5 Things I Wish I Knew in the First 5 Years of My Career

In my career in technology, I have helped many customers create wayfinding systems—the touchscreen-enabled systems that allow people to chart where they are and where they are going as they navigate a shopping center or college campus. Wayfinding is a lot like the lifelong effort of shaping a career.

The first step is to identify where the “You Are Here” pin might be and to determine what direction might be a good next step. Unlike the touchscreen map in the shopping mall, however, one’s entire career landscape typically isn’t visible. This is because people create their careers as they go, and the total career map is only available in hindsight.

As my own career approaches two decades (and spans two millennia), I have been reflecting on the things I wish I better understood in the early years of my career. Here are some of the top insights:

1. Don’t wait for permission to get the experience you want.

Finally, you don’t need to wait for a specific job opening or opportunity to get the experience you want. In today’s world, it’s easier than ever to proactively develop your experience.

Do you want experience planning a highly visible event even though your company doesn’t have that need? Volunteer for a non-profit that puts on a fun run or festival.

Do you want to put your journalism degree to work even though your current job doesn’t require writing?Start a blog.

Do you want to learn a new skill, like programming iPhone apps? Take a class, read a book or join a local hack-a-thon group.

Are you not getting what you need from your manager to help you take your career to the next level? Join a professional development organization or seek out a mentor.

2. Whom you know isn’t as important as who knows you.

Knowing a lot of people and building a network is key, but it is also critical that they know you—to allow people to get to know you including what you’re good at, what you’re curious about, what you’ve done and what you’d like to do. This puts other people in a position to help you.

One way to get people to know you is by developing a special area of expertise. As an appreciator of artistic talent, I am often struck by how many famous artists get known for a particular style of art even though they can often paint in a variety of styles. Vincent van Gogh built his brand on the rough brush stroke style depicted in his Sunflowers and The Starry Night paintings, not his more realistic paintings of potato farmers. The artists who achieve prominence do so by getting known for doing one thing. They have talents and interests outside of that focus, but they develop a signature style. The same thing is helpful in your career.

When the industrial design firm IDEO hires new staff members, it looks for “T-shaped people”—individuals with a broad span of curiosity and experience (the top of the T), but a deep expertise in a single area (the base of the T). Think about your own experience and interests. Decide what your T looks like and reinforce it in your communications with other people.

Another way to get people to know you is to ask for advice. There’s nothing that makes you look smarter than asking smart people for their counsel. So put yourself out there to learn more from others on both small and big things. Ask the Excel expert in your office to show you her most useful tips and tricks. Ask someone in your circle his advice for graduate school programs. And even after you land a position, continue the informational interviews and other networking techniques you learned in college. An ongoing curiosity will serve you well. Not only will you learn, but the people you meet will get to know you on a deeper level.

3. What you know isn’t as important as whom you know.

Everyone has heard this maxim before and it is generally true: You are more likely to hear about a job or be given an opportunity from someone you know. But it goes further than that. Second-degree connections are of critical importance as well.

Early career individuals often seek to build a network of people who are hiring managers or executives, and as a result, they might miss the networking opportunities that exist with their peers. When I was in graduate school, I found that I often learned more and had more relevant professional connections with my classmates than my professors. The same is true in the business world. If you go to graduate school, join a company or volunteer for a non-profit, pay special attention to those whom you will be working alongside and attach yourself to the talented, smart, high-potentials in that group. You can grow your future network in this way.

4. Nothing is a life sentence.

It’s common for college students to feel like their selection of a major is setting them on a career path that’s more defined than it actually is. And many new college grads bemoan getting a job “outside their major.” But this is not a tragedy. Instead, it illustrates how fungible one’s career path and choices actually are.

In your lifetime, you may have several distinct careers. You will likely work for multiple companies, or at least multiple groups and managers, and although there will be skills gained from one assignment that you will use in others, the path will only be clear in hindsight. Don’t be afraid to take a leap and do something new, pursue your interests and have those take you in a different direction. Don’t be afraid to take on new responsibilities.

I often hear early career professionals say they feel pressure to pursue a defined career path despite not fully knowing what they want to do. The truth is you will always have additional choices and nothing you start doing today has to be forever.

5. Know how the score is kept and lead with it.

Any business—whether it’s a services firm, technology manufacturer or even a retailer—uses a common scorecard for measuring success: financial results. Sure, some organizations are starting to track triple-bottom line results in recognition of their impact on the community and the environment. But those factors typically supplement the traditional financial statements and metrics that allow all organizations to measure their results. It is critical that you understand how the score is kept.

If you want to obtain more responsibility in the organization, lead with the financials when making a proposal, explaining an initiative or presenting alternatives. Overall, you will be more strategic.