(as originally published in inc. magazine)
I recently received an invitation to deliver a speech to a conference full of young adults. The topic: ‘Preparing for Professional Life’.
This struck me as patently vague, but interesting and in my wheelhouse, considering some of my recent work on career management.
I hopped on the horn with the event planner to see if she might help me tighten up my slippery grip on the topic.
“Happily.” She said. “Specifically, we’re looking for someone to give them a point of view as to what matters most… as they prepare for professional life.”
Me (now awash in twice the ambiguity): “…”
Her: “It is of course a paid speaking engagement.”
I said what any self-respecting entrepreneur would: “Happy to help.”
1. Follow the Money
“If there’s a steady paycheck in it, I’ll believe anything you say.”
~Winston Zeddemore (Ghostbusters)
1994: As the first person in my family to attend college, I was light on rich uncles to help me ‘prepare for professional life’. Working class kids like me were relegated to the freshman guidance counselor, a public defender of sorts.
“I’m good at math and science, but I really love the humanities. I’m conflicted.” I confessed.
The counselor nodded appreciatively. “Well, our engineering undergrads typically start at $45k. Our humanities majors typically go to grad school, which costs about $45k.”
This sounded less than awesome.
Seeing my scowl, she offered: “I’d also add that it’s easier to drop out of engineering than into it.”
And so began my first semester as an electrical engineer.
Exercise: Figure out what the world wants. What the market demands. Google up a list of today’s most lucrative professions, or better still, some research on tomorrow’s emerging global needs. Here’s a quick, off-the-cuff list I threw together:
2. Follow Your Interests
“Pleasure in the job puts perfection in the work”
Clearly, good old Ari must’ve gotten a look at my lousy engineering grades.
Looking back, my freshman year flame-out should have been obvious: I simply couldn’t get excited enough about the material to really give a rip. Worse, the 200 other students in my freshman physics class who did appear engaged left me feeling alone to boot.
My calculus professor, looking to put fire in our jets, said: “Look to the student on your left and your right. Odds are, neither of them will be here next semester.” Not one to question a mathematician’s mastery of probabilities, I promptly dropped into the College of Arts & Letters and never looked back.
Interests Exercise: What are you pumped about? What fires you up? Make a quick list of activities, hobbies, or topics that you tend to seek out in your free time. Things that you’d spend time on even if you weren’t paid to. Here are some of mine:
3. Follow Your Skills
“Whatever you are, be a good one.” ~William Thackeray
1997: My liberal arts education was everything I’d hoped for, but it wasn’t exactly raining anthropology jobs. Most of the decent-paying gigs were strictly limited to Finance, Accounting, and (of course) Engineering majors. I felt stuck. And guilty.
Then there was something called Consulting. They’d interview anybody. What’s their deal?
“Consultants help other companies.” said my friend Mark, himself a biology and theology major who’d had an IT consulting interview that morning.
“I like to be helpful.” I offered. “Do they need anthropologists? Economists? Philosophers?”
“Uh maybe… They say they’re looking for a certain kind of thinker as opposed to any one major.”
“I’m a certain kind of thinker!” I said, as I raced out the door to the campus barbershop to begin the process of aggressively selling out.
Those interviews with BigTime Consulting were amazing. As far as I could tell, they were looking for two totally unrelated bags of skills:
1. Smooth Talkers
I explained to several bemused interviewers that I was, in fact, the smoothest geek on campus. I told vivid tales of co-founding a popular campus rock band (smooth!) that played songs about the Commodore 64 personal home computer (geek!). Of having proactively mastered the accordion (geek!) to impress my Polish-American girlfriend and her family (smooth!). Of my forays into self-taught web development in the campus computer cluster between hosting Doom II LAN parties.
I was convinced the executives were passing me through the process on a dare. (e.g., “Jane: I put accordion guy in your queue for grins and giggles. Cheers, Brad”)
To my surprise and delight, I was not only hired, but ultimately found “my people” in a technology innovation group that proved an unlikely home for both my STEM skills and my creative/liberal arts mojo.
Skills Exercise: Momentarily suspend your humility: What sets you apart? What are you complimented on? What comes most naturally? These are your superpowers. List them out. Here are some of mine:
4. Follow Your Values
“If everyone acted the way you do, would the world be a better place?” ~Chuck Templeton
I’d been a consultant for 12 years when a former client gave me a call out of the blue.
Client: “Mike. Remember that technology strategy your team created for us 2 years ago?”
Me (Cautiously): “Oh… Yes?”
Client: “Well great news: We’re on step 7 of 10 and it’s all working out wonderfully!”
Me (Confidently): “Oh… Yes!”
Client: “If you recall, step 8 was to hire a Chief Technology Officer! Can we discuss?”
Me (Curiously): “Oh… Yes?”
And so began my unlikely 2 years with a mission-driven nonprofit focused on early childhood education. My mission: Drag their dated tech kicking and screaming out of 1995 and into the present. A stark contrast from my days helping leading Fortune 50 firms pull even further ahead.
The tech itself might not have been terribly interesting, but the applications proved riveting; Seeing the engaged eyes of 4 year old inner city students using webcams for the first time to connect to a bigger world of teachers and classmates across the country: That was profoundly fulfilling in a way that corporate consulting could never be.
I’d never really spent much time thinking about my personal core values up to that point. Too often, we default to what our culture, media, school, or friends value. My time at a not-for-profit helped me realize how deeply I care about young children, neuroscience, and access to quality education, to name just a few.
Values Exercise: List out some activities, disciplines, or pursuits that you believe make the world a better place. Here are some of mine:
Putting it All Together
By now you’ve probably gotten the idea. Any of this “Follow This, Follow That” advice, (whether from rich uncles, guidance counselors, spouses, or the voice in your head) are less-than-useful when followed a la carte. In my experience, the magic happens when you work at something that fills all four buckets at once.
So in telling those students ‘What Matters Most… in Preparing for Professional Life’, I closed my speech as simply as I could:
“Work at the intersection of your skills, your interests, your personal values, and the world’s values ($). If you’re missing any one of these four, you’re going to have a bad time.”
Final Exercise: Look for commonalities across all four of your lists. Does anything show up everywhere?
If so: Congratulations! You’re well on your way to finding your professional purpose.
Not quite? No worries. Part of the satisfaction comes in the striving. The commitment to broadening your interests by exposing yourself to new experiences. The commitment to developing and improving your skills. The discovery of a new market niche. The maturation of your personal values. Heck: I’ve been thinking about this stuff for nearly 40 years, and I’ve only recently completed my first draft: