I don’t actually believe in mistakes. I believe there are things you choose to do and things you choose not to do based on your circumstances and context. For example, many of the following 7 pieces of advice would have helped me immensely in my first job when I felt overwhelmed with ambiguity on a daily basis. But now I have that experience to thank for my unwavering ability to stay calm in the most stressful work situations.
For me, it has always been about the journey, the ups and down and in-betweens. My journey has been a continuous build of who I am, and so has yours.
Without further ado, here’s what I would tell myself, and anyone else looking for a little reminder.
It's ok to make it up. We're all making it up. Whatever work challenge you’re experiencing right now is unique. Nowhere else, at the same time, with the same people, in the same way, does the same situation exist. So many times, I wanted to reach for the manual or ask my colleague “what next?” Surely someone has already been down this same road. Of course there are best practices, academic research and similar instances, but there is no tried-and-true formula. Use to your brain, your gut and your confidence to make well-enough-informed decisions during ambiguous times.
You set the boundaries, not your employer. At the end of the day, literally, only you can decide where you draw the boundaries. There are consequences to any decision, but you're accountable for making those personal decisions with full awareness of the upshot. Sometimes you’ll be willing (and know when) to make exceptions, but make them mindfully. One of my clients has an untouchable 30 minutes on her calendar every day when meetings don't get scheduled and deliverables don't get delivered. She has higher energy and productivity as a result. Keep self care on your radar, use your vacation days and set precedents that align with your values and goals - otherwise someone else might.
Be human. There are two meanings here. First, being superhuman is highly detrimental to any sense of reality or balance in the workplace. Knowing when to say no says a lot about your ability to manage priorities and value your and your team's time. The second aspect is allowing yourself to be vulnerable, admitting when things don't go as planned and not checking yourself at the door. In other words, be human, use human language and show human emotions. As organizations get more complex than ever, basic tenets like respect, empathy and mindfulness are needed now more than ever. Show a little love, it will go a long way.
“Be” there before you “get” there. Some call this “fake it ‘til you make it”. I say, literally embody the state - physically, emotionally, intellectually - that you want to be in, raise your head high, go forth authentically and be that person even if you aren’t "there" yet. If you’re confident and have done the work to be competent, no one else needs to know it’s your first time on stage. Anyway, the sweet spot of development for high achievers is when you have a 50-70% chance of success, so take those risks!
Accept what you can’t change, and work extra hard for what you can. There will always be injustice, politics and things you can’t change in the workplace. For someone like me who scores highest on “Fairness” on the SCARF model (take the self-assessment!), this one will always be an achilles heel. Learning to let go of what you can’t control is 75% of the battle. Once you do, it will allow you to instead channel that energy on what you can, and want to, change or get done.
Don’t (always) be right at the expense of being liked. It’s so much easier to work with people when they like you. I’ve been doing a lot of coaching around interpersonal relationships and challenges, and the overarching theme is the art of knowing when to pick your battles. This doesn’t mean giving up your point-of-view, rather having the self awareness to know the difference between a “better” way and a “different” way. If you're in the latter camp, approach it with an open mind and not too much attachment.
Ask more questions. Can you tell I love questions?! Questions are the doors to deeper possibilities. A past colleague of mine recently asked me: “How do I build trust with this new group when I’m new to the team and I don’t have all the experience?” I told her that you build trust by asking good questions and creating a connection. Connection is a prerequisite to trust. She’s smart, so the rest she will figure out.
These are just the lessons I've learned throughout my journey. If I look back, with some I've made good headway, others will always need more work, and in 10 years they will look very different. I hope some of them ring true for you.
If you were to create your own list of advice for the you of many years ago, what would you say? I would love to hear!