10 Career Tips I Wish I Knew When I Was Younger

Tips to help you avoid the pain of learning on your own skin.

Posted Jul 14, 2014

These are the career lessons I wish I knew when I was younger:

1. Don't sell out for "stuff." Shopaholism requires you to make lots of money. And most employers that pay employees lots of money do so because the work is difficult, distasteful, spiritually empty, and/or requires too-long work hours.

That's a high price to pay for designer labels, a fancy address, or car nameplate. If you find your contentment in productivity, creative outlets, and relationships as opposed to in buying "stuff," you won't need to pursue such a financially remunerative career. Instead, you can pursue one you'd find more fun—for example, one in a startup, a creative field, or work for a cause you believe in.

2. Make it fun. There's usually a more fun way to get things done. If you do it the arduous way, the benefit is usually outweighed by your tending to procrastinate the task and make you less satisfied with your work life. So, as you decide what to do and how to do it, keep asking yourself, "What's the fun way?" Usually, you'll find the work gets done faster and, ironically, often better.

3. Be a storyteller. Most people are affected more by story than by statistics. Story appeals to the emotion, which is what motivates most people's behavior change. That's why so many articles start with, "Joe Blow..." and only after the audience is hooked, does the article mention statistics, facts, etc. So have three anecdotes ready to tell at any networking event or even for water-cooler convo. And certainly, pepper your talks with anecdotes, whether it's a two-minute presentation at a meeting, a keynote address, or even a toast at your friend's wedding.

4. Be low-maintenance. You pay a big price for being high-maintenance. No matter how competent you are, especially in today's busy times, your boss and co-workers may be on max, so your complaint or even your new idea may be unwelcome. If your boss or workgroup's plate is already full, they simply may not be open to adding something else or changing gears. Even asking too many questions can be annoying. Of course the workplace and indeed society would be better if all that weren't true, but alas, it is.

5. Don't brag about yourself; brag about others. Don't try to show how smart or good you are. Usually, it's wise to prioritize making others feel good about themselves.

6. Almost everything matters enough to try. Almost nothing matters enough to get angry.

7. Pick your battles.  You have little chance of changing people's foundational views: political, religious, work ethic, etc. Too, it is very risky to render opinions counter to the era’s zeitgeist. For example, today, it’s dangerous to argue against additional redistribution to society’s have-nots.

8. Maximize your contribution to your workplace's retirement plan. 401(k), 403(b), or, if you're self-employed, to a SEP-IRA. One of the most widely recommended places to invest such funds is a Vanguard all-in-one fund. Don't divide-up your money in lots of places. It adds to your paperwork and makes it difficult to follow how you're doing. All-in-one funds provide considerable diversification at low cost, and they're all on one statement.

9. Hire for intelligence and drive; train for skills. You can far more readily teach people a skill or information than to make them smarter or harder-working.

10. Never look back. My father, a Holocaust survivor, rarely talked about the experience. When I asked him why, he said, "The Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Never look back, always take the next step forward."

Marty Nemko's bio is in Wikipedia.