The Best Career Advice that I Have Ever Been Given

Years ago when I was finishing my senior year of college and was preparing for my first real job, a favorite professor of mine gave me the following advice.  He said, “The company you are going to work for owns your job.  As long as they pay you what they promise, they can make you push a broom, answer the phone all day, or anything else they need whether you like it or not.  They may own your job, but you own your career.  Never confuse the two.”

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Over the past twenty years I have often thought about that advice from my professor.  It has been very useful.  A few times in my career I forgot the advice and confused my job with my career.  That usually ended up with me finding myself in the middle of a corporate reorganization and scrambling to land a position.  When I remembered and applied the advice, I had many great opportunities to choose from and consistently enjoyed the work that I did.

If you can consistently separate your job and your career, you will have more career opportunities and long term success. In order to do work you love it is important that you take active ownership of your career.  Here are some suggestions to help you own your career:

  • Have a 5 year plan.  Start by writing out the details of your future work life as you would like them to be in 5 years.  Write down the type of job you have, what company you work for, the specific things that you do and how much you earn.  It is important to be detailed in describing what the career goal you want to live in 5 years looks like.
  • Identify the big gaps.  As you compare your future career goal to your current job, what big things are missing or need to be improved.  Do you need some education or training?  Is there specific work experience that would help you achieve the future career goal?  Do you want to change to a different industry or career area?  These big needs will take time to complete so identify them and getting started on them right away.
  • Plan it out.  Arriving where we want in life doesn’t just happen.  When you want to drive to an area you are not familiar with you follow the directions on your GPS.  It is the same with achieving new career goals.  Assess where you are currently and plan out a route to get there.  Over time your route will change and you will need to factor in unexpected events, but always keep the goal in sight and adjust your plan as needed.
  • Ask for help.  Find people that already have the career you have and interview them.  Find out what advice they can share with you that would help you achieve your goal.  If you develop a relationship with these individuals over time, they will become powerful supporters in your personal network.
  • Enter that career world now.  Find ways to begin preparing and becoming a part of the world career world that you want in the future.  For example, if you are a sales person and want to be the sales manager in in five years or maybe the VP of Sales in 5 years, what can you do now?  You can take leadership courses, read books about sales and sales management.  You could go to sales conferences and spend time with sales managers and vice presidents from various companies. Don’t wait – start creating the career you want now.
  • Ignore other people’s negative career rules.  As you begin to create the exciting career that you want in the future, well meaning but misguided friends and coworkers will often discourage you by saying something is not possible or too risky or not the way things are done.  These folks do not have the career they want because they believe the things they are sharing with you.  Ignore them and focus on taking steps towards your future career.  For example, a friend of mine was recently selected as a sales manager after less than a year in a sales role with a new company.  All of his colleagues told him him had to ‘pay his dues’ and put in 5 to 10 years to become sales manager.  He ignored their rules and went about achieving what he wanted.

A career is a long term proposition that is completely within your control.  I encourage you to do every job you have to the best of your abilities while always focusing on your longer term career goals.  Only pursue opportunities and accept roles that move you towards your career goals.

Question: What is the best career advice you have ever been given?

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