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Sunday, December 5, 2021

Lesson 2 for Mentees from a Seasoned Career-Changer (a series)

In this second lesson in my series of 'career-advice-I-wish-I-could-give-myself-30-years-ago', I treat two more popular career platitudes to my own irreverent perspective and take a shot at some of the most common excuses people use for not pursuing the career they wish they had.

Lesson 2 - more platitudes and a kick in the pants

I'm a big fan of having goals in mind. Having said that, while you can plan your next move, please don't even bother to pretend you can 'plan your career'. Okay some people make it look like you can (see my friend Larry from Lesson 1) but really all he did was set himself a goal, plan his 'next move' coming out of graduate school and - voila - that resulted in him having met his goal and determined his entire career (but that's also only true because 30 years later he wakes up every day and still wants it more than any other career). You don't have a magic periscope which allows you to see around the next corner let alone into the next decade so don't pretend you can plan for it or that your future self would even be happy with you if you could and did. What you should have a good sense of, however, is what you want now, what you want next, and what kinds of skills and experience would help get you there. 
    All good things come to those who wait (but not for those who wait around)

Please don't wish for your dream job to be handed to you out of school. You don't deserve it, you haven't earned it and 99 times out of 100 you'll suck at it. If you're still in school, the first thing you'll learn when you get into your first job is that you learned almost nothing worth knowing in school. Don't get me wrong. I'm a huge proponent of school. It's one of the most critical things you'll do but it certainly isn't the most important and definitely not the most educational. What it does give you, hopefully - aside from that door-opener degree you need - is a way to process information, a way of looking at things, a lens, and some basic tools. You'll walk into that first job and realize you have to learn almost everything immediately critical to surviving the job - none of which you were given in school. So... patience my young Obi-Wan Kenobi. You too shall learn from the masters and be handed the keys when you've earned them. Work hard. Listen harder. Plan a little. Execute a lot. And bide your time.

Patience is a funny thing. On the one hand, it is a virtue. Pushing things to happen your way on your timing almost never works out as well letting things evolve more organically. In part this is because people are way more accepting and supportive of things which they consider to be - at least in part - their idea rather than things foisted on them. On the other hand, sitting around waiting for the world to hand you what you want, when you want it, how you want it will NEVER work out. 

So somewhere in between - as usual - is the right balance (note: the world almost always favours balance). Patient but planned persistence. In other words, know what you want, plan for it, work toward it, put it out there and trust that it'll happen when it is right. I won't say "when its meant to be" as if the universe has destined your fate but I do mean that things tend to "just fall in place" when they are a natural fit for all involved rather than when you want them to happen. 

For the most part, jobs are given to those who earn them but not necessarily those that deserve them. You may deserve a job - you may have all the qualifications and more - but not be offered it because you didn't earn it. You may earn a job you don't really deserve. 
To earn a job involves people skills - its about more than you can put on paper, more than your credentials or accomplishments. It's the soft skills that can leapfrog you into places you don't belong. You've got to check some boxes but box-checking alone may leave you stranded in a job well below what you deserve but for your inability to 'earn' a better one. 

Almost every job I've been offered feels like it fell into my lap. It didn't. I positioned myself to be offered it, made it clear I wanted it - maybe even applied for it - but is was suddenly just 'there' either because I was actively recruited or because it just seemed like a perfectly natural fit to all around. Not because I'm a rock star or "all that" or was even particularly qualified (on paper) for the job but because by the time it came open, I was considered at least a good - if not an obvious - candidate for the position in the eyes of the decision-makers. Many times that's because I let myself in the side door and bided my time positioning myself for and earning my way into the job I really wanted -- but let me come back to that.

I remember the day in 2000 when I thought to myself for the first time that it would be cool one day to the CEO of a biotech company. At the time it was a ridiculously audacious thought. I had no business background, no science education and I literally couldn't even pronounce half the terminology on my screen on a daily basis. 

I didn't myopically focus on that goal. I didn't obsess about it. What I did do was two things. Firstly I tried to take jobs that seemed like they might be on the right path toward that goal and get me one step closer. Secondly, I tried to be painfully honest with myself about what I lacked to one day be offered that job and either fill that gap or compensate for my deficiencies in ways that were accessible to me. Let me give some examples.

Long before my vision for joining the biotech C-suite, I realized I was embarrassingly deficient in most things related to basic business and capital markets. I decided if I read anything every day it would be the business section of the daily newspaper. At first it was like trying to read hieroglyphics but eventually through stubborn osmosis I gradually started to absorb some basic concepts and also define questions I could ask friends, colleagues and mentors who I knew had the answers. 

Later, when I found myself surrounded by brilliant pioneers of stem cell research and cell therapy, I found myself ignorant of all things biotech so I began to (a) find ways to immerse myself in meetings and interactions where I could learn and occasionally ask a dumb question and (b) consume every piece of accessible literature on stem cell/cell therapy basics I could and particularly every corporate news release from any company in the sector. I didn't know how that was going to translate into a job opportunity but I knew I wasn't going to get any higher job in biotech without that basic knowledge. I also made it my job to meet and build relationships with people in cell therapy companies in a way that was well beyond my job expectations, in part because I believed doing so would pay off in some way yet to be determined. 

That passion for learning and consuming content resulted in the identification of an information gap in the sector which led to the launch of a publication, the 
information turned into an unparalleled dataset no one else had, and the network turned into a contacts list (rolodex my Dad used to call it). All that resulted in a job offer that relied on a broad (but needn't be deep) understanding of what all the companies were doing in the sector and knowing someone at each of those companies (or someone who knew that someone). That job was business development. It was the perfect job I didn't know I wanted until I had it and it just so happened to be the only job I would be offered with my limited education in science or business. Nonetheless I was actively recruited for the gig because while I didn't deserve it, I had earned it. Interestingly I had been offered a similar position two years earlier but it wasn't the right time and it felt 'forced' by both the potential employer and myself. Two years later it was a perfect fit. Patience rewarded both sides.

Even later in my career, I concluded I was going to hit the glass ceiling of education. Without an advanced science or business degree I determined (rightly or wrongly) that was I unlikely to be able to work my way up to the C-level suite without making my own way there. That was the genesis of my leaving a comfortable mid-level management position to become an entrepreneur and consultant. I would make it or break it on my own and return to the 'work force' when I was offered something closer to the C-suite than I was likely to earn trying to work my up to it as an employee. In retrospect I could likely have earned my way there if I'd been willing to relocate and worked in a big company. I was not. My other priorities dictated - at least heavily influenced - the path I chose.

Back to the side door. The other example of patience is knowing where you want to be even though it involves not being what you want to be for now. For example, when I was looking to jump out of practicing law, I chanced my way - through a friend-of-a-friend - into job interview at a tech company with one of the most interesting men I had ever met in the coolest office I'd ever walked into with one of the greatest views of the city I'd seen. I left thinking if he's crazy enough to give me a job, I'm crazy enough to take it even though I didn't have the faintest idea what they did or what I'd do there. He was crazy, I was crazy and the job I ended up in involved me doing a lot of things no one in their right mind should be doing with a law degree but I was in a milieu I loved and I would have paid to be there. It was the side door to the job I wanted but didn't know existed. I worked my way through, up and around the group of companies - some job offers I deserved, others I earned - until I earned my way out of there six years later into the kind of job many people would have expected to jump into immediately.  

That's the 'earn-my-way-up' side door. Another way is the consultant/contactor, part-time or internship side door. If you're trying to punch above your weight class and leapfrog your way into a job for which you barely have the required credentials or experience, you may need to present a potential employer with a low-risk way to determine if you deserve it - just earn your way in. The alternative to the low-level job side door is the 'try-before-you-buy' side door to career leapfrogging. Many a consultant, contractor, part-timer and intern has earned a full-time dream job (or least entrée position to the dream job) by earning their stripes on a test-drive basis.

    Be careful what you wish for you just might get it (so be prepared - go in eyes wide open)

I remember the day I was sitting in the high school honors algebra class I had no business trying to pass when I first thought being a teacher might be a good gig because my teacher was pretty cool. Six years later I was standing in front of my own high school class pretending to be infinitely more wise and experienced than  kids just a few years younger. They challenged me, tested me and dared me to rise to the occasion or whither in defeat.  At one point two of my students were rumoured to have been the subjects of sexually inappropriate behaviour by a teaching colleague and friend. As a young 25-year old teacher I was made aware of the rumour by other students who entrusted me with taking appropriate action - to treat the situation delicately but decisively. Handle this one wrong and it turns out to be false, it ruins the career (and life) of a wonderful teacher; handle it wrong and it turns out to be true, and I only aggravate the potentially devastating travesty done to these children. These are the moments you don't think about when you think to yourself... teaching might be cool. 

I've already told you about the day I first thought... maybe I'd like to be a biotech CEO one day. Four months after having been invited to become CEO of a biotech company for the first time, I had to lay off all my staff, sublet the entire office, sell all our furniture, and prepare the company for a complete restructuring. This was not stuff I imagined when I first thought to myself.... that looks like a cool job I would enjoy.

Both of those are a couple of my favourite jobs, hands down, but both brought elements I wouldn't have dared to imagine and certainly never dreamed about. In part, that's why you need hard-earned stripes before you get the job you wish for. You'll need them and they are never the things you learned about in school. 

    I can't. I don't have time. I'm not qualified. I'm over-qualified. I don't know how. And other lame excuses.

In case you can't tell, I'm not a fan of excuses. They are, after all, just that. Excuses. Most of the time they are not even good reasons. They are fictions we tell ourselves and then say out loud in the belief that they are real based on our experience that they very often are believed and work to relieve us of whatever obligation or opportunity we're trying to escape.

"I can't". Really? Have you seen the videos of the armless, legless motivational  speaker or a million other people doing unthinkable things well beyond what is expected to be their capabilities. Rethink what you "can't" do. It's a thinly veiled excuse for I don't want to bad enough and/or I'm too scared to try.

"I don't/didn't have time" is hands down the worst excuse ever invented. You didn't make time. You didn't make time because you had other priorities that you chose to dedicate your time to. If it was so important to you, you would find/make the time. I don't/didn't have time means it wasn't important enough to me to prioritize over the other things taking up my time. I'm not saying you should give up those other things, just be honest about them. If it turns out spending time with your children, or watching football, or gardening, or hanging with your friends is more important than burning the midnight oil getting your executive MBA, that's perfectly okay. Just know it. Say it. But to be perfectly clear, there are single Moms working full time jobs and earning their degree so if you decide not to then it's not because you don't have time it's because you chose to allocate your time differently.

Now to be fair, sometimes there just isn't enough time to get done all that is on your plate. Many times deciding what can be done in the time allotted is not entirely your choice. The point is, never use the "I didn't have time" excuse. Invite those assigning your work to help you prioritize. You are not expected to  create time but if it is not your job to assign your own priorities then you are expected to help your superiors or clients determine what you should prioritize in the time allotted. You are expected to not use lack of time as an excuse .. ever. The message here is that effective time management is about managing priorities and the honest excuse is "I didn't manage my priorities properly" rather than "I didn't have time".

"I'm not qualified" ranks right up there with "I can't". Again, literally millions of people are doing things they are not qualified for. I'm one of them.

"I'm over-qualified" simply means your ego won't let you do what you pretend you want to do but clearly don't want to do what it takes to get there.

"I don't know how" is even worse. In this age of content at your fingertips and people accessible with the click of a mouse, there is nothing you can't learn if it is important enough to you to find a way. Wealth isn't even a limiting factor here. Sure you may not be able to get a Harvard education but you can learn how to do almost anything on a shoestring budget if you want it bad enough.

I'm stuck in my job, my mortgage, my marriage, my gender, my life. Not true. To the extent it is true, please just be honest about your role in keeping yourself 'stuck' there. Everything can be changed if you want it bad enough. The only thing you can't change in life is that you have kids. You can pretend you don't have kids but whatever you do - or don't do - doesn't change the fact you have kids. Everything else can be changed. So if it is something other than the fact you have children, if you're unprepared to change it, chances are it's because you don't want it bad enough or at least you don't want it more than the other things preventing you from making that change. I'm not saying you should throw away your comfortable life to make radical change - not at all. I'm just saying you owe it to yourself to be honest about it. If you love the things standing in the way of making a change then admitting that to yourself is freeing. But if you really do want to make a change, you can make the change but it will inevitably involve a shift in priorities. It also involves admitting that the only thing preventing you from making that change you are pretending to want is yourself, your fear and your competing priorities.

Occasionally I'm disappointed because I don't have more money in a #firstworldproblem sort of way but when I'm perfectly honest with myself its because I've never made it a priority. I've chased my interests, my passions, my desire to learn, my hankering for change over money and financial security. I have to acknowledge that those were my choices /my priorities and be comfortable with the results.

Any excuse you can come up with just means that other things are/were more important to you than the thing you're trying to excuse yourself from doing or not doing and that's perfectly okay but please - for the love of humankind - just be honest first with yourself and then the other people around you. Just say you didn't make the time, you are afraid, you're unwilling to do what it takes or to start over, you love the things standing in your way even more than the thing you're pretending to need an excuse for not doing, etc.

So next time you hear yourself making an excuse for not fulfilling an obligation or chasing a dream, challenge yourself to just be honest and face what's really behind that lame excuse.

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