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13 Critical Career Lessons Leaders Wished They’d Learned Sooner

Time + distance = perspective. Here's powerful perspective from leaders looking back on an oft-asked career question.

yuanyuan yan/Getty Images
yuanyuan yan/Getty Images

I thought I’d answer the most common question I get from young executives after keynotes I give (other than “Do you give refunds?”):

“What do you know now you wish you knew when you started your career?”

I asked the same question of 1,000 leaders, and blended with my own experience, here are 13 realizations in retrospect:

1. You own your career.

We like to believe that if we keep our heads down and crank, the Great Career Planner in the sky will simply move us from job to job until career dreams are realized.

Don’t fall into this trap.

Yes, people will help you along the way, but you really are in the driver’s seat.

The key is to do more asserting than assuming.

2. Meaning starts with “Me”.

You’re the only one who can ascribe meaning (or not) to what you spend your time on. Commit to pursuing the life and career that you want, not that someone else expects of you.

The word “meaning” starts with “me” for a reason. This is the key to having a fulfilling career–and life.

3. Zap, don’t sap.

There are two kinds of people at work–those who zap energy into a workplace with their enthusiasm, passion, and optimism, and those who sap energy with their pessimism, gossip, and negative attitude.

Despite our best intentions, it’s easy to spiral down with the Debbie-downers from time to time. Don’t get sucked into the vortex of energy-sucking vampires.

By the way, great attitudes are often the tiebreaker for coveted jobs.

4. Character reveals itself in times of crisis.

So use such times to show yours. You really get to know someone in times of adversity. People always remember how you acted in such times, one way or another.

5. Lift as you climb.

Rising up the chain is nice. Lifting others up as you do is what it means to be a caring human being.

6. Go from being…to becoming.

We barely have enough time in our hurried lives to be, let alone become. And going from merely being, to becoming (a better version of yourself) is how fulfillment happens.

Commit to placing learning and growth on a pedestal. The times when we’re least happy in our career are when we’re stagnating.

7. Go from success…to significance.

Nothing wrong with striving for success. It’s about evolution though. The sooner you commit to being not just successful, but significant, in the lives of others, the deeper the fulfillment.

8. Be an original thinker.

It’s easy to get caught thinking and acting in a way that’s a “company norm” (which isn’t always the right norm). Over time, we might even begin to parrot what our boss says and thinks.

Along the way, we realize our original thinking has been stuffed back down into our souls.

Don’t let this happen–protect the unique gifts and original thinking you have to contribute to the world.

9. Be interested in what’s right, not who’s right.

It’s easy to waste precious time and energy obsessing over winning an argument. But intellectual integrity is much more important than perceived intellectual prowess (which isn’t automatically prescribed to the winner of an argument).

Be interested in what the right thing is, then do that right thing.

That’s energy well spent.

10. The biggest risk you can take is not taking any risk.

The biggest difference between mediocre and magnificent leaders often comes down to their willingness to take risks, learn from them, and keep moving forward.

Period.

11. Be resilient and relentless.

Adapting to changing circumstances is a vital skill set if you want to have a career light on frustration. The same holds true for an unbending commitment to keep trying, no matter the conditions.

Perseverance pays. Resiliency rewards.

12. Don’t run for office when you’re already elected.

Over your career you’ll be placed in many a position because someone has already “voted” you in; they already believe you to be worthy. You don’t need to politic any further than that.

Do your job to the best of your ability and leave the politics for those with less ability.

Yes, sometimes politics will pay off for someone else. But not over the long run. And do you want to advance in that fashion anyway?

13. Leave a legacy.

It’s a mathematical fact that we all have a “born on” and “end” date in life, and in each job we’re currently in or are going to. What do you want that time in between to say about your accomplishments, about how you touched lives, about what kind of person you were?

May each of these lessons looking back help you in moving forward.

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