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Three Tips For Early Career Success From Max Salk

Most millennials know that it’s more difficult to be a recent graduate these days than it was when our parents were growing up. No matter what you studied in college, landing a decent job once you graduate can take months or years, and many people find that they’re barely making ends meet at the start of their careers. Millennials also tend to jump from job to job much more frequently than people from older generations. While our parents’ and grandparents’ generations often scoff at the lack of commitment that they perceive in younger generations, the reality is far more bleak.

Millennials have to deal with an array of challenges that weren’t present when our parents were in their 20s and 30s and the economy was booming. High turnover rates at trendy tech companies, dreadfully low salaries and chronic undervaluing of employees, and extreme political and economic unrest are just a few of the reasons that finding and keeping a job as a young adult is so difficult for so many these days. Also, the millennial generation, as a whole, tends to value individuality and authenticity very highly, which leads to many people finding it difficult to settle until they’ve found a job that they truly enjoy.

Max Salk graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a degree in finance and a minor in history in 2011. Although he discovered his passion for financial markets near the end of college, he wasted no time in building the career he wanted upon graduation. He worked at Morningstar and then PPM, which helped him gain valuable experience and furthered his interest in finance. He is now a vice president and U.S. credit research analyst at Blackstone.

Because he launched his dream career at such a young age, he is uniquely placed to give advice to others of his generation who are just starting out in their careers and trying to balance the need to make a living and the desire to enjoy the work they do.

1. Find Your Passion.

No matter how much money you make, you’ll never be satisfied with your life if you have to do work that you hate every day. Even if you’re somewhat neutral on your job or field, that’s still not a reliable way to maintain long-term happiness. On top of that, it can be much more difficult to maintain a successful career without an inherent passion for your job. Once you determine a potential area of interest, Salk recommends testing your skills and interest in that area as soon as possible.

If you’re still in school, enroll in elective classes that align with your career interests, and don’t be afraid to test out a few subjects that you might not have considered before. These classes will allow you to dip your toe into these potential interests without too much risk. If you’re in your final years of college, try to land an internship in a field of interest. This will allow you to determine whether that passion translates into an actual job and allow you time to change your path, even if only marginally, before you graduate. This method allows you to avoid feeling trapped in a field about which you’re not passionate down the line.

In Salk’s case, he developed an interest in investment management during college and then pursued the subject before committing his entire education and subsequent career to it. Not only did these early experiences allow him to further foster his interest in the subject, but they also paved the way for his professional success.

2. Focus on Experience as Much as Education.

Modern professional culture, especially in the United States, focuses heavily on the importance of education. While education is important for success in many fields, it’s not the only important thing; it’s just as important to gain experience in your chosen field. Many people find that they graduate and are unable to land a job in their chosen field because, despite their exemplary education, they don’t have any viable experience.

Remember that knowledge gained from sitting through years of lectures can only get you so far. At the end of the day, the only way to gain many of the skills that are important for carrying out day-to-day professional duties is through hands-on experience. This is another reason that internships are so important. Plus, they make it easier to narrow down your interests and figure out exactly what you want to do once you graduate.

3. Choose Wisely, But Stay Flexible.

As important as it is to gain as much experience as possible and test out a variety of possible career options, it’s also important to make sure that those early experiences – be they classes, internships, or summer jobs – align with your interests and career goals. Although your internships and early jobs, perhaps even shortly after graduation, might not qualify as your “dream job,” they’ll usually still provide you with valuable experience that you can leverage once you do land your dream job. Try to build meaningful experiences that could act as stepping stones to your final destination.

Salk’s first position after graduation is a great example of this approach. Although his first financial role at Chicago’s Morningstar wasn’t exactly the job he wanted to do for the rest of his life, he focused on improving the soft skills that would later set him apart as a candidate for his current role at Blackstone.

Also, remember that life rarely turns out exactly how you expect it to, and often, that’s for the best. Salk says that he “never really thought about or planned to move to New York from Chicago before the opportunity with Blackstone arose about five years ago.” But he took a chance and now finds himself in a job he really enjoys with a great company, which never would have happened if he hadn’t pushed aside the inevitable fear of the unknown that comes with taking a leap.

“I took a chance and moved outside my comfort zone in order to accept the role and change cities. I am extremely grateful that I was given the opportunity and made the move because I think it has been valuable for both my career and personal life,” he says.

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