The first ten years of my career have been a rollercoaster.
My first day of ‘proper’ work coincided with the crash of Lehman Brothers, giving us graduates a less than enthusiastic welcome. I left a high paying job in the City to work at an NGO. I put my job security in the hands of fickle politicians. My work as a freelancer took me to the United Nations. I set up and ran a small trade association. And I spent nine months last year living in a different city every month.
Along the way I have lectured at universities. Visited countries like the Democratic Republic of Congo and Pakistan. Met Heads of State. Run global campaigns. Hosted events in Parliament. Written a book. I have cycled across Colombia, volunteered with refugees and run across the UK.
I certainly haven’t picked a traditional career path. I’ve had plenty of breaks and changes. It has taught me a lot about the world, what to look for in work and the people you work with.
The existential impact of the 2008 financial crash
Today marks 10 years to the day since Lehman Brother crashed — and 10 years to the day since I started my first…
I’m now contemplating a complete shift again, so it’s been nice to reflect on what I’ve learned over the past ten years.
Here are the top 10 most important things I have learned over that time:
1. Only work with people you like
This was the first thing one of my bosses told me, and it’s stuck with me ever since. It is possibly the best advice I’ve been given. You will not enjoy your work, whatever it is, if you do not have colleagues and clients who you respect and enjoy spending time with.
2. Change is the only constant — how you react to it is what matters
The best thing you can do for yourself is be ready for change. That means keeping an open mind, developing transferable skills, being prepared to retrain, trying new things, and not beating yourself up for things you can’t control.
3. People choose nice over smart
I have found time and time again that being a pleasant person is much more important than how much you know. Sure it helps if you know your stuff, but in most industries, it’s easy enough to learn the things you need to succeed. Being a nice person will get you picked in the first place. This in turn will enable you to cultivate networks and bring in new opportunities.
4. Don’t be afraid to say no
Separately three of my former bosses have said I’m the only person who has ever said no to them. This is significant, because so many people are ‘yes men.’ Senior people appreciate colleagues who are willing to challenge them, in a respectful way of course. Similarly, don’t feel pressured to take on work or accept a job you don’t want. Keep the time clear to reflect or search for interesting opportunities. Something is usually round the corner.
5. Take risks early in your career — it will be harder later
You are not penalised for taking risks or experimenting early in your career, and it is much easier to do so. At 24 I took a £10k pay cut to join an NGO from a comfortable job in the City — because I could. I had no commitments. I have seen so many examples of people waiting until much later in their career to change tack, only to find that they are trapped in because of various family, mortgage and financial commitments. Don’t wait to do the thing you love!
6. Be clear on what drives you and don’t compromise your values — you don’t have to
Think carefully about what elements of a job are important and interesting to you. Be wary of job title chasing. On top of this, be clear about what you value and what impact you want to have. I left a job once because I disagreed with the ethics and the politics of the project. I found something much more in line with my thinking. There are plenty of people who will share your values and complement your skills. Seek them out and build something with them.
7. Find supportive mentors
I have collected a small group of supporters over the years whose achievements and approach to life I admire. I have worked with many of them, and they continue to be a source of inspiration. These people are valuable sources of advice and opportunities — and in many cases have become great friends.
8. Maintain your interests outside of work
I wouldn’t have gotten most of the jobs I did if it hadn’t have been for my extracurriculars. They opened up whole new networks and opportunities for me. But beyond this, they also just give you something else to talk about and keep you sane!
9. Define your own metrics for success — don’t be driven by other people’s
I once got a bit down when I was told I wasn’t reaching my potential. It was meant to encourage me, but it made me realise I was being judged by someone else’s criteria for success. I look back on the past ten years and love my varied and interesting career. I am happy with the impact I’ve made and hope to continue doing the same.
10. It’s ok if you don’t want a traditional ‘career’
The world of work has changed so much over the past 10 years, and will continue to do so. We have long working lives ahead of us, and it’s completely natural that each of us end up having a minimum of five ‘careers’ in that time. The traditional career path doesn’t exist any more, so do what you find is interesting and don’t worry if that changes.
These 10 lessons reflect my experience of working over the past ten years. They won’t all resonate with everyone, but I hope they have give you some food for thought.
I’m interested to hear what you have learned and if there’s anything you’d add to my list. Please do leave comments below!