Advice For Starting Out That You Never Asked For

April 1, 2016


I must have attained enough gray hair in order to seem like someone who knows something, because in the last few months I’ve been asked for advice by more than a few people preparing for or starting out their careers. There are specific things you might want to know about working in politics or journalism, but the most important things to internalize are the most general.

So, here goes:

  1. Where you start is not where you’ll finish up. When starting your career, the world can seem overwhelming: You can do practically anything! (Hard to imagine now, but I really thought hard about a military career during my late teens.) But it’s important to keep in mind that what you start out to do, is not what you will end up doing, and there will likely a few changes in the middle. Take a breath, and realize that whatever you choose to do with your life, you can change it later. Actor Ken Jeong? Used to be a practicing M.D.
  2. Pick something you care about, and do that as hard as you can. As you move forward, the most important thing you’ll find about everyone is how much they care about what they do. Regardless of how small it may be, if you care deeply about your work, and are able to find value and meaning in it, you will get better at it, your life will be more fulfilling and you’ll enjoy the world more. If that’s childcare, making shoes or psychiatry, then that’s what you need to do. Find a way to do it with all of your might.
  3. Try to work with the most talented people you can find. Don’t waste time with people who aren’t trying to do their best. Every experience you have in life is a trade off from another, different experience. When you choose experiences with talented, smart people, you gain their skills and gradually become one of them.
  4. Read everything. Question your assumptions and conclusions. Part of the path to becoming great at whatever you care about is by building your own understanding of how the world works. Often times, unrelated things you experience become foundations for bigger ideas later on. Steve Jobs’ experience with calligraphy in college helped him understand the power of design later at Apple. Hours after work sitting on the floor of my first job’s copy room, reading back issues of the very expensive policy magazine National Journal eventually led to my earliest ideas for Aldertrack. Seemed like wasted time then. Twenty years later, it seems critical.
  5. You will make mistakes. Some of them big. They will fade with time and become learning experiences. I am the king of big mistakes. Most involve others and should not be put into print. But fortunately life is long, and even in our digital age where the internet remembers everything, it is possible to move forward and become a better you. The key is to admit your error, think hard about why it happened, and then move on. Oh, and try not to do it again.
  6. Don’t buy expensive furniture. This sounds funny, but as soon as I bought furniture I cared about, I started thinking about moving costs, and became less and less interested in moving for a job or new opportunity. It’s true: A really nice couch can really keep you from doing great things. Delay decorating your apartment as long as you can.
  7. You may really love your significant other, but your relationship should not keep you from opportunity. I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, but I really believe this: In college I had two friends who dated and were inseparable. It was clear they would get married. But then they did something really interesting: One of them got a three-month fellowship on the other end of the country. Then after that was done, another one moved across the country for a long-sought job while the other stayed in the job of their dreams. This went on for a few years. In the midst of it they got married, but still spent many months apart. Eventually, after about eight years of this, they managed to end up in the same city with great jobs and start a family. They are immensely well-rounded and have a very domestic life. And have the opportunity of being together for 40 more years. Isn’t that great? Whatever pull you feel from your significant other now, if it can’t handle a few months apart, your relationship has bigger problems than you know.
  8. Avoid debt by not spending rather than seeking bigger paychecks. Debt keeps you from taking chances. Seeking high paying jobs keeps you from taking chances. Live simply (see #6) and you’ll be ready to take advantage of opportunity.
  9. You will settle down eventually. But don’t be in a hurry. Much like #7, don’t press yourself to be a fully settled grown up. We all feel like that’s the end game, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. But really, being a grown up is more about being happy with your choices than getting to a certain milestone. Ask yourself these things: Are you doing interesting work? Do you like the area where you live? Are you spending time with good, interesting people? If the answer is yes to all three, then you are living a grown up life most would envy.
  10. You will never feel like you “made it”. As a corollary to #1 and #9, there is no real end game except death itself. If you manage to create a life around being inquisitive and interested in the world around you, you will constantly be finding new things to capture your attention. Give up on “settling” things, and instead focus on enjoying the moments of discovery. There is so much to love in our world, no matter where you look.