I had a lot of crappy jobs growing up. I was a foot messenger in midtown Manhattan. I cleaned up blood and guts in a butcher shop. And after four and a half years of college and a BS degree in physics, I got to be a vault attendant at a corner savings bank for $3.25 an hour. Talk about depressing.
When I finally landed an engineering job in the high-tech industry, I thought I’d finally made it, hit the big time. I was going to shoot straight up like a rocket ship to fame and fortune. That’s not exactly how it happened.
Everyone says there are bumps in the road to success. Bumps in the road my ass. There were times when the road flat out disappeared. When I had no clue where I was headed, what was going on, or what was expected of me.
Like the time I got a bad annual review and a microscopic raise and nobody would tell me why. I went to my boss. Then I went to his boss. Finally my boss’s boss’s boss told me I was ranked low because what I was working on wasn’t important. I remember thinking: Now they tell me.
That was just the first of all-too-many episodes where I was lost and had to somehow find my way. And since I happen to have a soft spot in my heart for all you young up-and-comers -- the leaders of tomorrow -- here’s some unconventional wisdom on how to make it in the real world.
Sweat the big stuff. Everyone says, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.” Some even follow that up with “and everything is small stuff.” Well, it isn’t. If I hadn’t gotten royally pissed off over that bad review, I never would have learned one of the biggest lessons of my entire career: if you want to be recognized and get promoted, you’ve got to stick your neck out and make yourself highly visible by taking responsibility for projects that are on senior management’s radar screen.
You’re not as smart as you think you are. Let’s face it: all young hotshots have giant egos. Thinking you know it all comes with the territory. But the truth is you don’t know squat. And the sooner you realize that you don’t have all the answers, that you don’t know what you don’t know, the sooner you’ll shut up and start listening to those who do. Knowledge and wisdom don’t come from smarts. They come from experience.
Business is about business. When you get out of school, you’re presumably trained in some function like engineering, communications, or finance. For a time, that’s your whole world. But here’s the thing. Whatever it is you do for a living, the company you work for has got to sell a product to a customer and make a profit doing it. That sentence is what business is really all about. And the closer you get to understanding how it works and taking responsibility for some part of that equation, the more successful you’ll be. No kidding.
Take big risks that terrify you. If you get squeamish on rollercoasters, have a relatively narrow comfort zone and a low threshold for stress, I hope you enjoy doing the same thing for 30 or 40 years, because that’s where you’re headed. But if you want to make it to the top, then head down to the drug store, pick up some Prilosec and Dramamine, and start taking big, scary risks. I know you have no safety net. But if you push the envelope when you’re young, when you can afford to fail over and over, that’s how you get ahead. And that’s how you end up with a nice big safety net when you’re older.
Success comes from courage in the face of fear and adversity. Inspirational leadership fluff is all the rage these days. It’s the new “self help.” Unfortunately, the kind of inspiration you need to lift yourself up when the rug’s been pulled out from under you -- which tends to happen fairly regularly in the real world -- doesn’t come from a book or a blog. It comes from inside you. Success doesn’t come from being coddled, from being told everything’s going to be okay. It comes from courage in the face of fear. Success depends on how you handle adversity. If you want to be successful, better get used to it.
Of course, there are other options. Did I forget to mention the two old guys I worked with in the bank vault on the corner when I first got out of school? They were so miserable, so bitter, you could feel it just being around them. Trust me, you don’t want to end up like those guys.
Steve Tobak is a Silicon Valley-based strategy consultant and former senior executive of the technology industry.