This month marks 5 years since I graduated college and started my first, and only so far, post college job. To some people, that doesn’t sound like much time at all. To us twenty-somethings, that is a pretty long time. I mean, it was the spring of 2007 and the economy had not yet crashed. The housing market, job market and stock market were booming. The first iPhone had just been released 4 months earlier and no one really had one yet or even knew what it was. I was still using Internet Explorer and Yahoo (what was wrong with me?), surfing the web on my laptop that had a 3.5 inch floppy drive and an external wireless card (it was also REALLY slow). President Bush was still in office for another year and a half. Wow, the world was a different place then, and that was only 5 years ago.

Well, I’m a different person than I was 5 years ago too. I’ve learned a lot about business, about myself, about interacting with others and about life. From my career, the five things I’ve learned that really stick out are these:

1. Just say yes

I think it’s typical when starting out in your career to be shy and unsure of yourself. At the company I work for, it usually takes people 3 months before they are productive. It takes another 6-9 months before they are able to contribute at a level that’s even remotely close to their potential. It just takes a long time to learn it, to build confidence and to be given big opportunities. In making it far professionally, you need to learn to break out of that shy and self conscious mindset where “I don’t know” or “maybe” get used a lot and instead say “yes” with confidence, even if it’s false confidence. Saying yes to opportunities even if they look scary and potentially horrifying is key to being successful in your career.

2. Confidence in yourself is king

To be successful at anything, you have to believe in yourself. I remember when I was just starting out after college, I was very unsure of what I could or couldn’t do and I was a little afraid to try almost all of it. After 5 years of “just saying yes”, my confidence grew exponentially. There are few things that I don’t believe I can do now. The only problem with some of them is the amount of time and energy it will take. I have realized that I only have limited time and energy and, although I believe I CAN do almost anything, I’m realistic about what makes sense to attempt to do and what doesn’t. Confidence, overall, is a big deal and one of the key factors to being successful. You’ll need it to decide to do greats things and to have the fight to push them through to successful completion.

3. Other people’s confidence in you is very important

Just like confidence in yourself is important, other people’s confidence in you is key as well. In any type of organization, you could have all the confidence in the world in yourself, but when opportunities arise and your leaders/co-workers/clients don’t believe or have confidence in you, you’re in big trouble. You’ll miss opportunities for further success and/or advancement. It will limit your ability to make a difference in a big way. To get and sustain other people’s confidence, you will need to follow the steps above (say yes and have confidence in yourself) as well as have a history of doing well with the projects/opportunities that have been given to you in the past. Being a nice person who’s easy to get along with and respectful of those who you deal with doesn’t hurt either.

4. Always do the right thing

This one is extremely important. In college, it’s very annoying how much instructors ramble on about ethics, almost to the point where you think they’re nuts. The real world actually has those ethics issues quite often. They are usually small and easy to get away with. Sometimes they happen with clients, sometimes with co-workers and even sometimes with management. To have confidence in yourself and from others, doing the right thing always, is very important. My strategy, after 5 years of learning and fine tuning it, is that I’m going to do what’s right, all the time. I’m not cutting corners for short term wins. I actually believe that short term wins, if done in a sleazy way, will almost always come back to bite you in the butt later. Speaking from experience, when I’ve chosen to do the right thing over short term wins, I’ve always come out ahead in the end. Whether it’s just having earned people’s confidence or respect (I mentioned how important that is above), or my confidence/respect in myself (this too), it’s turned out to have been a good idea. Take it from me, doing the right thing is better in every case. Don’t get in the opposite mindset. It will get you on the wrong path. The path to being an idiot.

5. Always think strategically about the future

This is probably the most important thing I’ve learned. I haven’t learned it at work though. I’ve learned it personally, while living as a young professional, working like crazy to get ahead and living as an adult for the past years. I’ve developed quite a bit as a person these past 5 years and a lot of it was because of this. I learned to think strategically about the future.

I had this class back in college called Business Strategy. I’m so glad I took that class because I learned how important strategy is. I learned that business, just for the sake of business, is lame and without purpose. That same point can make sense when talking about life too. It would read, “life, just for the sake of life, is lame and without a purpose”. What we need in our life is a sense of purpose and a strategy for living our lives. I won’t in any way claim that I have things all figured out. I don’t. But I do have a strategy for what I want to do and where I want to go professionally. It looks a bit like this:

  • Learn everything I can about business – How to sell, how to launch new products, how to develop and execute on a marketing plan, how to organize a business, how to lead, how to make a profit, how to positively impact others, how to be strategic in business.
  • Keep saving money for the future – The way I see it, the more money I have saved, the better position I’m in professionally. With a cushion of security in the bank, I’m ready to take on opportunities if/when they arise. I’m also not stuck anywhere, at any time. I can keep my eye open for success when it comes by.
  • Go into business for myself someday – Someday, I want to go into business for myself. I don’t want to do this to become rich (although I obviously don’t dislike money). I want to do it to focus on things that I care about and to make a difference. I work best when I’m able to make decisions and execute on them. Oftentimes, I’m executing on other people’s decisions as an employee and, although that has worked fine and dandy over the past 5 years and will continue to work well for me up until the day I go into business for myself, I don’t want to be an employee for the rest of my career. It’s just not where my passion lies. My passion is in starting something of my own, that I’m completely excited about and where the goal is not to get rich, but to make a difference. It’s about enriching the lives of those I will be dealing with. I’m excited to have that strategy identified and be well on my way to making it happen someday.

That’s just my first 5 years. I wonder what my next 5 years will teach me. I bet the lessons will be twice as powerful. If this blog is still around in 5 years, which I hope it is, I’ll do a post on my top 5 between now and then, at that point. For those of you who have some significant experience post college as well, what have you learned so far? Is there anything that you’d like to share that I didn’t touch on?