Now that I’m living the dream: writing and teaching college kids for a living or whatever, it is time to pass on the pearls of wisdom I have garnered over the years. I mean I’ve been doing my own taxes since I was seventeen, I completed college before I could legally drink (in the USA), I have 1.5 theses under my belt (still waiting on my latest Masters defense because you know, life). And I think for my age, I’ve had more than my fair share of terrible jobs and terrifying bosses. Couple that with shattered dreams, broken promises, rookie mistakes, and the never-ending struggle of trying to work in a country that legally classifies you as an “alien.” Most importantly however, I have had a lot of people support and root for me ever since I boarded that long-ass flight from Botswana at sixteen – where I lived before coming here – with 2 huge suitcases, a carry-on, and a dream.
That last sentence is totally going to be my opening line on the autobiography I am sure I will eventually write. Anyway, while I really should be banned from giving any form of relationship advice ever (although I’ve somehow become the Dr. Phil of many of my friend groups because those who can’t do, teach?), I think anyone can benefit from the following:
1. Never ever burn bridges
My first out-of-college boss taught me this and said it would be the most valuable lesson I can take with me throughout my career. Somewhere along the way, “I just tell it as it is” became “I am a totally irresponsible human being who must air out every grievance I have ever experienced.” I have had awful bosses. In fact I have had what some would call, “Devil Wears Prada” kind of bosses, once or twice. The stories I could tell you… But I don’t and I won’t.
I have left pretty much every place of work on a friendly basis, no matter how awful it was. You know why? Because the world is a really, really small place. No matter how big your city, or how wide your industry, people will talk. And if you show yourself to be without any common sense, you will find yourself in some dark places with few friends – it’s only a matter of time. As I tweeted out yesterday, the Gospel truth of personal and professional relationships is this: Don’t ever burn bridges. You might need to cross them again.
2. Don’t cry at work
Believe it or not, I started my paid online writing life on a career site, writing about my post-collegiate hell of a life. And I wrote about this to that audience before but repeat after me – Do. Not. Cry. At. Work. How do I know? I once cried at work. Now aside from the fact that I’m not a very big crier, a complete and total anti public crying proponent (unless you just won a Pulitzer or solved world hunger or whatever), crying at work makes you lose respect, above all for yourself.
In my case, I was trying to get the hell out to the restroom but unfortunately had people coming over to give me sympathy due to the public humiliation I had just been put through. But I couldn’t make it out on time and the water works came in. The thing is more than public humiliation, I hate pity. And it was the pity that got to me. But the point is this: It’s hard to go back to work in a place when they’ve all seen you more vulnerable than Bambi’s mum. So don’t do it. Pretend to be sick, go to the restroom and stay there for 15 minutes, pretend you are in a life-death situation and your life depends on you not crying. Whatever you do, do not ever cry at work.
3. Get something out of everything you do
You know what sucks? Terrible jobs – soul-crushing, life-draining, “I do not nearly get paid enough for this shit” kind of terrible jobs. But sometimes you might need to do a couple because crying into Two-Buck Chuck wines every night is better than unemployment tears, in most cases. And yes, there are exceptions. But no matter how small you feel, no matter how insignificant your job is, no matter how much you know that this job isn’t you, try to get something out of it. My favorite Devil Wears Prada boss, among many technical writing skills – especially for business which I later used – taught me if I ever manage people in my life, not to be an asshole because that will probably not get the best work out of them. So yes, learn something.
4. ‘Don’t ever get too high or too low’
One of the tasks at a job I had, was to create content from interviews with Chicago entrepreneurs and above is probably one of the best pieces of career advice I got. Life has a tendency to do this thing where it raises you up to the highest heavens and then brings you down to your knees with you crying out to baby Jesus “Why me?” But do not ever get carried away because life is filled with twists and turns. Sing when you’re winning, pray when you’re losing but that’s about it. Keep things in perspective and remember that tomorrow is a new day – and you have no clue what it’s going to bring. So maintain enough prudence and humility to keep your ego from exploding. But never let that ego or killer spirit die. Ever. Again, I reiterate: keep perspective.
5. Stay away from office drama
I’ll credit my parents with this one. My parents both have a way of being the friendliest people (in polar opposite ways). Yet at the same time, they keep their circle tight and always encouraged us to, “Stay away from the gossip because it’s not everything you know that you talk about.” Co-workers can make or break your stay at a job, that’s a fact. But you can keep yourself occupied by doing your job, not going out of your way to make enemies, always offering a helping hand, and staying the hell out of any clique-ish, dramatic situations. I don’t care if you have the coolest co-workers on God’s green earth, maintain a level of professionalism and respect so much so that no matter how much a person does not like you, they can never shoot your good name down. At least without other people coming to your defense. A good name is greater than gold people. It’s that simple.
6. Never stop networking
Yes, I know you’ve got your dream job in your dream company in your dream city and you’ve also planned out your future with your significant other in the next five years and life is looking pretty darn good. Yeah, if life had gone the way I thought it was going to, I would have graduated from Georgetown Law this year, and would be on my way to being some really important young lawyer fighting international injustice or whatever I thought I wanted to do with a law degree. Anyway, HAHAHA, that didn’t happen. But one thing I have learned from failing miserably at many if not most of my childhood dreams is that despite being a sarcastic, blunt person – people like me!
Well, I don’t really know if that’s true. But I sure as hell know how to charm people because even though I generally despise humanity as a whole, individuals, are not too bad. I like to talk to people, I like to know their story, and if there’s anything people like to talk about – it’s themselves. I figured this out a long time ago. So network with people and not in the, “I’m blood-thirsty for new opportunities so let me tell you about all the cool things I’m going to be doing, and let me see what I can get from you,” kind of way. But in the, “Wow, you have a lot of great ideas, and I really enjoy listening to your life story, tell me more,” kind of sincere way. People, especially people in power, are not completely stupid. They know the difference.
7. Keep your eye on the prize
I was once talking to a priest after mass about career stuff and he said, “It’s not always easy to know the next step, so work backwards.” In twenty, thirty years, what are you really going for? The, “Where do you see yourself in five years?” question that every other person and their dog always asks you is a really awful question, all things considered. One of my favorite responses that I believe a writer on here once came up with is, “In five years, I hope to have a better answer to that daunting question.” This is why I’m on the 18-month/20 year-plan. I set practical, attainable goals in 18-month increments and I have 20-year life aims; they affect each other and they are always dynamic.
But the point of this piece of advice is do not ever be short-sighted in the decisions you make, do not detest humble beginnings, or resent getting less than what you deserve for a time, as long as you can see beyond the horizon. Do not be a victim of the present or a victim of the immediate future – see beyond that. See the big picture of not just your career, but your life.
8. Get shit done. And give a shit.
The dean of my undergrad years in the Business School would always say, “Get shit done.” And it’s really just solid life advice. Whatever you’ve got to do, stop with the excuses and explanations and reasons why and blah blah blah, no one remembers your excuses – people remember your work. People remember the effort you put in, the early mornings and late nights; people remember the commitment. Look, I am so anti giving my life to any one job because the truth is I will never define my life by a job. But part of my identity will always constitute whatever vocation I believe I was put on earth to do. And so I will commit to it. But even more than that, actually care. Don’t just think about what you can get out of it – think about what you can bring into it, think about the people who benefit from your work. Because that’s what it’s all about at the end of the day – doing work for mankind.
I don’t know about you but I don’t want to face God at the end of my life and have Him say, “I gave you all this talent, and THIS is what you did with it?!” or “YOU HAD ONE JOB!” Nope, I am not about that life – I’m trying to stay in God’s good graces here folks. Anyway, sorry for the tangent there. But ultimately every day that you wake up and have to be a professional, if nothing else I have said resonates with you, at least let this one stick: Get shit done. And give a shit.