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Top Ten Career Tips for Starting Out

Keys to career success for new graduates or people changing careers.

Maybe you've just finished school, or dropped out. Or maybe you're ready to change career.

In any case, you don't want to screw it up. Here are my top tips:

Go with what you got. For example, if you're good at writing but a lousy team player, fight to get a job that allows you to be that best self. Yeah, I know that self-help gurus tell you to keep learning and that with effort, you can accomplish almost anything. Bull. Few people grow enough from remediating their weaknesses to justify spending the time on that rather than on using and building on natural strengths.

Be contrarian. If you search for jobs in popular areas--environment, entertainment, law, medicine, nonprofits--the competition is fierce. Go for the less sexy, for example: management in an industrial company, exporter of obsolete high-tech machinery to developing nations, work at a toxic waste disposal business. In the end, career contentment comes from doing a good job, having responsibility, getting appreciation, good pay and job security. You're more likely to find all those in something other than a "cool career."

Do the most you can, not the least you can get away with. I know that sounds like your parents' preaching but that is key to success. Really.

Procrastination is career cancer. During a talk to college presidents, I asked, "How many of you consider yourself a procrastinator?" Fifteen percent raised their hand. I asked the same question to an audience of unemployed people. 90% did.

Use your network. Alas, good jobs are ever harder to find. Unless you're a star, most of them go to someone with an "in." So pitch everyone you know. So they'll remember the essence and not think you desperate, give 'em just 10 seconds worth, for example, "I'm good on a team, keeping things organized, and calm. I'd like to work in government. Know anyone I should talk with?"

Append yourself to excellence. Try to get to report to a smart, hard-working, ethical, kind person who knows a lot about the field. Better to be that person's entry-level assistant than to have an important job for a cretin.

Be low maintenance. Yes, if it's important, complain, but recognize that you pay a price for each whine. One of the best things you can say to a boss or even co-worker: "How can I make your life easier?"

Do your hobby at work. There's usually a way. For example, I play the piano. How in the world could I incorporate that into my work as a career counselor? Many ways. For example, when I want my client to take a moment to think about a plan we've developed, I say, "I'll play some soft piano to give you a little space to reflect as well as to get us out of our head space and help you get in touch with your feelings about the plan we've concocted." Clients like it and so do I.

Consider self-employment. That's the fastest way to go from schlepper to CEO. Yes, I know that most businesses soon go out of business. But if you keep it really simple and choose a low-status business, your odds jump--you'll be competing with lesser lights. Examples: online dating coach, a small chain of flower carts near a busy bus or train terminal, heavy equipment servicer (e.g., printing presses, MRI machines.)

Crave a high-status business like trying to develop or market a "breakthrough" idea? Your risk skyrockets. Unless you have deep pockets, the leading edge usually turns out to be the bleeding edge. It's ironic but status is the enemy of contentment.

Keep ethics primary. I'm well aware that cheaters often do prosper but I really believe that you'll feel better about your life if you always let ethics trump exigency.

Always take the next step forward. Looking back at past mistakes or unfairnesses is more likely to keep you mired than to teach you lessons. Looking aside at others is more likely to make you jealous or aspire to keep up with the Joneses than to help you do what you think is right for you. Always take your next step forward.