The greatest benefit I got out of college was figuring out exactly what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
The moment I walked across the graduation stage and was handed an empty pad-folio, it all clicked. Suddenly I had it all figured out. Or maybe it was when my degree was mailed 2 weeks later…honestly I can’t remember.
In fairness, I got plenty out of higher education, but I can’t say career clarity was tops on the list.
Don’t sweat it. Here are three lessons I’ve learned since graduation day that can help if you’re just starting out.
Lesson No. 1: Prioritize the company over the role
As Sheryl Sandberg famously said, “If you’re offered a seat on a rocket ship, don’t ask what seat! Just get on.”
The first question to ask when starting out is not what seat or job do you want – that comes later.
The first question is “what type of company do I want to work for?”
Do you want a big company with a lot of structure? Or smaller, more fast-paced? High growth and high risk, or slow and safe? More responsibility or a brand name on the resume? Maybe its some combination of all of these things.
Regardless, the environment shapes the role, not the other way around. This is why choosing your environment first is critical. You can have the exact same role at two different companies – love one, and hate the other.
I figured this out when my company was acquired. I had the exact same role. Same title, same office and worked with most of the same people…but the job was suddenly completely different.
There’s a second reason to prioritize joining the right company.
In today’s corporate world, you’re only going to be in your role “as is” for a short while. Some new manager will come in and change it…just you wait. But ideally, if you’re good, you’re going to get asked to do something else. This leads me to lesson number two.
Lesson No. 2: Eventually its better to be a big fish in a small pond
You could argue this is lesson 1.5 because its still about choosing your environment. Either way, let’s continue.
I started my career a little fish in a big pond. One of 40,000 guppies swimming around.
It was a great place to learn “what good looks like,” but difficult to stand out. Despite how badass I was, the waiting list to get a seat at the table was out the door and around the block. Like the list for the stimulus package, dead people might have been on it.
When I went to my next company I learned what I’d been missing. With each new achievement, I was the next man up. Being in a smaller pond gave me experience I would have had to wait decades to get previously.
I had the opportunity to execute multi-million dollar investment strategies, run a high-growth international business unit, build another one from scratch, and have regular 1 on 1s with our CEO, most of which before I turned 30.
By shrinking the size of my pond, I was able to condense decades of career experience into years.
But what do you do if you’re already at a company grinding out that j-o-b?
Lesson No. 3: Start by maximizing where you are
Before you get wet by jumping into new ponds, strive to first maximize your performance in the role you are in.
Your view might change once you’ve become the top performer in your peer group or given it everything you have. To the victor goes the spoils. If you become a top performer in your role, doors you didn’t even know existed will open for you.
“If you’re not maximizing your potential where you are, then you can never know if you should leave because you haven’t experienced all that it has to offer.”
Thankfully, this isn’t a “if you’re not first your last scenario” The key is to maximize your potential in the role. Do that first, then re-evaluate.
I believe these three lessons will help you discover the career clarity you seek. They have for me. This leads me to the final lesson…
Stay a beginner. College was fun, but it’s nothing compared to the school of life.