yes, meeting deadlines sounds like a no-brainer. But you’d be surprised by how many professionals don’t live by this rule. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been handed excuses and requests for extensions instead of the finished product. But I can tell you that that type of behavior is not going to do you any favors in the workplace.
16. Don’t let anyone have anything negative to say about you.
Over the course of your career, you’ll encounter individuals whose opinions you think don’t matter, and whose actions you think won’t impact you. You may also believe that your own position gives you license to dispense with politeness and consideration in certain situations. Beware: Those assumptions could get you into big trouble. In many companies, for example, the most hated people are the assistants who treat people in a high-handed way because they work for the boss.
It is important that everyone you come in contact with has a positive experience with you. Even if someone is a pest, rude, or stupid, always treat him respectfully. One day you may be working with, or for, that person. Also, bear in mind how your boss views you will be heavily influenced by what people in the company tell her.
17 . Don’t complain about your job to your coworkers.
There will be plenty of things you don’t like about your first (and second, and fifth) job. But complaining about them around the water cooler — even if you have a very sympathetic audience — is never a good idea.
If your comments get back to your boss, she will think your behavior is unprofessional. Moreover, she’ll wonder why you didn’t talk to her directly. Anytime you’re unhappy with something at work, whether it’s your workload, the tasks you’re being given, or how you’re being treated by a coworker, bring them directly to your supervisor. If you feel that isn’t possible, continue to do the best job you can while looking for a more suitable position.
18. A single act can ruin your great reputation.
In “The Bigs” I tell the story of a client called “Hoops.” Friendly and accommodating, Hoops taught me a lot about the bond market and achieved an impressive level of personal success. However, one bad decision — not disclosing a sales arrangement to his firm — knocked him out of the game forever. What might have been a negotiated discount was now an illegal kickback. Hoops never recovered.
It takes a lifetime to build a reputation, but a single act can destroy it. Most mistakes can be corrected and don’t do lasting damage to a person’s reputation or career. However, some things cannot be undone, and, unfortunately for Hoops, his transgression was one of those. Don’t play fast and loose with your reputation. Don’t assume that ‘it will never happen to you.’ Don’t do anything you would be embarrassed to see as a headline on the evening news!”
19. Don’t pick fights you can’t win.
Fighting in the office is a bad idea, period. It makes people unhappy and unproductive, and is a huge waste of time and energy. Nevertheless, serious office disputes are a fact of life for many people at some point during their careers. If you ever feel the pressing need to take on a coworker, do so only if you know with certainty you will win.
While I was the CEO of my firm, an employee I’ll call Mr. Nuts began bragging to his coworkers that he soon expected to have my job! Now, Mr. Nuts had a sledgehammer way of dealing with people and the bad reputation that comes along with it. I had tried to coach him on how better to deal with others, but the lessons never seemed to take. So, when I found out he had turned on his one supporter — me! — I couldn’t believe it. The next workday was Mr. Nuts’s last day at that company.
I still shake my head in amazement that this man thought he could pick a fight with a CEO and get away with it. Admittedly, that’s an extreme example, but you can take this lesson away from it: Don’t do anything to purposefully antagonize someone who has the power to influence the direction of your career.
20. Don’t badmouth your coworkers.
This is my personal golden rule for business: Never say anything negative about anybody in your office. That’s right. Don’t vent about your boss in the break room. Don’t gripe about your coworker with the rest of the team. Don’t even make fun of John’s crazy tie, unless he’s right there laughing with you.
These comments have a way of getting back to the people they’re about. One of the things I’m most ashamed of in my career is badmouthing a colleague for no good reason. The things I said had a negative effect on our working relationship for years, until I finally reached out with a heartfelt apology. And guess what? Even if the other person never becomes aware of what you said, your colleagues will still make judgments about your character based on your willingness to bash someone else behind his or her back.
21. Live within your means.
Maybe you think that your personal finances (whether they’re good or bad) won’t impact your life in the workplace. That’s wishful thinking, especially if you’re struggling to stay solvent. It can be difficult to check personal stressors at the office door, meaning that if you’re worried about money, your anxiety might impact your focus, your performance, and even the values you apply to your work.
The easiest path to achieving financial security, or at least reducing financial stress, is to discipline your spending habits. Specifically, if there’s any way you can help it, don’t spend more than you earn. If you don’t yet make a lot of money, don’t acquire a taste for expensive things. I promise you will be happier in a small apartment, driving an older car, drinking cheap wine than you will be in a big apartment, driving a fancy car, drinking expensive wine, and having to worry about how to pay for it all.
22. Don’t forget to have fun.
If you want to succeed, you’ll need to put your nose to the grindstone. Just don’t forget to remove it every once in awhile.
I mean it! While work should certainly be a priority, it’s also important to have fun and disengage every once in awhile. The fuller and more satisfying your life is in general, the more effective you’ll be at work. Plus, part of living a happy life is having friends and family to share it with.
Make no mistake: When you become responsible for yourself and you are being paid to do a job, you are in the big leagues. Sure, many of the rules are unofficial, and you’ll find that many of your peers don’t pay much attention to them, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t important.
In fact, I can guarantee that the rules I’ve shared will work for you precisely because most people don’t think they’re important! When you live and work by a code that’s shaped by values, integrity, dedication, and a true team spirit, you will set yourself apart from the rookies in a way that gets you hired, recognized, and promoted.
Ben Carpenter is the vice chairman of CRT Capital Group, a 300-person institutional broker-dealer located in Stamford, CT. He is also the author of “The Bigs: The Secrets Nobody Tells Students and Young Professionals About How to Find a Great Job, Do a Great Job, Be a Leader, Start a Business, Stay Out of Trouble, and Live A Happy Life“.