How to Build a Professional Career Worth Living

Debunking mainstream advice with a bit of common sense

When I read things like “you too can become a 6-figure entrepreneur” or “follow your passion and you will be happy” I get nervous. This kind of marketing triggers most people into long-term career failure.

I have seen it. After 20 years of professional sports, investment banking and entrepreneurship, I have experienced my fair share of mistakes and how easy it is to fall for career advice that appeals to our emotions but does not favour longer-term success.

Most career advice is out there to make us feel good with ourselves, so that we buy things. We all have a tendency to agree with what justifies our beliefs, don’t we?

It’s time to call a spade a spade.

Change Your Idea of What “Making an Impact” Means

I see young people starting their careers with a lot of enthusiasm. But after a few months, they become bored and disappointed, their most common feedback being “I am not making an impact”. But as my ex-colleague at Goldman Sachs Joseph Mauro famously said one day, you have to “stay on the bus.”

We can make an impact every day by being proactive with small actions, but we discard this as “valuable” because we tend to favour complexity over simplicity. Simple is boring and not sophisticated, and you and I are fun and sophisticated people, aren’t we?

Well, you don’t need to feel “sophisticated” about your impact. It is more rewarding to build your contribution sequentially. Helping your team book meetings, bringing lunch to the desk or mentoring a friend at work, are good ways of helping make a better world from a micro perspective.

Small and simple things matter. Focus on the impact you can make at every step of the way, or in the next 60 minutes, and stop worrying about the impact you think you should be making.

Set The Right Career Goals at Each Stage of Your Career

The other day I was talking to one of my students at IE Business School. We were discussing his career path as he was struggling to make an important decision: to become a quant structurer in banking or to take a different path in finance. He is in his early twenties.

And so I asked:

  • What are the things you can do to help yourself make the best decision at this stage, with the information that you already have?
  • What is holding you back from acting upon that choice?

You need to tick off the right “process goals” first before you can tackle the “end goal”

The above is a classic example of “paralysis by analysis”. To come out of it, we need to focus on moving and acting, not only thinking and planning. How can you take one first step towards your goal?

Maybe start gathering quality information first, so you can make a better decision. Information about the industry, interacting with those professionals to understand their challenges, their growth path and their typical “day in the life.”

Set milestones that drive you to your goal. Avoid obsessing only on the big, longer-term aspirations and make “moving forward” your priority. New information and new relationships will shape your path in ways that you cannot imagine today.

Understand That “Return on Time Invested” as You Grow is Not Linear

People tend to focus on their big goals, without realising that it takes years to connect the building blocks and make them work. The path as you go from breakthrough to breakthrough is never linear.

You can only 1) follow a process that is — at most — predictive of your end goals and 2) try with little experiments to see what works and what doesn’t.

If you do this and stay on the path, deliberate practice will compound like interest. Unfortunately, most people don’t have the patience to wait for the big pay-offs.

Don’t Fall for Boiler-Plate Marketing. Discovering Your Purpose is a Lifelong Journey

“Successful careers are not planned. They develop when people are prepared for opportunities because they know their strengths, their method of work, and their values.” — Peter Drucker

Do you believe that Mark Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs woke up one day, identified their passion, embraced it and defined a step-by-step multi-year plan to global success? Not really.

If you read about their early days, you will see a common pattern: they both embraced the “little bets” approach. They both stumbled upon a series of small opportunities and built upon them over time. None of them started their business thinking they would change the world, nor thinking that they had discovered their ultimate personal “raison d’être”. It unfolded as they walked the path.

Caution — Life is Not a Straight Line

I have done many things in life. I am 39 and on my 7th “career”. Life, for me, was never meant to be linear. Mistakes have been done, but what keeps me moving is my eagerness to learn and to capitalise on past experiences so that I can tackle opportunities that better uncover my “blueprint” as I go.

You don’t follow your passion; you work on it. Finding our purpose is a lifelong journey.

This story is published in The Startup, Medium’s largest entrepreneurship publication followed by + 379,528 people.

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