2020 heralds the start of a new year and decade. Such milestones naturally give rise to reflection, and I’ve been more than usually contemplative as we launch into the twenties. I think back to when I started full-time work after completing university – wide-eyed, a little idealistic, and eager to make a difference in the world.
The world has changed so much, even in the 20 years since I started in the workforce. These days we can expect to have as many as 17 jobs across five separate careers during our working lives. But in thinking about what advice I’d give my younger, enthusiastic self, I realised that some truths are universal and evergreen.
One: Ask not what people can do for you – but what you can do for others.
Look for ways to add value beyond your job description. I remember a somewhat awkward interaction at the beginning of my working life.
I’d finished my assigned work, so approached my boss and said, “I’ve got nothing on for the rest of the day, so I’m in your hands.” The look on her face told me I’d chosen my words poorly!
Once we cleared up the misunderstanding, she realised that I was interested in helping the organisation as a whole, not just taking care of my patch and collecting a paycheck. And remember, a bit of humility goes a long way. Don’t dictate; asking what, where, and how we can help shows others that we support their vision and mission – it’s not all about us!
When we look for opportunities to help, we open ourselves up for more significant assignments.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” – Arthur Ashe
Two: You don’t have to have all the answers to give it a go!
Along with being willing to help where needed and as needed, is a ‘can do’ attitude. Again, a little humility goes a long way. Giving things a go when we don’t feel qualified should be a natural part of our development – in every area of life.
Read any biography of successful people, in every walk of life, and you’ll discover that they have learned how to embrace learning as a pathway to that success. Failure is a stepping stone, not an inglorious end. Sure, you can go through life only taking opportunities that you feel completely prepared for, but you’ll end up living a life of safe mediocrity.
“I always did something I was a little not ready to do. I think that’s how you grow. When there’s that moment of, ‘Wow, I’m not really sure I can do this,’ and you push through those moments, that’s when you have a breakthrough.” – Marissa Mayer
Three: Learn to recognise opportunities
Opportunities can come in the most unlikely of ways and the most surprising of packages. Learning to recognise opportunities, not simply for promotion, but to help others is a skill well worth developing.
A few Friday’s ago, I encountered one of those opportunities I’ve learnt to welcome. It started with a call from the vice principal of my daughter’s school.
“Everything’s fine; I just want to let you know that your daughter is doing a presentation during assembly today and she wanted you to know.”
My daughter often presents during assembly, and we usually find out after the event, so this was obviously a special occasion. Picking up on the less than subtle cues, I caught the train from the city in the middle of the afternoon. Of course, it was stopping all stations! I stood next to a lady talking very loudly on her phone about possibly having gastro, so I moved hastily to the other end of the carriage and sat down.
And wouldn’t you know it; sitting there was a guy I’d been emailing for a few days with no response.
“Hey, how are you doing?” I asked.
“Oh hi! I’m so sorry I haven’t responded to your emails. I’ve been busy but really wanted to get back to you.” came the slightly startled reply.
I confess – I was a little sceptical at his response. But then we proceeded to have a great conversation. It turned out that he only caught that particular train to meet up with his son, who was returning from school camp.
It that’s not an opportunity for a follow-up – I don’t know what is! Don’t underestimate these moments – you don’t know what can come of them! Lean into the opportunity to connect with others. There are many times during my career when I’ve failed to recognise opportunities because they didn’t come in the expected packaging.
“If you are not willing to risk the usual, you will have to settle for the ordinary.” – Jim Rohn
Four: Hold everything lightly
You can’t control everything. Sounds like the bleeding obvious, but you’d be surprised at how often I’ve encountered this as a leadership coach.
The paradox is that the more we try to control; the more things slip through our fingers. It particularly applies during periods of organisational change. Those who hold too tight, trying to protect their patch – are usually the first to go.
Why? Because they aren’t open to opportunities. They’re left out of conversations because their mindset is on survival, a fundamentally adversarial position in a climate of transition.
I’ve been in this position and can attest to the initial fear-driven instinct to hold on to my job through control. Fear is a powerful and ultimately destructive motivator. I fought that primal urge and chose to find out how I could help – even though my job was on the chopping block.
What happened? Promotion and new opportunities. It’s become my mantra – how can I help? What’s the value add I can bring? This approach has opened up way more doors than it’s shut!
“Challenges are gifts that force us to search for a new center of gravity. Don’t fight them. Just find a new way to stand.” – Oprah Winfrey
We have one life to live. It comes with opportunities and challenges that we can embrace and learn from or be defeated – it’s our choice.
Look for ways to help, recognise opportunities, accept that you don’t know it all, and learn to hold all things lightly – these are the lessons I would share with the young me.
What would you say to your younger self?
“Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson