July 24, 2009

The "Rule Breakers" Career Guide

The is an interview from the new BNET blog, Entry-Level Rebel. Enjoy...

Tina, what’s one widely held belief about career progress that you think young people would do well to disregard?

Most young people believe that their career path should progress at a predictable rate, with ever increasing responsibilities and compensation. That usually isn’t — and shouldn’t be — the case. I like the analogy that Carol Bartz, CEO of Yahoo!, used when she spoke at Stanford a few years ago. She said that you should look at the progress of your career as moving around and up a three dimensional pyramid as opposed to up a two dimensional ladder. Lateral moves along the side of the pyramid allow you to build a base of experience. It may not look as though you are moving up quickly, but you are gaining a foundation of skills, experience, and contacts that will prove extremely valuable later. Additionally, there are often times when you slide backward. Don’t despair: Your recovery after a failure often propels you forward more quickly than if you stayed on a linear, predictable path.

What advice would you give to a young person who has discovered that what they studied, or what they thought they wanted to do, isn’t really for them? How should they approach shifting direction?

It is both exciting and scary to make right angle turns in your career. The good news is that you continue to build your base of experience as you shift between different disciplines. I started out as a neuroscientist and assumed that I would build a career doing research. I soon learned that I was not cut out for a career behind a lab bench. During my job search I ended up getting an informational interview with a management consulting firm. My hope was that they would introduce me to some of their life-science clients. When I walked in the room I was asked how a background in neuroscience prepared me for a job in consulting. I could have told them the truth — that I hadn’t considered a job as a consultant — but decided to wing it. I outlined all the similarities between management consulting and brain research … and was offered a job later that day! I have learned again and again that the core skills needed to be successful are consistent between fields and that the more you polish those basic skills — such as communication, leadership, analysis, and creative problem-solving — the more successful you will be.

Any suggestions for young people who don’t know what they want to do or what their true passion is?

I have heard this from many young people. I believe that it is really hard to find your passions when you have always followed “the rules.” That is, when you have been programmed to do exactly what others want you to so. It makes sense that after years of responding to what others expect, that you have no idea what really drives you. This happened to me, too. In fact, I was so frustrated by always doing what others wanted me to do that soon after I started graduate school, I chose to take some time off…. I moved across the country to Santa Cruz, California, and decided to be a leaf in the wind for a while. My family was shocked and disappointed. But, in retrospect, it was one of the best things I have ever done. I was finally able to see what I wanted to do when I got up in the morning. I was able to uncover my own skills and interests. And, I was able to experiment with new things that weren’t on the prescribed path. By giving myself the space to figure out what I was passionate about, I became internally motivated — as opposed to externally motivated — and have never looked back.

What’s one practical thing the low man (or woman) on the office totem pole can do at work tomorrow to make their lives easier or better?

When you get to the office tomorrow, take a few minutes to figure out what you can do to make other people successful. Ask someone what you can do for them? It is easy to do and pays off a hundred times over. By making other people successful, you inspire them to want to make you succeed. You never know when you will need a small — or big — favor, and by paving the way by helping others, it is much more likely that others will help you when you need it most.

Your latest book is entitled What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World. So the inevitable question: if you could go back and give your 20-year-old self just one piece of advice, what would it be?

I would tell myself that the uncertainty of life never goes away. There are always choices in front of you, challenges to overcome, and failures from which you need to recover. If you embrace the challenges and view them through the lens of possibilities, then you will not only be happier, but will be much more likely to turn the inevitable obstacles into opportunities. The world is always changing, and it is up to you to be flexible and optimistic. With a positive attitude and creative thinking, most problems can be viewed as opportunities in disguise.