What Advice Would You Offer?

Career advice for those seeking success and financial security

Recently, I received an email from an enterprising business student at Carnegie Mellon University seeking some career advice. Specifically, she was asking about my career path.

My first thought for her was, “set the objective of being self-employed or controlling a company within five to ten years.” I don’t think going from job to job, even if the next one seems better, is the best route. And, the days of working for 30 or 40 years with one company, getting a good pension, and then retiring—as was common years ago—are long over.

That begs the question: How do I become self-employed or a boss in five to ten years? Think like Mario Lemieux. He was one of the best hockey players not because he knew where the puck was, but because he knew where it was going. I expect disruptions in virtually every profession including my own, so for career opportunities look to the future, to what is on the horizon, not necessarily what is hot right now.

Look at the shifts Uber and Lyft have sparked. Add in autonomous cars and the changes will not only affect jobs that are obvious, like car and truck drivers, but many that aren’t. What will happen to the parking industry? (I won’t be crying for those garage owners who take your money and make you drive round and round looking for a space. But I will feel sorry for the employees).

Some occupations/businesses will innovate and adapt, some won’t. Not every small-town business failed when Walmart came to town. The businesses that survived planned for Walmart’s arrival and changed direction or focus. The upshot? There are going to be winners and losers. The winners will be adaptable, and have the right skill set and have the vision to jump on an opportunity.

But, it is also important to keep in mind that some things won’t change. Jeff Bezos, of Amazon fame, not only looks at what will be different in the future, but what will be the same. Here is a quote from him:

“I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’ … I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time. In our retail business, we know that customers want low prices, and I know that’s going to be true 10 years from now. They want fast delivery; they want vast selection.

It’s impossible to imagine a future 10 years from now where a customer comes up and says, ‘Jeff, I love Amazon; I just wish the prices were a little higher.’  ‘I love Amazon; I just wish you’d deliver a little more slowly.’ Impossible.”

How will people change? I think a lot less than the technology that will change the way we do things. Things may look different, but we will still want the same things: longer lives, financial security, fulfilling relationships, good health, etc.

I would advise our student to get several years’ experience working in a small, high-quality firm in her interest area. To quote Bezos again: “Work hard on getting smarter. Work harder on getting smart people on your side.” I think it is better to stay small if you can work with the right people. It isn’t resume building. It is learning what you are doing.

I will concede that sometimes the best way to learn something is to throw caution-to-the wind and jump right in, but you must be willing to accept the consequences. That said, I think it is better to take a shot when consequences are least onerous.

If the young woman from CMU takes a job, starts something on the side, then quits her job and devotes her energy to her side business and it fails, it isn’t the end of the world. There is no shame in failure—most successful business people have failed more than once—she can live in a basement apartment and wash her dishes in the bathtub. She won’t starve. But if she is married and has two kids, then the stakes are a lot higher. But, to return to Mario Lemieux, no matter how well anticipated, you will never score a goal unless you shoot the puck and risk missing!

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