5 Things About Careers Nobody Told Me (and I Had to Learn the Hard Way) — Part I

August always gets me thinking. All my big career moves were actually decided in August. I think it’s that time of the year when things slow down and we have time to take a step back and think about where we are going. Judging from the amount of friends (and friends of friends) who are messaging me asking for career advice, it seems to me I am not the only one who freaks out in August.

A random Spanish beach on a day like today. Freaking out in August is understandable ;-)

What strikes me the most when speaking to young and driven professionals who are looking for a career change is that most share the same frustrated expectations and feel equally lost, but think they are alone in this. The truth is that the perception of others careers is very different from reality. To figure out what industry you want to build a career in and find the place and team to thrive is not an easy ride for many of us. Jobs are not Instagram perfect. Most people just won’t say.

Please don´t do the math but since I graduated I have worked in politics, I have been an investment banker for almost three years, launched two startups (RIP) and I have been in Venture Capital for the last two and a half years. I can now finally say I’m in a really good place. I see myself building a career in VC and at Samaipata I feel empowered to thrive, surrounded by a team I admire. I have become one of those annoying people who love their job.

But it hasn’t always been easy — not easy at all in fact—, I’m a WIP and I sure know there are still many bumps ahead. So I thought I’d share some of the key learnings I have gathered so far. I learned them the hard way but they have helped me understand better myself and the career crossroads I have faced. And they have become the foundations of my professional (and many times personal) decisions, my most precious takeaways from difficult times. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger they say. Here they go:

  1. It´s ok to be a turtle and take time to explore

“Some of us are turtles; we crawl and struggle along, and we haven’t maybe figured it out by the time we’re 30. But the turtles have to keep on walking (…). You have to draw on a fair amount of experience in order to be able to put ideas together.” — John Goodenough.

At the age of 23 John Goodenough was told by his professors he was already too old to succeed in physics. In 1980, at age 57, he co-invented the lithium-ion battery that shrank power into a tiny package. Recently, at 94, he and his team at the University of Texas at Austin filed a patent application on a new kind of battery that, if it works as promised, would be so cheap, lightweight and safe that it would revolutionize electric cars and kill off petroleum-fueled vehicles (read more here).

Reading about John Goodenough’s story helped to put things (and age) into perspective

Tech is an industry where there’s a lot of pressure to achieve great things at a very young age. The 30s are the new 70s it seems. Some people have a clear vocation and know exactly what they want to study, where they want to work. Others, like myself, have to explore a lot till they find it. And there’s value in that experience as well.

2. It´s not lack of focus, it´s called entrepreneurial spirit

What is it that makes us always want to chase the next move in our careers? Why is it that as soon as we feel professionally comfortable somewhere, we feel the urge to look for the next big thing? Why does it never seem to be good enough? Some — especially older generations — call it lack of focus and impatience. Somebody very wise told me it was called entrepreneurial spirit. I prefer that.

3. The grass is not always greener on the other side

When I left Morgan Stanley to move to Felix Capital, a very senior MD reminded me of this British saying. There are many ways to read it — not sure how he meant it — but they way I see it, it doesn’t mean we should get comfortable and sit tight, scared of what’s out there. It just means that we shouldn’t feel constantly unsatisfied about where we currently are, because it’s not necessarily true that everything else out there is better.

He didn’t manage to convince me to stay at MS, but what he said stuck with me. And I have come back to it many times since then, as a good reminder to be more patient and realistic in my expectations.

4. Misalignment of expectations comes from miscommunication

When making a career move it is key to make sure you and your future team are on the same page in terms of expectations for the job — present and future. So don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions and be honest about what you are looking for.

It’s easy to get carried away by excitement. By how hot an industry is. By the brand name. By how burned out you are at your current job. But I now know that my most difficult times professionally were a consequence of being either too lazy or not brave enough to ask myself and others the right questions.

5. There is no such thing as the perfect job

We tend to take for granted pre-set career paths — from law/business/finance/engineering at some leading university to working in law firm/banking/consulting to then move to the buy-side/client/startup. Those work great if that’s what you want. Problem is that it’s not easy for risk-averse overachievers to go off-track. Which leaves a lot of people very lost about what to do next once they realize that what they had always thought they wanted is actually not what they are looking for professionally and/or personally.

It happened to me. I felt incredibly lost, almost cheated. As if somebody had always promised me something (the one perfect job) and after working non-stop chasing it, I suddenly realized that it didn’t exist. A little bit like Hollywood movies do when it comes to the perfect love, but I was never— luckily or unluckily — the type of girl who falls for those. Still, I found the analogy very useful. In careers, like in love, we should start by looking at ourselves and focus on what we are good at, instead of trying to adapt to what others are looking for. (Side note: I constantly compare VC investing with dating, but that’s a point for Part II of this post).

There is no such thing as the perfect job, like there is no such thing as the perfect love

Sitting on different desks I got to know myself better, my strengths and weaknesses, and I realized that I didn’t have to — in fact, I couldn’t — be the best at everything on the job. So, I started to focus on my core strengths and proactively defined my own professional path accordingly, looking for jobs that would allow me to build on those strengths and work on my weaknesses with a team that complemented my skills. (Side note: the fact that I think there’s a good fit between me and VC investing does by no means suggest I’m good at dating).

Regardless of how mainstream or unorthodox my career path now seems — my public servant mum thinks it’s absolutely crazy— , it’s the one that works for me. And I have never been happier professionally than I am now.

These key learnings are based on my own experience so far as I work towards building a fulfilling career aligned with my professional and personal goals. They might be totally different to your own learnings, would love to hear about your experiences and learnings. And if you are interested in a career in VC, stay tuned for some behind-the-scenes on the job in Part II of this post.

In the meantime, remember: Function in Disaster, Finish in Style.

“function in disaster, finish in style” was my boarding school motto and it became my life motto.