How To Get Ahead At Work: What I Wish My Parents Told Me

career lessons from parents

Don't let my bio fool you. My career has had its travails. I had to learn the following things the hard way. I share them with you here in hopes that you don't have to.

1. Listen more than you talk.

You have two ears and one mouth -- act accordingly. You can often make deep connections fast by also asking questions, especially those to identify and amplify on a person's hot button: career, family, hobby, health, money, looks, pop culture, etc. Don't just ask questions or you'll seem like an interrogator. Share some thoughts too, perhaps a disclosure about yourself.

In conversation, follow the traffic-light rule: During the first 20 seconds of an utterance, your light is green: You can keep talking with impunity. During the second 20 seconds, your light is yellow: your conversation partner may be starting to think you're long-winded. At the 40-second mark, your light is red. Yes, very occasionally, you want to run a red light and keep talking -- for example, if you're telling an anecdote that's clearly interesting not just to you but to your conversation partner. But usually, at the 40-second mark, you should shut up or ask a question. If the person wants to know more, s/he can ask.

Usually, you'll effect more change if, instead of giving advice, you ask questions to help your conversation partner develop his or her own solution. You'll also be better liked because the person feels efficacious rather than shown-up. Don't try to show how smart, rich, or well-connected you are. Usually, it's wise to prioritize making others feel good about themselves.

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2. Don't just do what you love.

Do what you love in your career and you may starve. And even if you don't, you're more likely to be unhappy than you might think. Because most people's passions lie in just a few common areas -- entertainment, fashion, the environment, helping the have-nots, video games, etc. -- a zillion people want jobs in such fields. That means that employers can pay poorly and treat employees poorly because a wealth of wannabes is waiting in the wings. And even if you're treated well, you may not be happy -- because, for the most part, work is work and because people are as happy as they are, by nature. It may be wiser to choose a career in a less crowded bailiwick because it's usually easier to land a job that has the characteristics that most affect career contentment: an ethical product or service, a good boss and co-workers, reasonable compensation, good learning and promotion opportunities, etc.

3. School is overrated.

Research, for example, this study, ever more clearly demonstrates how frighteningly little students learn in college despite all the time and money. And while yes, most employers demand degrees of their professional-level employees, 5 percent to 10 percent get hired without the "required" sheepskin. Before deciding that you need to spend that fortune in time and money to get a degree, see if you can get hired without one, perhaps doing your learning at You U: a combination of reading, individual courses, mentors, tutors, conference attending, etc.

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4. Don't ask for a job.

If you ask your network for a job, you'll get advice. If you ask for advice, you may get a job.

5. Focus, focus.

Dabbling is fun but is often a career killer. Relentlessly focus on becoming the go-to guy/gal at something that can earn you at least a middle-class living. Relentless focus -- I've found those two words to be a defining characteristic of most successful people.

6. Pick your battles.

You have little chance to change people's foundational views: political, religious, work ethic.

7. Never look back.

My father, a Holocaust survivor, rarely talked about it. When I asked him why, he said, "Martin, the Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Martin, never look back, always take the next step forward." I can leave you with no better advice.

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