Life lessons from 10 years of work

An honest reflection on what I’ve learned over the last 10 years

In August 2010 I quit my dream job. It was a job that I was very proud of getting and a chance to work for one of the biggest brands in the world. It was a job that felt like the culmination of 10 years of hard graft and sacrifice, the gold medal at the end of the race. It was a job that my parents spoke glowingly about to their friends and one that my friends were jealous of. I was working at Google, and decided to leave.

After about a year of working there, my gut was telling me to get out. To go work on a project that had real meaning. I was ignoring it though, embarrassed that I actually was thinking it at all. I enjoyed working in Google, it’s an amazing company, but it was for all the wrong reasons. I was there because it was great to be able to say you worked there and wait for people’s response. You instantly went up in their estimation. I’m proud of the fact I got the job there, but I’m prouder for leaving to work on things I really love.

Over the past 10 years of working in Ireland’s capital I’ve experienced and learned plenty of things. The following is a snippet of them that I hope might, at the very least, get you thinking.

On my first day in Google in June 2007, a senior director was giving us a pep talk. He spoke about the company values, expectations and how we were now forever branded ‘Google’. He also mentioned one thing that I have always remembered. He said ‘look around the room right now and realise that everyone here is smarter than you are’. It was perfect timing. We had all arrived in with similar high performing backgrounds, used to being top of the class. He brought us right back down and levelled the playing field. It’s an important thought to remember. Look at your colleagues right now and say the same thing. There’s no doubt that you’re smart, but they’re smarter. Trust them and respect them for it.

People are without a doubt the greatest asset to a company, and it has a direct impact on its success. It’s why Google has 8 rounds of interviews before you get in — they make sure you’re the right fit. It also has a direct impact on your own success. Working with or for people who share your passion, your humour or your values is what you should seek in life and evaluate your current job on.

Don’t be afraid to walk away from a situation if the people who you are in direct contact with you are assholes to you or each other (or both!).

One of the most positive experiences I’ve had over the last 10 years are the people I’ve met along the way. It’s also the basis of my greatest learning — the impact that people have on your day to day life is immense. Great people help you grow and enable you to achieve happiness. People who do not respect you and who you are, are simply not worth your time.

Helping people grow and to achieve something, regardless how big or small is one of life’s great gifts. The satisfaction you get from helping someone is ten times greater than the satisfaction you get from keeping the secret to yourself. Share your knowledge and lend a helping hand to people who need it. Ask people if they need help even when you think they’ve everything under control.

Of course, the other side of the coin is also true. Don’t ever be afraid to ask for or accept help. I need to get better at this, but I can count on one hand the amount of times someone has said no when I’ve asked for help. In order to be successful, you need to be able to learn from others and continuously better yourself. Remember, they’re smarter than you are!

Learning never stops. My mother has a brilliant saying; ‘everyday is a school day’. Every day is an opportunity to learn something new, no matter how small or unimportant you believe it is. You’re sharpening the greatest tool in your arsenal, your brain. You never stop being in class and you should never stop testing yourself. I’m constantly evaluating my knowledge, every day attempting to improve it.

I used my early days in Google as an apprenticeship. Just like a mechanic or plumber does in his first few years, I learned my trade every day from experts, asked questions and built the knowledge I needed. I knew, however, for me to get to the next level it would have to be somewhere else, and so I took the biggest risk in my life and I quit.

My next role was a complete failure. I was sold on an idea that quickly changed and within only 4 months I knew I had to get out. It was a shock to the system but I knew it was another stepping stone. I was still in pursuit of a job with real meaning. I realised then that my motivations were not in any way related to material or financial gain ( if it was I’d still be in Google! ) I was interested in a role that has purpose and that I see the effects of my efforts. I wanted to get involved in building something great and making people happy.

Taking another risk only a few months after my first one didn’t daunt me. In fact, I realised that I felt comfortable with change as I knew I’d learned something valuable that often people learn too late in life. Many people don’t feel comfortable with change, they shy away from it. They’re scared of the consequences of something outside their comfort zone. I believe however that unless you take risks in life you’ll never achieve what you’re really capable of.

I joined an eCommerce startup who were on a fast track to success. I wanted in, and I applied for a job that was above my skill set. I believed in myself, did my research and landed the job. Then I got to work learning!

The next 5 years were a real rollercoaster. I was part of one of the most successful eCommerce stories ever in Ireland, building a marketing team from scratch, growing a business from less than €500k a year in revenue to close to €12m.

Those 5 years taught me a lot. I realised how important a great plan is, how important great leadership is and how humility is one of life’s forgotten virtues. There wasn’t a day that went by when I didn’t learn something new but there were too many days when I went home annoyed and despondent. Taking your work home with you shouldn’t happen but everyone does it. When your unhappiness affects home life, then you need to think about things and make a change. A regret I have is I didn’t do it soon enough.

One of the values I have in life is respect. You live and learn. I left a great company that was poorly managed.

The last 12 months for me could not have gone much better. I’ve come to realise that happiness is paramount in all aspects of life, both in and out of work. The pursuit of it should never cease and you should always aim to address it if it’s gone awry. I’m working in a job that when I get up in the morning I look forward to getting to work. I work with great people, in a company led by people who share my values. They love what they do, they love what we do and they love the fact that we’re all doing it together. I was sold on a statement from our CEO before I joined Rubicoin. He said he was out to build an amazing company and have fun doing it.

We’ve been conditioned to think of work as a slog, as penance we have to endure to enjoy the other aspects of life. Work should be fun, it should keep you interested and get you excited. I’ll admit that’s easier said than done and we’ll all have bad days, but I know that whatever job I have in the future, enjoyment, and happiness will be most important.

I’ll finish on this — shortly before I left Google, the director on my team pulled me into his office. He sat across from me and said ‘John, regardless of where you go in life, you should always ask yourself two questions — Are you happy and are you learning? And if the answer to either of those is no, then reassess things and make changes’. It’s a piece of advice that I’ve shared with almost everyone I’ve managed since and one that I’ve tried to live my life by. It’s simple but has had a huge impact on me.

So go ahead and ask yourself the same question, be honest with yourself and if you answer no, it’s time to change.