I was asked recently to speak at an undergraduate event. Part of it was to give some career advice in the form of 3 tips. Here is what I came up with:
Many people after leaving university find adjusting to the world of work difficult and become very unhappy. Focusing on a lack of “meaning” in their job while searching for a “mentor” to guide them, they can quickly come to resent their firm and co-workers.
It does not have to be this way.
The most important thing to realise is that the workplace is not going to feel like an extension of education – it is completely and fundamentally different. For at least the first two decades of your life, focusing on your knowledge and your skills is the key and the whole environment around you is geared to helping you develop. However, the ability of a student to successfully transition into a happy and productive career has remarkably little to do with the knowledge and skills they start with.
What really matters is how well they can change their mindset.
Here are 3 things to focus on:
- It’s not about you any more
This is the piece of advice students generally find the most upsetting. A big change in mindset is required to succeed in a work environment compared to the one needed for education.
In education, the student is the product. The ultimate aim for a student, with the help of teachers, is to gain the skills and knowledge required to pass exams. This does not mean that students have complete free rein to do what they want. There will be various restrictions on behaviour, such as a requirement to go to lectures, prepare for tutorials, do reading, problem sets and essays – however these are all designed with the success of the student in mind. The best attitude for the student is to be focused on themselves and their own needs.
In the workplace, the business is the product. The ultimate aim for a new employee is to become useful. Many graduates find this transition to the workplace a shock. Senior members of staff may not think that a key part of their role is to educate you and make you more productive or happy. In a few years’ time, you will also be more senior too and it will be obvious to you that this is not a priority either. You will want to be productive at work, impress your boss, get promoted, get a bonus etc.
Adjusting to this new reality, the best attitude is to be focused, not on yourself, but on the needs of the people around you and of the firm – Be useful! You will then find good things will start to happen to you. Given reciprocity (see “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion” by Robert Cialdini), people you help will also help you. Senior people will start to spend time helping you learn and improve. You will have signalled to the firm that you have the right mentality to succeed and so will be promoted more quickly, paid more and given more training.
Having a real job is extremely helpful in preparing you for work and choosing a career path. I spent my Gap year working full time as an economist, but working at McDonalds may have perhaps been even better. You need to understand what it is like to be the other side of the counter.
- Be flexible.
In education, a targeted focus and narrow determination are extremely helpful for excelling with high results. The world of academia is fragmented and siloed, with status derived from expertise in ever more specialised areas.
The world of work is very different. A modern and successful career will come with many parallel and some orthogonal leaps into new areas, combined with an ability to master a broad range of cross-disciplinary problems.
I could easily have become a consultant or economist and I think I would have really enjoyed it and been successful. In banking and hedge funds, my career could have gone in lots of different directions. The only way to take opportunities is by being open minded.
- Work with people you would like to become.
This piece of advice was given to me as an undergraduate, and it has repeatedly proven itself true as my career developed.
Don’t think that you can join an Investment bank for the money and not become like them. Either you will change to fit in, or you will not and you will hate it and leave.
You must judge it from meeting real employees, not from impressions from TV shows. Being a lawyer is not the way it is on Suits just as being a Hedge Fund manager is not like Billions (well mostly anyway). That is why internships are so useful.
The world of work is can be a stimulating and fulfilling experience. For that to happen you need to be able to have the right mindset to take advantage of the opportunities on offer.