I Wish That I Knew What I Know Now: Career Advice from People More Successful than Me.
We like to think we have a master plan. We like to think life is linear. We like to think we know what we’re doing while we’re doing it. But we also know that pretty much none of this is true. The number of times we look back on our lives and think “If I’d only…” or “I should have…” or even “What in the name of God was I thinking…?” are, unfortunately, more than we would like to admit to.
So when a journalist asked me “What’s the one piece of career advice you wish you’d gotten when you were first starting out?”, I was certain I would be able to regale her with memories, aphorisms, witticisms and other bon mots that would make me the Oscar Wilde of our age.
I was wrong. I had nothing.
Oh sure, there were things like “Buy Google when it IPOs at $85 in 2004.” Or “Your good relationship with the client does not extend to telling him what you think of his karaoke.” Or even “The flight for the big presentation is at 4, not 430.” But nothing I could really use, nothing I wanted to affix my name to in public (like I’ve just done here. Ahem. Oh well…).
So I passed the buck. I reached out to some of my closest friends — and to some folks I wished were my closest friends — for their two cents. What career advice did they wish they’d had way back when we were all young and firm and comparatively debt-free and able to bounce back from all-nighters with a staggering effortlessness?
What I got was a lot more than I bargained for. Apparently my friends have lots of opinions. And they’re not shy about sharing them. And while the journalist seems to have disappeared as effectively as a late inning lead by my beloved White Sox, the advice I ended up with still remains. And it’s still valuable. And a lot of it had to do with warning their young selves about the future.
“Plan on the inevitability of middle age and age-related obsolescence” said my buddy the designer Gary Hudson, who was not alone in this admonition. And while few were complaining (okay, some were complaining — this is advertising, after all), they were still making it clear that they would have liked to have been made aware of what the future looked like so they could have planned for it. Because you know how good people in advertising are at planning.
And speaking of planning, it was also interesting how many talked about relationships, about how they wished they had made more of an effort to stay connected to people. Not purely from a business networking standpoint (although to be sure there was a lot of that. Like Paul Kemp-Robertson who explained “I must have applied for 500 jobs via the usual listings and recruiters, but I got my first break because I freelanced with someone who just happened to know someone who was setting up a new venture and needed eager young fools to work for free.”) but from a quality-of-life standpoint. John Matejcyzk said “I’ve met so many great people along the way who I’m no longer in touch with. Kinda sad.” And Co:Collective’s Tiffany Rolfe echoed that sentiment, saying “I wished I had done even more of this rather than only focusing on my work and being too busy.”
Of course, “focusing on the work” came in for a large does of career advice, to be sure. The idea that there’s a lot to do, a lot of competition to do it, and a lot of opportunity to piss it all away. “Persistence creates luck and put the fucking time in” was what illustrator Hal Mayforth advised. Leo Burnett’s Director of Talent Acquisition Debbie Bougdanous expressed a similar sentiment, but put it in a way that perhaps is more befitting her position: “Always be the last person to leave. Ask anyone if they need help before you leave at night. Those people always seem to do well.”
Where exactly you put in that effort, however, was also extremely important, and there were a number of people who echoed McCann’s Rob Reilly’s career advice (“Don’t chase the titles or money. Chase the work. The title and money follow.”). And while I completely understood the sentiment — cash is fleeting, but the Alex Bogusky-Rob Reilly-Dan Weiden seal of approval on your resume lasts a lifetime — as someone who has taught literally hundreds of kids who are emerging from universities under mountains of debt, I wondered how realistic it was for anyone starting out today. Because it’s not about telling these kids to suck it up and eat ramen noodles for a couple of years while forgoing the flat for your parents’ basement. It’s about them literally not being able to afford to take the job at the better shop, unless someone is subsidizing them.
And maybe that sounds a little harsh, but honestly, the career advice itself was full of hard — and valuable — truths like that. Like Miami Ad School’s Hillary Lannan, who reminded me that we’re not as precious as we think we are and that the sooner we understand it, the better our careers will be. “We’re all replaceable” she said. “No one cares about you having your job as much as you do.” Oh, if I’d only known that when I was in my twenties…
And still the advice pours in. From people I emailed months ago. From people who already gave me advice and are giving me more. From friends of people who heard about my question and want to weigh in. Good advice. Great advice. Weird advice. Terrible advice.
And, perhaps the best career advice of all, which came from Ogilvy’s George Tannenbaum — “The advice should be, don’t listen to advice.”
Thanks to everyone who took time out of their busy days to provide me with valuable input and insight. And stay tuned, as invariably more career advice is on the way.