Anyone who knows me in real life is thinking ‘Colin is the biggest hypocrite in the world’ after reading the title of this article. Why? Because I’m the first person in any situation to bring up work, professions, the ‘what do you do for a living’ questions, blah blah blah.
But they misunderstand me! The point that I’m trying to make is not that you should segment your life and avoid talking about what you do in social settings. What I want to get across is that in every professional decision you make, your first priority should be you and your career goals over whatever job you happen to be working at that moment.
The professional world is shifting quickly, and as more and more Gen-Y’ers (known for their career-jumping ways) enter the workforce, we’ll be seeing fewer and fewer companies willing to invest long-term in their employees.
And it makes sense for them to take that stance, really. Up to this point, sending lower and middle management to classes in order to raise their level of knowledge has been a solid investment because more often than not, those managers would be staying with them for decades, if not longer. This has ceased to be the case, and many companies are starting to realize this.
So what’s a skill- and knowledge-starved employee to do?
Increase Your Own Value
Make sure you are in a position to be constantly learning. There are many ways to achieve this outside of company-sponsored classes and seminars (though you really should take advantage of as many of these as are available).
Check out local community colleges (especially those that have online courses, which are usually flexible enough that you can do your homework at night or on the weekend). Also called ‘technical colleges,’ community colleges are dirt cheap (I’m ALWAYS taking at least 2 or 3 classes from Santa Monica College here in LA, and most classes are around $60 for the entire semester!), really valuable and concise (they generally focus on very practical applications of whatever is being taught, so you skip over a lot of the fluff that is taught to fill up time in University settings).
You can also set up a self-education program, making use of the free and nearly-free information available online. Want to learn more about business? Check out the Personal MBA. Want to upgrade your graphic design chops? Make use of the free trial over at Lynda.com (and snag a very reasonably-priced subscription if you like it) and tutorial sites like NETTUTS and abduzeedo. Want to up your math quotient or chew on some classic literature? Check out MIT’s free online courses.
There is so much information out there if you look around. Googling ‘tutorials x’ or free courses x (where x = the subject your are interested in) is guaranteed to get you dozens of high quality results right off the bat.
Network Network Network
Meeting people is the new being reclusive, so get yourself and your name out there (in a positive way, of course) online and in real life as much as possible.
Consider this: if you are ever in the position where you need to find a new job, or you want to tackle a higher tier of employment, or you want to go solo and need clients, or you want to change careers and need information on how a profession works, then you will need a network of people to call on.
Your network is like an arsenal that you can open up when you’re in a firefight (or a legal battle) and is a great way to integrate yourself into a new social scene.
Having a strong network is invaluable because, like any good investment, it continues to work even when you aren’t actively involved with it. I personally have gotten dozens of new clients and projects just because I know the right people, and any time I find myself needing a connection to someone high up at So-And-So company or someone who can set up a classy, green Hollywood event on a budget, I can be confident that someone I know (or someone they know) will be able to put me in touch with the right person.
Keep in mind, that maintaining a strong network means that you give as well as you get (or better). If someone should put out the word that they need an ‘in’ somewhere that you have a connection, by all means help them; the modern network is powered by nothing so much as karma (or paying it forward, if you prefer). Help people out and they will help you out, it’s as simple as that.
Maintain Your Personal Brand
This is becoming more and more vital even as you read this sentence. Your personal brand is the aura that emanates from everything you do professionally and, increasingly, personally.
Your LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter profiles are all part of your personal brand. Your website and business cards are also a part of this brand. The signature at the bottom of your emails? Yup, part of your personal brand.
A strong personal brand can make the difference between instantly bouncing back from a bad professional situation and being stuck in a rut, clientless and with a bad reputation. Managing this brand should be a top priority, and there are a few simple things you can do to make sure it stays strong.
First, do not put anything online that you wouldn’t want your grandmother to see.
Second, be sure that your online real estate (including your website, blog, social network profiles and Yelp comments) shouts ‘I’m a professional!’ It only takes one YouTube video of you drunkenly dancing on a table or mooning a bus full of nuns to negate everything you’ve worked hard for. Make your online real estate into assets rather than liabilities.
Third, consider your real life persona carefully and be brutally honest without yourself about what needs to change. If you dress like a slob (‘expressing yourself’) and curse like a sailor in front of your boss, you may want to reign yourself in a bit and find a middle ground that will work for you (you don’t have to ‘sell out,’ but if you want to be taken seriously, be prepared to fit in to your environment to even a small degree; khakis and a buttoned-down shirt will not kill you, I promise).
A much longer and more involved assessment of personal branding can be found in a free eBook I wrote entitled The Least You Need to Know: Personal Branding.
No Man Is An Island, But You Are a Peninsula
Finally, keep in mind that, though you will be attached to certain companies and people throughout your professional life, at any given moment you are surrounded by clear, open ocean on three sides, and it’s just waiting for you to explore it. If and when you get the chance/desire to fly the coop and change your career path, you’ll be much happier knowing that you are prepared to do so (as much as one can be prepared for such a thing, at least).
If you lose your job or if there is some kind of emergency that requires a complete change in lifestyle, things will settle into a new routine much faster if you are able to roll with the punches.
Keep your mind open, a minimal number of enemies and a constantly growing collection of skills and you will be ready for anything.
How do you stay prepared for professional rough seas? Have a personal branding tip or two? Any thoughts on the new, post Gen-Y workforce? Tell us in the comment section below!
Update: April 24, 2016
There are a few points in this post that I still agree with, but would phrase differently, today.
First, focusing on one’s career is important, but only if that career melds and balances well with your lifestyle. The way I wrote about this above, it implies that your long-term work goals are more important than your temporal work situation, which is true, but thinking about it that way can still be harmful if your career keeps you from living and becoming a more fully realized and fulfilled version of yourself.
Second, the word networking has become kind of a non-starter for me, due to the impression that it catalyzes that ‘networking’ means treating people as resources to be leverages in a professional sense. I wrote a book about this, and then rewrote it a few years ago (for clarity and so that it didn’t suck so bad, but also to update the ideas it contained) because I think our relationships are important, and that the best way to have strong relationships is not to be mercenary about it and use people, but rather to just be a good person, treat people well, and let those people you interact with know if there’s something you’re trying to accomplish professionally. It doesn’t have to be more complicated (or cold) than that, and approaching things in this way, you’re more likely to have a round, healthy lifestyle, rather than one that’s filled with valuable professional connections, but no one you actually like or who makes you happy.
Finally, I still think personal branding is important, but that’s another term that’s fallen out of vogue (for many reasons), so I tend to think about it in terms of telling your story clearly, concisely, in a true and informative way, and ideally in a way that doesn’t put other people to sleep. It’s about clear communication, and focusing on that, and on which aspects of ‘you’ are vital in any given moment, is something that works well for your career, but transcends work and bleeds over beneficially into your personal life, as well.