Message to My Younger, Intern Self

During the last semester of my MBA at Baruch College I took a capstone class called ‘Business Policy’, a loaded title in every sense of the word. In fact, rather than focus on case studies of current business policies and how they have failed or succeeded, we instead focused on the process of making business policy and strategy decisions. What are the key characteristics that allow great business leaders to make these types of decisions and allow an entire workforce to trust their decision making prowess? What makes one person a better decision maker than another? How does one continuously evaluate their decisions to truly understand if they are a good decision maker or not? For four months we asked ourselves these questions eventually coming to the conclusion that the answers were ‘complicated’.

You might be wondering what my capstone class at 27 years old has to do with advice for my intern self. I’ve been working in product development for the past four years, currently in a manager position, and haven’t interned since 2010. Most of my classmates in this capstone class were even older and more experienced than I am and admittedly I don’t think all the topics discussed could’ve been grasped by someone with no work experience directly out of college. However, there was one concept that really stuck with me and I wish it was stressed during my college years (and potentially high school as well). This was the concept of utilizing your failures in an attempt to learn how to learn. Bare with me as I try to explain WTF this means…

Nobody is born a good decision maker. Some of the smartest product and technology minds make some of the worst policy and strategy decisions in business. Just take a look at what is happening over at Twitter, who is desperately looking for a new CEO to improve strategic decision making as the company’s growth continues to decrease. Majority of Twitter’s board members are the same technologists and product people that had helped launch the company in 2006. Understanding a specific product or technology inside and out doesn’t necessarily equate to making great decisions on how to help that product successfully grow. Decision making is improved by consistently making decisions and consistently evaluating the outcomes of those decisions in an attempt to learn why they did or did not work.

As an intern, I was told that I needed more experience in order to get the type of job and salary that I wanted at the time. I looked at the managers, directors, VPs, C-levels etc…that I looked up to in terms of where I saw myself in the next few years and thought “Man, is there really any light at the end of the tunnel or should I temper my expectations.” Not realizing, at 22, that many of the people I looked up to still haven’t mastered the concept of learning how to learn. Regardless of what anyone tells you, knowledge is a depreciating resource, particularly when you evaluate it in today’s business climate. Somebody having more experience than you means that they might know more than you, true. But it can also mean that they are stockpiling knowledge that may or may not be relevant in today’s business world. Understanding how to learn new technologies, strategies and policies will allow you to continuously stay sharp and is a much better asset than just saying “I have x number of years of experience.”

In business, the only way to learn is to try, fail, try again, fail again, try one more time, then evaluate all of these attempts to identify the patterns associated with successes and failures. — Herry P.L.

Yes, I just quoted myself (Kanye shrug). Failure is just as important, if not more important, than the eventual victories. The first thing I would tell my intern self is “Don’t be afraid to fail.” The second thing I would tell him is “Don’t forget to evaluate each failure and use that knowledge to continuously improve.” If you’re a smart person, you will inevitably do some positive things when it comes to your career and it is always good to celebrate those accomplishments. However, in order to get to the point where you have paramount confidence in your decision making skills you have to lose all fear associated with failure.

Another thing I would tell my intern self is to focus on getting into an organization that fosters growth, but also allows for early failure. As an intern, you will not be given a project that will change the landscape of the business you’re working for (no matter what your boss tells you). Internships are like exhibition games in sports; what you do in them matters because it allows you to get better but the outcome doesn’t have any bearing on the regular season. Take your shots! As an intern, I was so caught up in making a good impression or doing exactly what I was brought in to do because I thought that would help me get the job. Getting the job is great, but internships are also about taking risks without much repercussion. Get out there and try something cool as the potential reward definitely outweighs the risks of failure in internship scenarios.

The last thing I will leave my younger, intern self with is to never put a timeline on being a successful decision maker. There will always undoubtedly be a business situation that you’ve never been in whether you're straight out of college or have been working in an industry for 20 years. Be confident in your decision making, but always look to back each decision with fact, research and trial & error. Confidence, along with a good track record, is what allows others to trust you to make certain decisions. Look back at some of the decisions you’ve made in your life and analyze how they have affected the outcome of your life today. Most importantly, stay confident in each decision you make as they allow for another opportunity to grow.