For just about everyone, there is no straight career path. What you think you're going to do when you graduate high school, to what you end up doing by the time your 40 or 50 years of age can be vastly different. To an outside observer, who doesn't know the whole story, they puzzle, "How did this person get from Point A to Point Z?" It wouldn't make any logical sense if you observe job titles alone.
You see, the jobs that you hold throughout your career are more than just titles, a set of duties, and a paycheck every two weeks. They are opportunities to acquire new skills, learn new ideas, meet new people, try out new methods, think of new strategies, and solve different problems. What this means is that each job opens up other opportunities for you to pursue.
Let me describe this through my wife's story. She grew up in Communist Romania. During her early school years, she learned English and decided she loved the language and linguistics so much that she'd pursue a career in the field. So she went to college and got her Bachelor's degree. While she was there, she made a close friend studying the same thing. After she graduated, she got a job as a high school English teacher in a neighboring town. After a few years, she heard that her friend from college got accepted into a university in the United States to get a Master's degree in English. She thought, "Maybe I could do this, too." A year later, she applied and was accepted into the program as well.
I met her on her first day in the country and it wasn't too long before we started dating. One night, we were having drinks and we talked about life goals and what we wanted to do with ourselves when we graduated. She mentioned, sort of out of the blue, that she'd always wanted to be a lawyer when she was a kid. I asked her why she didn't pursue it. She didn't have a good answer. So I encouraged her to look into going to law school. She followed my advice and was accepted to several law schools, choosing St. Louis University School of Law in the end. She did well as a student, but really struggled finding a job after she graduated. Little did we know, this was pretty common for law graduates. There are a lot of aspiring lawyers, but not a lot of attorney positions available.
One evening, as we were taking a walk and she was telling me how frustrated she was getting. I stopped her and said, "Maybe we're looking at this all wrong. You've applied to just about every large and small firm in the city and don't seem to be getting anywhere. Let's think about skills." I asked her what all she had learned in school and then asked her, "Out of everything studied, what was the area you liked the most? What were you best at?"
She told me that she enjoyed her Contracts and Transactional Law classes. I thought, "Well, reading contracts is a skill. Let's start looking for jobs that involve this skill and apply, rather than keep applying only to attorney positions at law firms." So we did a search on the internet and low and behold, there was one opening that was perfect for her - a Contracts Specialist. She applied and not long afterward, she got the job. A few years later, with more experience working in a highly regulated industry, reviewing contracts, negotiating with vendors, and being involved in different projects, she had acquired many more skills. This got her another opportunity in a different company as a Vendor Relations Manager, that had her more involved in the vendor selection process. This helped her get yet another position as a Vendor Contracts Manager.
At each step, she learned new things and made new relationships that she was able to take advantage of later. This principle can work for anyone if they desire to learn, have ambition, are willing to make mistakes, and aren't afraid of going outside what they are initially comfortable doing. This is true even for the person who starts off digging ditches or cooking fries or cleaning hotel rooms. You just have to find those opportunities that move you to the next step.
I never played video games much as a kid. In my house we had a knock off Atari and that was about it. It wasn't until I got to college and had a big gamer roommate that I ever played with any regularity. One game he had that I really liked was Golden Eye 007. What was fun about it, was at each level in the game, there were new scenes and new weapons to find and utilize.
This is the perfect analogy to your career. If you don't find new skills, you're going to be stuck in Level 1 for the rest of your life. If you want to level up, you better do something, man!
Seek every opportunity to add a new skill to your set. Even if you can't see how it benefits you today, you never know how it could become useful later. So if the company offers you training, take it. Volunteer for projects that give you a chance to learn - too often, we only volunteer for things we know how to do already. You might look good doing it, but you aren't really progressing as a professional. If the company doesn't have any internal training, ask if you could do some training outside and potentially get reimbursed. Identify possible mentors - someone who is successful and willing to take you under their wing. Most of them have a great deal of experience and knowledge along with more than a few skills that you can pick up from them.
Seek new jobs - internally and externally - that give you a chance at learning something new, but use some skills that you already have. You want to look for jobs that have some overlap. Not something that's a duplicate of what you do now, but also not something so different that you'll continuously struggle.
Finally, once you start learning a new skill, keep practicing it until you've become slightly better than adequate and then start looking for something else to learn. You're goal isn't to become the best at one thing. Your goal is to be good at a lot of things. There's no one single skill that will unlock every opportunity (not even the skill of picking locks). It's the combination of skills you're able to use. The more you know, the further you will go.
Skills to Get You Started
There are a few skills that you can never go wrong in developing. They will be useful in virtually any career path you end up taking.
1. Public Speaking: Studies have shown that people fear death less than public speaking. That sounds absurd, until you walk up the stairs and onto a stage, heart pounding, sweat beading up on your forehead, and you can't swallow. It is terrifying in the beginning.
I remember many years ago, I was part of a group that presented a competitive analysis of another company in the industry. One of the girls was so overcome with stress that about mid-way through her part of the presentation (in front of the Managing Partner of the company, no less) she fainted. I'm guessing that over the years, and with practice, she's gotten much better. But it was too much for her that day.
While this skill is probably one of the most terrifying, unfortunately it is nearly unavoidable. The only way to get better is to do it over and over again. You will start to learn how to control your emotions, your voice, and so forth. If you don't feel like you're a strong speaker, join a Toastmaster's Club or sign up for a Dale Carnegie course. It will be worth it. When you're able to calmly deliver a message, you're viewed by others as more capable. Your stock goes way up.
2. Business Writing and Grammar: How you compose an email or write a proposal is a lot different than how you write a letter or text a friend. Obviously, you need it to be more formal. But you also need to learn how to make your message concise and easily digestible. Train yourself to cut out the slang, don't use flowery language, write confidently, use proper punctuation, and use bullet points instead of long paragraphs.
There are a lot of books out there on the topic. One of my favorites is Write Tight, which is about writing in general. There are a lot of other books on Amazon that specifically address business writing, however.
3. Psychology and Persuasion: These two topics will definitely help you in sales, but they are useful in just about any career. Whether you realize it or not, most of your day is spent trying to persuade others (or yourself) and motivate others (or yourself).
For instance, in one of my past jobs, I had the task of collecting information from different departments in order to create a rather large report. Some people got this information to me right away, others needed a few gentle reminders, but there was one guy who I just could not get anything from. So finally, after many calls and emails over the course of a month, I walked down to his office one day and sat in front of him and I asked him, how could I help him so he can help me. That was all it took. The offer of giving him something spurred him to finally get me what I needed. The kicker was, I didn't have to do anything, I just offered. I didn't realize it at the time, but I was using the persuasion principle of reciprocity. All I knew was that it worked and I did the same thing with him any time I needed something from him.
You can read about this topic if you pick up the book, Influence. There are some tried and tested methods to get people to act. If you learn them, you'll be much more effective at your job.
4. Accounting: For the non-numbers people, you're probably thinking, "Yuck! No thank you!" I actually kind of agree. It's not the world's most scintillating topic. No one who reads an accounting book will call it a "real page turner." But learning about it is incredibly helpful to you and your career because this is the language of business. Everything eventually boils down to dollars and cents. As you move up in your career, the more this becomes evident. Especially when you get to a point where you are creating a budget. If you learn this stuff early in your career, you'll be seen as more valuable than someone who doesn't think and talk in these terms.
The good thing is that you don't have to learn it to the level of a Certified Public Accountant. Just get a basic understanding of the principles. If you can learn how to read a balance sheet and an income statement, as well as understand cash flow, you'll be sufficiently versed in accounting. A good book to start with is Accounting Made Simple.
5. Design: There is value in aesthetic. For instance, if you see a well-designed company website, you're more likely to trust the company. If you see a well-designed presentation, you're more likely to think the presenter is highly intelligent. If you see a well-designed and organized office, you'll believe the person behind the desk is competent. If this sounds shallow to you, that's because it is. But nonetheless, how things look is important to just about everyone, so you need to learn how to design things to give the ultimate impact.
I can attest to the fact that if a person's resume is not particularly eye-appealing, Recruiters and Hiring Managers will be less likely to call that person in for an interview. Even though this person may have all the necessary experience, it gets lost in the mess that he or she threw together and called a resume. A sad, but true fact.
The Non-Designer's Design Book is full of basic strategies to improve your design eye.
6. The Art of Conversation: Unfortunately, in the age of cell phones, social media, and texting, it feels like this art has gone to the wayside. It seems so foreign to people to just strike up a conversation with a stranger. Perhaps it's due to all the "stranger danger" that was ingrained in us as children?
Even so, conversation is still the key ingredient to networking. If you can't have anything but an awkward conversation, you're doing it wrong. So what's the secret? Asking the other person questions about themselves until you find something you both have in common. Talk about that topic for a while and then move on to some more questions until you strike upon another topic you both are interested in. To get some more details on this and other networking strategies, read How to Win Friends and Influence People.
7. Technology and Systems: When it comes to technology, you either keep up and maintain your career or you fall behind and your career falls with it. For most careers, technology certifications are unnecessary, but even so, you should make sure the technology that you're using is up to date and your familiar with it at a hobby-level.
The topics of tomorrow will be Artificial Intelligence and cloud computing. Learn what you can about these topics. Stay abreast of how media and information is being consumed. Even if you don't intend to use them, I'd encourage you to at least be familiar with the varieties of established and new social media out there. Learn the latest versions of Microsoft programs. Delve into the Apple operating system along with the Google's Chrome operating systems. While Windows is still the one of choice for most businesses, the other two will be more broadly accepted in the future, given that students graduating today tend to prefer them over Windows.
Never Stop Learning, Never Stop Growing
Be the avid learner like you were when you were young. As you develop skills, learn new ideas, meet new people, and try new things, you're life will feel a whole lot more interesting and exciting. As adults, we have the bad habit of getting comfortable and lazy.
That may work fine for a while, but eventually, you'll get a jolt. You could get laid off or suddenly find others around you advancing in their career while you stay in the same place, year in and year out. You fall behind and it will be a huge struggle to catch up.
Don't let this happen to you. Develop those skills, build those relationships, and get that experience so you stay ahead of the game. Believe me, it's no fun being the person left behind.
About RockIt Career Consultation Services
At RockIt Career Consultation Services, our mission is to help you discover your true strengths and use these strengths to set your course to something more rewarding and exciting in your career.
We will guide you on what job or career best suits you and then help you market yourself through your resume, your networking strategies, your interview skills, and your negotiation to ensure that you are doing something you love and are maximizing your earning potential. Throughout, we will be there to keep you motivated and determined.
We'd love to help you launch your career and encourage you to learn more about the services we can provide you on your path to a more prosperous future. With our help, you will become the applicant every company wants to hire!