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Can You Handle the Truth? 10 Tips About Careers (That No One Ever Tells You!)
Hey college students and young professionals – have you seen the lead story on WSJ’s CareerJournal today? Not to mention, their follow up punch to the gut – an excerpt from a book that refers to you as “trophy kids” and discusses why your egos are going to get the best of you in the workplace.
Don’t worry… CAREEREALISM is coming to your rescue!
The following career tips are for college students and recent grads (all 2.5+M of you) who aren’t afraid to hear the hard truth about the American workplace.
You may not like what you read, but if you really want to get ahead and find work that makes you happy, then you must face reality head on. Think of it as a paper cut – you can either apply the right care to it now, or you can ignore it, only to wake up and find it infected. Which will you do? I work with hundreds of professionals who always tell me the same thing, “I wish I had known these tips when I was starting out.” So please, don’t ignore the facts. A jump start to a better future is available to those who heed these tips – guaranteed.
TIP #1: You are the most educated generation to enter the workforce, but you are also viewed as the least prepared. Don’t be blind-sided by your generation’s professional reality.
Your generation, Generation NEXT (also known as Gen Y & Millenials) is the largest and most educated generation to enter the workforce in US history (over 70% plan to get undergraduate degrees and another 40% plan to get advanced degrees). Unfortunately, you are also seen as professionally immature and a huge challenge in the workplace. How did this happen? A little historical perspective helps to explain…
Years ago, getting a degree was a privilege and done with intent. If you were lucky enough to go to college, you knew what you were studying and what your career would be before you even began. You could expect a nice starting salary and a bright financial future. You also could count on a lifetime of employment and lots of career development from a single firm. A gold watch and a retirement package were often your reward for loyal years of service.
Fast forward to today: there are thousands of colleges and anyone who wants to go can get in somewhere. Thus, a college degree doesn’t get you a ‘leg up,’ it just allows you to ‘step up’ to the career starting line. Inflation has outpaced starting salaries, and the average student graduates $17+K debt but without the professional experience and focus of those who graduated years ago. As many as 4 out of 5 college students have to move home after school because they can’t afford to live on their own. In short, a college degree today is more expensive – but the return on the investment is down significantly.
TIP #2: The other generations in the workforce don’t have much compassion for your situation. You are being incorrectly perceived as lazy, entitled and arrogant. Don’t validate these beliefs by ignoring their concerns, instead, work to overcome them.
The other generations in the workforce think you deserve some ‘tough love.’ They are frustrated by your attitude in the workplace. The generations before you worked hard, paid their dues in jobs they didn’t enjoy, and now want respect for their professional battle scars. Many of them had to pay for school themselves and didn’t have the option or time to identify a career they could get excited about. The pressure to pay the bills and be out on their own forced them to put their professional satisfaction on the back burner. So, they don’t appreciate you criticizing or challenging the workplace they created. These actions go against how they were raised on-the-job. And while no one expects you to follow in their footsteps, you do need to recognize that work experience is critical to developing your own knowledge and skills. We don’t run until we learn to walk, right? So, it’s time to consider that you your views and opinions on-the-job may not be fully grown yet. Before you offer advice on how a situation should be improved in the workplace, take the time to seek out the varying generational perspectives of those that have been there before you and make an effort to understand their point of view. The best employees know how to ‘manage up.’ That means, coaching those above you in order to get the results you desire. The first and most important rule in coaching is , “Ask, don’t tell.” If you want to change a person’s point of view, you need to broaden their perspective by asking questions that will provide you with a more comprehensive understanding of their position.
Here’s something to consider: Generation NEXT is known as compassionate and socially responsible. You are worried about the world and care about those around you. So why not include the generations above you in your efforts to create a better world? Share with them your ideas and enthusiasm, but respect their knowledge and time spent in the trenches. Assess your thoughts and think carefully about how you convey yourself on-the-job. Your opinions do matter, but will only be heard if you can articulate them in a way that connects you to those you wish to influence. Learn to speak their language, and all ears will be on you.
TIP #3: DON’T road trip, backpack or ‘take a year off’ without thinking about your career first. Those who delay to play, often pay!
As graduation approaches, many students feel the pressure of career and think, “I’ve done what’s expected of me and now I deserve to do something for myself.” However, rewarding yourself without at least organizing your plans for career before you go can make embarking on a job search when you return more difficult. Here are some stats to consider: Landing an entry-level job after school (from start to finish) averages at least two months. The process of finding the job opportunity, going on the interviews, receiving and accepting the job offer, and then starting the job, all take time. It is easier to manage this process when you are close to resources (i.e. campus career center) and a network of peers who are in the midst of finding work too. All too often, college grads put off their career homework until after they’re done having fun. They return home and suddenly find themselves alone and without the support of their friends and school to help them. Add in the potential pressure of parents over your shoulder, inquiring about your progress, and looking for a job can become very overwhelming. I once had an angry father call me to inquire about my services for his son because, in his own words, “My son just got back from a 7-month road trip of fun only for me to find out he has no idea of what he wants to do or how to find a job. What did I spent $80K on a college education for?!?!” This father-son relationship was quite strained, and much of my time coaching this new college grad was spent trying to get him to stop beating himself up for not taking responsibility for his future. Don’t get stuck in this position. You must consider the consequences of your actions.
But, if this isn’t enough reason to focus on your career goals before you go, consider this: opting to play as opposed to looking for a job sends a clear message to employers regarding your professional priorities. Here’s a true story, I was speaking to a manager of a successful consulting practice in March of last year who was looking for an intern. She had just interviewed a young woman who had graduated the previous May and had opted to grab a job as a bartender because in her own words, “I didn’t know what I wanted to do and wasn’t ready for a real job.” The young woman had impressed the manager with her energy and appearance but was concerned with the young woman’s inability to convey clearly how and why she now was ready to commit to a full-time, professional position. The client opted not to hire this graduate and said to me, “I think I’d rather wait two more months and get an intern from the upcoming graduating class. That way, I’ll know the person I hire has a sense of urgency to work and be successful.”
Actions speak louder than words, so choose wisely what you do after graduation. The best way to enjoy taking time off after college is to make sure your professional game plan is in order BEFORE you go. And when you return and start looking for a job, don’t forget to incorporate what you’ve learned about yourself while on your post-college adventure and how you plan to use that knowledge in your career.
TIP #4: More degrees don’t mean more money! If you aren’t sure what to do next, the LAST thing you should do is stay in school.
Several years ago, I was in a meeting with a group of college seniors. I went around the room and asked each attendee what they were thinking of doing after graduation. As I arrived at a young man who appeared confident to the point of cocky, his response was, “I’m planning to go to law school, get my MBA, or get a Masters in Education.” Given that it was April and graduation season was a month away, I was very surprised. So I asked him, “Why law school?” His response was a flustered ‘um, um’ followed by a defensively toned, ‘Because I think I might like it.” Needless to say, six months later, he was seeking career coaching. He had graduated, had no idea of what he really wanted to do, nor how to find the answer. I think many college grads are like this young man. They believe that education is a safe bet. His multi-faceted answer months earlier had been his way to make sure everyone was impressed, while he secretly was confused about what to do next. I’m just glad he didn’t force himself to go to school to save face! Going back to school without determining a financially sound reason to go is a risky investment. Advance degrees only provide career advancement when they offer the opportunity to build a specific skill set for a particular job/career. Don’t go back to school unless you are 100% certain you’ll use what you learn to get ahead. Better still, work for a company who will pay for it. Don’t believe me? Then consider these facts: some studies suggest as many as ½ of the people who get advanced degrees never see the financial return on their educational investment, while another study shows roughly 40% of all advance degree recipients end up taking jobs that they could have gotten without their additional degree.
TIP #5: Don’t succumb to Cinderella Syndrome. The sooner you break your addiction to acceptance, praise, grades, rewards and other bribes, the sooner you’ll find personally satisfying work that is professionally rewarding.
Many Americans, especially young ones, are victims of Cinderella Syndrome. The idea that one day, a surprising event will come along and fix their situation. For example, those that are severely in debt dream of winning the lottery, getting an inheritance, or even marrying a rich person. Others who dream of professional success imagine the ‘perfect’ opportunity will eventually fall in their path and be theirs for the taking. The number of people between the ages of 14 and 28 who believe they will eventually be famous and successful is staggering. And why shouldn’t they? Reality TV and a sensorial assault of marketing imagery tell them that they can have it all and that they are destined for greatness.
Yet, here’s the real problem: Generation NEXT has been raised on the use of external incentives as a way to get them to do things. Focused on a prize for everything you do, many Gen NEXTers are now addicted to rewards that include praise and acceptance from others. But we both know, an incentive is a nice word for ‘bribe.’ And when humans are forced to meet the expectations of others using bribes, they retaliate by putting in the least amount of effort to achieve the goal. Don’t believe me? Then check out Alfie Kohn’s book, “Punished by Rewards: The Problems with Gold Stars, A’s, Praise and Other Bribes,” and you will quickly understand why so little effort is put into identifying a career path while in school today. The average college student’s only goal is to get the piece of paper required to keep others satisfied. In fact, students are encouraged to keep their options open and to address their career interests after graduation. Unfortunately, this is having dismal results. Some say today’s college grad will have as many as 10 jobs in the first ten years of their life – you are becoming perpetual job seekers who don’t receive the benefits of mentoring or professional development due to job hopping. And, as a career coach who’s college grad clientele has tripled in the last year alone, I can tell your confidence will be weakened as bounce around, desperately trying to find career satisfaction, but feeling like a personal failure instead. Yet worst of all, your income potential suffers too. Being a specialist is what gives you greater earning potential. The better you are at a particular skill set, the more sought after you’ll be. However, years of career exploration without any calculated thoughts towards developing critical skill sets that can eventually be leveraged as professionals strengths results in the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’ persona. History is starting to repeat itself, the very generation that wants to stop career crisis and find work-balance is ending up confused and lacking the experience necessary to take control. On-set Career Crisis (the same anger, depression and anxiety felt by Mid-career Crisis individuals but at the first stage of the career path) is rising amongst Generation NEXT.
So, why don’t more college students just pick a career and get going? Well, given the number of career choices today and the lack of guidance given to help them leverage their strengths and narrow down their interests, Generation NEXT is finding themselves ill-equipped to identify and embark on a satisfying career. Imagine being brought into a supermarket and told, “Stand here and without reading the labels, pick one food. But pick wisely, because you are going to have to eat it every day for the next three years,” and now you will get a sense of what it’s like to be a college grad looking for their first job today. And let’s not forget that reality TV and being submersed in the On-demand, Instant Gratification Era has your generation feeling the greatest amount of pressure to succeed at a young age in history. It’s no wonder why, no matter how you spell it, ‘career’ is a four-letter word to Gen NEXT.
So, what’s the solution? Go out and find what you are looking for, then build the plan to make it happen for yourself. I guarantee you’ll get their faster (and have more fun doing it) then your peers who choose to wait for Prince Charming. Generation NEXT can begin by leveraging their experiences as professional students. It’s time to approach your career like you would a term paper. Seek out resources and do your homework. Set up informational interviews and talk to people whom you respect professionally. Get the facts so you can focus on a two-year professional development plan that involves enhancing a skill set in a particular industry that excites you. You are not making a life-or-death decision or a long-term commitment, but you do need to identify a smart, short-term professional goal and go after it. A career path is full of twists and turns, but opting to hit the road without at least some destination in mind can get you lost, not to mention, waste valuable time and resources.
TIP #6: Got a Career Story? If not, then plan on a longer, more stressful job search.
Want to impress hiring managers? Then you MUST be able to articulate your professional strengths and short-term career goals in 30 seconds or less. This is called a ‘Career Story’ and the more compelling it is, the better the odds you’ll get hired. Like it or not, you are ‘selling’ your services when you look for a job. So you need to reflect on your situation, assess yourself, and then put together a brief summary of what kind of employee you are and what you want to accomplish professionally in the near future. The key to a great Career Story is simple: be honest, be authentic, but most of all, be worth hiring! I have my clients write out their Career Story and share it with several professionals they respect. They then take the feedback and incorporate it in so they can rehearse the story and commit it to memory. I’m not suggesting it be rattled off like a line from a play, but rather, learned to the point that it is easy to articulate and converse about. A strong Career Story speaks volumes about your knowledge of yourself and your desire to be professionally successful. Hiring managers hire people who know how they’ll add value to their organization from day one. Share with them how you’ll be a valued asset and the job will be yours.
TIP #7: Spray-and-pray job searches are for people who are willing to settle for what’s available. Get active, create a network, and you’ll get access to the hot jobs nobody else knows about.
The average job seeker has to send out over 100 resumes to get even one response. The automation of the job search process has inundated hiring managers with so much paper, they are forced to be aggressive in their ‘weeding out’ methods. A simple typo or an odd formatting of your resume can land you in the ‘no’ pile in a second. Frustrating, but true. And, if your resume does make it into the ‘for consideration’ pile, know this: Managers hire personalities, yet, an applicant’s personality is severely diminished, and often misinterpreted when limited to conveying it via a single piece of paper. FACT: 93% of communication is non-verbal. That means, your resume, by itself, has a limited capacity to present you effectively. If you want to find a great job, you need to connect ‘live’ with people who can assess your potential and direct you towards the right opportunities.
How can you make this happen? Set up informational interviews with people at companies and in positions that interest you. You are not asking for a job, but rather gathering data on how to land a job like theirs. This is the single best way to build your first professional network. Some stats say as many as 80% of jobs are filled via referral. Who’s going to refer you? If you are shy or feel like you would be imposing on these people, let me change your perspective: What person doesn’t want to take a few minutes out of their day to discuss how they became successful? Moreover, seasoned professionals know the value of making connections. Who knows? Referring you to a job may help them in their own career some day. So, get your Career Story in great shape and start sharing it with the world. Get busy setting up opportunities to meet with people who can share their expertise and knowledge with you too. And soon, you’ll master the right way to get the inside track on those jobs that never get posted, a.k.a. the good ones!
TIP #8: A great mentor is worth a lot more than a good job. The excitement for any new job wears off over time, but the relationship with the right manager can keep you engaged, challenged, and on the fast-track to success. When looking for a job, consider the manager. Can you see yourself learning a lot from her/him? What’s their Career Story? How did they get in their position and what could you gain by being under their tutelage? Most importantly, can you see yourself being comfortable enough to take critical feedback from them and to share your professional concerns with them? Here’s another reason to choose a job based on the manager. People often refer to ‘office politics’ in the workplace. They are everywhere. It’s only natural for an environment of various personalities to have conflicts and differences of opinion. So, office politics will always exist. A large part of success on-the-job boils down to who you know and how you work with these politics. Finding a manager you respect and are willing to take guidance from will help you navigate these politics and rise up in an organization.
TIP #9: Want to quantum leap your career? Then learn to deal with the three C’s …now!
Your generation has been protected and encouraged with positive reinforcement throughout your entire lives by well-intentioned parents who wanted to minimize your exposure to pain, failure, disagreements, and other negative experiences. The “everyone gets a trophy” and “you’re all special” mantras you listened to were meant to build confidence, but this parenting approach had the drawback of not letting you ‘skin your knees’ and build your ability to cope with the emotional impact of the three C’s: Conflict, Criticism and Causing Disappointment. Here’s what you need to know from this point forward: to succeed in your career, and more importantly, in life, you will HAVE TO A) work through intensely conflicted situations, B) receive and internalize criticism, and C) accept that you will cause disappointment, because you just can’t please everyone, all the time.
How do you prepare yourself to deal with these successfully. Begin by focusing in on who you are and how you want others to perceive you. Define your personal and professional goals on your own terms, not someone else’s, and then go after what YOU want, know the reward for addressing the C’s that encounter along the way will only serve to make you stronger. It’s time to develop your critical skills in these areas. Ask any successful professional how they got where they are today and they’ll confirm that building up your resiliency against the 3C’s is the key.
TIP #10: Embrace the equation used by the most professionally satisfied people in the world.
I’ve worked with hundreds of people who were professionally successful, but personally miserable. In fact, I was once one myself. So, I ask anyone who knows someone like this to consider the following: “Can you really call it career ‘success’ if it costs you a happy life?” I realized quickly that there is something flawed in our current professional logic. So I researched the situation and learned that no other culture in the world puts as much emphasis on career as the defining element of their personal worth than America. We base many major life decisions on our ability to answer the question, “What do you do?” For better or worse, we are a society that sizes individuals up and determines how much respect we will bestow on a person, based on what they do for work. Yet, I challenge you to ask yourself the next time you meet someone who appears professionally successful, “But, are they successful in life?”
So, how do you find career satisfaction AND a successful life? You embrace and pursue your career using the following equation as the foundation of what you do: EXPERIENCE = LEARN = GROW. Satisfaction comes through growth. Growth occurs when we learn. Learning comes from experiences. Find things that let you get ‘lost in the moment’ of the experience, and you will find work that doesn’t feel like work. People who love what they do will tell you they wake up every day and look forward to ‘experiencing’ what their career has to offer them. Proactively seek out opportunities to learn on-the-job and you’ll grow to new levels of success and satisfaction. Be grateful for the opportunity to work, get creative in your ways to engage in it, and most of all, get excited about your capacity to expand your knowledge through experience, and a career that satisfies will be yours.