If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.
~ Henry David Thoreau
Burn out, frustration, defeat, misery, helplessness and a host of other career-stunting feelings at one time or another affects us all. As much as I’d love to acknowledge every individuals situation and assure them that everything will be OK, I have to take a step back and drink a healthy dose of humility and suggest that there are so many factors in your success, career satisfaction and work-life balance than I can possibly give an answer for. Some success is attained overnight, defying all logic. Yet for others it may take decades, or even a lifetime of patience, determination and commitment.
Unless you have a monster for a boss who likes to micromanage every minute of your day, then the disciplines and behaviors required for achieving your career goals are largely going to be your own responsibility and doing (as they should be.) So instead of waiting for opportunity and success to come to you, I think it’s best to take initiative and begin taking actions every day that will help improve your reputation, your career and ultimately your level of income.
Awhile back a colleague asked, “How do you keep yourself motivated? I see that you are very energetic and working well etc. I would like some advice.” I didn’t even try to answer in a brief Facebook chat, so I resorted to a mention of anecdotes (it takes time, insights, etc…) and headlines of the day (marriage is beneficial for your health, another security breach), at the same time assuring her that I was inspired by this question and that I wanted to make time to write down my thoughts on the subject and share them in my blog.
The short answer is that I don’t know any shortcuts to success. Most days I struggle just like everyone else to keep up with deadlines, responding to emails, attending meetings and all the while still managing to get real work done and the like. However, if you are willing to take the long view of your life and career, then I would offer the following habits and attitudes which have proven to be valuable to me over time.
The long answer:
1.) Align yourself with a larger-than-life issue that you feel passionate about
I will pass on the horrible clichés which other writers have used here, namely that writing down your goals (on paper) and putting them some place where you can see (near your alarm clock, blah blah blah) and reciting them to yourself is bunk. I’d wonder most about what if what you write down the wrong things? Have you put much thought into your life goals? It doesn’t matter if you write them down, memorize them, blog about them, or scream from a mountain top, they would be useless if they don’t help you look at what you care about most and what you’re personally capable of. Using the S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time based) tool for setting goals is a good way to quickly tell whether you are on the right track or not. But let’s not stop there.
Many people can too easily get caught up in the aim-to-please mentality, making priorities and setting goals that others expect to hear from them. But what about you? What do you want to spend *your* time doing? Make the time, frequently, to listen to your dreams and aspirations. Dream big dreams. Don’t learn from others mistakes, but instead make and learn from your own mistakes and personalize those experiences as your own success stories. Imagine being the very best in your city, in your state, and in the world at what you do, and then pursue that thing for as long as you can endure it.
As for me? I fantasize almost daily about a time when I wake up and turn on my computer and work to protect national security interests around the globe, and our people from the threats of cyber terror and cyber warfare. So, every day that I wake up and read blogs and headlines in Google Reader about cyber terror, computer fraud and the like is a renewal of my life’s aspirations. I don’t have to write it down to remember it. The context is updated every day by journalists, bloggers and authors all across the country who all work for me, informing me what is happening in business, government and in the world of cyber warfare. Talk about renewable energy sources!
This brings me to my next suggestion…
2.) Develop your appetite for reading.
I was told very early by a very smart and beautiful lady who I am proud to call my mom that there isn’t much you can’t learn from reading. I was self-taught in computer programming since the 6th grade and received straight A’s while studying German mostly due to the amount of time I dedicated to reading and self-study. Reading is important, and in my experience it is the only way to gain a deep understanding of trends in your industry and acquire the perspectives to create value for your employer and its customers and shareholders.
I have a daily reading schedule where essentially I have a pre-defined reading list of just over 100 blogs that I catch up on (from my mobile phone) every morning while drinking coffee and lying in bed with Cami and Molly. Blogs are excellent because you can get connected with some of the smartest people in your industry who are willing to share their knowledge and experiences, and who are almost always better trained and more relevant to your day-to-day than newspapers and books. I use Google Reader and more recently (FeedDemon) to organize, tag, star and share the most valuable posts I come across, and refer to them months if not years.
3.) Find a Mentor
Mentors help keep me motivated, and help me to learn things about myself (strengths, weaknesses) that my friends and family might be too afraid to share. Mentors can come from unexpected places, but in every case I think it’s important to identify with someone who you admire and feel you could learn things from or at the very least who can ask challenging (and revealing questions) that get you to see problems from a new perspective. I sometimes get made fun of by my wife because often after I buy a new book or discover a new blogger I will email them directly, initiating a dialogue to see what may become of it. It doesn’t mean I send emails with a biographical sketch and a dozen of questions, but rather, a quick introductory note with how you are using the knowledge and skills the author writes about, and that may lead to a single question which perplexes you the most. Chances are the author or blogger may see your question as a challenge and be willing to impart with insights to fuel your innovation.
Once you find a mentor and see your relationships grow, so does the frequency of contact and these should come as a welcome break from being in the trenches as the “technician” in your business. The main thing is to let you spend time thinking about the big picture and receiving feedback and suggestions from somebody who has overcome the same obstacles. That is to say, it should focus on you and your opportunity for growth and development in your career, not about ways to give more of yourself to your current employer. As you spend time developing and refining your sense of vision and direction for your career, you will indirectly benefit your employer which can in turn lead to an internal job promotion and pay raise, a well-deserved recognition or bonus pay.
4.) Walk the halls
This and the next suggest are about honing and developing excellent social, verbal and writing skills, without which your career will progress at a much slower pace, preventing you from being as effective as a professional as you can and should be. Unfortunately the programmer stereotype of a geeky looking guy or gal with glasses, working 15 hour days and sleeping under his or her desk is a poor self-image to nurture of one’s self. While this might be OK to do occasionally, the path to progress and accomplishment, working on personal and career related goals must go hand-in-hand with communicating clearly with those around you and developing meaningful relationships with peers and managers who can help promote and support your cause.
There is nothing like being greeted with a smile by someone who sees you infrequently, who has positive experiences with you and understands and is willing to support your “great cause” (discussed in my first suggestion) which you no doubt already spend countless hours/days/years of your career working on. I make appointments with myself to walk the halls through my company twice per week (when I’m at HQ anyways) with the sole purpose of finding hallway conversations that can spark interesting ideas, resulting in a lunch date or a deeper conversation which can greatly help you innovate in your career.
5.) 1500 words at a time
I never really considered myself to be a writer. In fact, for years I struggled with writing effectively and thought that any form of writing was for English majors and college students working on their thesis. I constantly had “writers block” and dreaded being responsible for preparing documentation or email correspondence. But at some point in time I hope you will come to realize the need for and benefits of effective writing as not merely a responsibility but much more of an opportunity for having your ideas heard by your colleagues and helping management make decisions that can have the net result of positive change in your organization.
Now with that said, your writing does not have to be like Tom Cruise in the movie Jerry Maguire writing about a moral epiphany that is going to get you fired. Unless, of course, you feel compelled to write that way, but to be clear that’s not the style of writing I am recommending in a business context. Writing in a plain, concise manner that primarily aims to clarify and elaborate on a given topic is a more productive style. Occasionally there will be a need to write persuasively about something you feel strongly about, but I have found that writing more frequently in a short and informational format is more effective than ranting and complaining once per quarter.
On a final note, have fun with your writing. I have enjoyed writing 1500 words per month for a column in a popular photography magazine, which has proven to be more beneficial to me in building the discipline and skill of writing than any material benefits it otherwise provides. It’s a sufficient amount of space to convey ideas, to inform others and increase your influence within your organization. So borrow from writing editorial style if it helps. Introduce your subject by making an outrageous claim (as long as it’s true) or rendering your opinion, provide supporting evidence and then go out with a BANG! It may feel awkward at first, but like anything, it takes practice. The more you do it, the better you become at not only writing as a way to get work done, but also gaining authoritative expertise as seen by your industry.
So let me know what you think. Share the love, or leave a comment.