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Ten Tips for People Starting Out in Their Careers
The most valuable and enduring thing from your work life are the relationships you make along the way
The end of summer is approaching and it’s often a time of transitions when certain chapters of our lives close and new ones open. Many younger people are going back to school, and others are just starting out in new jobs or looking to carve new pathways in their work lives.
Over the years in a career mostly in the ideas industry in Washington D.C., I’ve been approached by many just starting out in their careers for advice about where they can get a job or what they should be doing to position themselves to get where they want to be in a few years. I make time for these discussions because I’ve been helped in the past by other people further along in their careers and lives.
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This summer I’ve worked with two bright, talented individuals who spent a couple of months in summer internships at my day job. Vanessa Igras and Leena Khan are still both finishing their formal education but will soon launch fully into their careers, and I’m certain they will make many important contributions in whatever work they choose for themselves. They are both smart, kind, and hard-working, the perfect mix of attributes to have a meaningful impact on the issues that matter to them and the world.
I’ve been lucky to have former colleagues who worked with me who then go on to do some amazing things in the media, government, education, and other forms of public service. That’s one of the fun things about staying in touch with the people I’ve become connected with: watching them achieve the things they set out to do many years ago.
But an important thing to keep in mind is to have balance in life as you try to make a difference in your career. We all only have about 4,000 weeks on average in our lives, and there’s so much about the world to revel in and relish. Here at the Liberal Patriot we’ve been trying to offer analysis that supports the notion of an inclusive, liberal nationalism that remains open to working with the rest of the world without trying to control or dominate it. We’ve tried to promote an ethos of moderation at a time when many political and social forces promote and reward ideological extremists pulling the country and world apart.
The dominant culture today is leading more and more people to tune out of public life, and that’s why those people who are part of the next generation who step up and want to make a contribution are treasures. We should give them our best advice and guidance based on our own experiences.
I’m not quite done with what I’ve been doing in my work life, but I’m further along than I used to be, so here are my ten life and career tips for those just starting out:
1. Try a few different things in the early years and get experience in a range of fields. Experiment in the first few years of your career and get out of your comfort zone. You may not realize it, but you don’t really know what you want this early along in your path. It’s too soon to know because experience in the world, and not just books and what you learn in a classroom, will be the things that help you define that.
When I was starting out and trying to figure out where I wanted to hone my talents and dedicate my time and energy, I tried a few different things through early jobs and internships in state and the federal government, politics, non-profits organizations trying to do some good overseas, and for-profit ventures. What I found was that I really liked the realm of ideas but didn’t want to be solely wedded to universities. I also didn’t like bureaucracy too much, so I’ve shied away from government, but a lot of my job is currently offering thoughts on what the United States should do in the world. I didn’t know about myself just after I got my undergraduate degree. You probably won’t either.
Go out and try a few different things and live in different parts of the country and the world if you can.
2. Take time to reflect and discern what matters to you based on the experiences and the people you encounter along the way. Take time to process what you like and what you don’t and why. It’s not enough to just experience the workplace through internships or first jobs, and you need to do more than just read a bunch of books about a particular field of interest you want to explore. You also need to take the time to think actively and independently about what matters most to you, where your talents lie, and how to hone your strengths.
Don’t get so wrapped up in one particular pathway or another; instead create your own path. The forces of social proof are so strong, and what’s good for others may not be the thing that’s best for you. Some of us come from more privileged backgrounds than others, and some of us start out with many more constraints than others. But life is like one of those “choose your own adventure” books you may have read when you were growing up. Except in this one, you play a key role in writing the plot and setting up the choices and options you have.
Take the time to think about what you’re learning along the way, and be open to new lessons from those experiences, no matter what stage you arrive at in your career.
3. Get a notebook and write out those reflections. There’s something about taking just a few minutes a day to think through your experiences and putting it on actual physical paper that makes it more likely to become a reality. It at least forces you to slow down and think concretely about the issues, places, and people that matter the most to you. Doing this over social media or even writing these reflections on some form of electronics doesn’t work as well as writing the reflections out because the act of writing in a notebook slows the racing mind a bit and forces you to think about the different “pillars” that will form the foundation of your vocation.
If you keep those old notebooks over the years, what you may find is that the things you imagined doing or the causes you wanted to advance became the things where you eventually played an important role. You may also find some curious stay whims from your past that you never really pursued and that’s ok too.
The main point here is to be thoughtful and open to what your experiences are telling you and write what it means to you down regularly.
4. Build your relationships over time and expand them as much as possible. Do it in a way that builds lasting friendships and relationships. Washington D.C. is ground zero for transactional relationships. When I was based at a think tank for several years that was well-connected in various political networks, I noticed how I started to get new “friends” for a period of a few months usually around the even years of elections in the United States, people who wanted to go out for coffee or lunch.
At certain points it will be confusing to figure out who’s a good friend and who is just looking for the next rung on the ladder, but eventually you will develop a good sense of who is genuine and who isn’t and how that matches up with who you are as a person. That whole process of sorting those relationships out in many ways will end up defining what kind of person you become. It’s not easy to cultivate this faculty, and it may even be more difficult for you depending on your personality – but it’s important.
The key here is to keep in mind that one of the most important things of value is developing mutual trust and understanding with a broad range of people in different aspects of your life. Stay connected with those you’ve clicked with the most yet do your best to have friends from different walks of life with a wide variety of perspectives. Given the polarization in this country and world, it’s too easy to stay in your comfort zones.
5. Understand that you’ll make mistakes in building and maintaining those relationships throughout your career. No one is perfect – nothing in this world is. I’ve made mistakes in how I’ve dealt with people, and sometimes it’s easy to make amends. But other times there’s no clear pathway forward or it just doesn’t make sense to even try. You will find that people can change a lot in their lives or make their own mistakes handling their relationships – in ways that are sometimes confusing and hard to understand.
Careers in public service, policy, and politics are particularly dependent on relationships to get things done, and sometimes those relationships can become frayed by the differences of views and competing interests. That’s a natural part of how things work in life. But one thing you should try to do is keep in mind: everyone makes mistakes at some point in their work relationships, and you should look for ways to learn from those mistakes and rebuild relationships when possible.
6. Don’t forget the greater good and the bigger picture. It’s easy to get so consumed with pursuing your own career and professional goals that you forget the initial forces that motivated you to get started in the first place. For many who come to places like Washington D.C., it was the desire to make a contribution to something bigger than themselves. In all of the jockeying and competing for positions and status in order to get things done, too many people lose the sense of what’s best for their wider circles – what’s best for themselves and their families, communities, country and world.
Be honest with yourself throughout your career and assess whether what you can bring to a particular mission is the right thing for your skills and experience. Sometimes the honest answer is that you’re not the best fit for moving the ball up the field on a particular issue. Other times you’ll find that you’re the best candidate for a particular task.
7. Pace yourself for a long journey ahead. For those just starting out, it’s easy to throw yourself into your first few jobs and try to achieve a lot in a short period of time. You don’t have to do it all at once, and your career will have different phases that will only become more apparent when you are further along in your career and you have time to look back and reflect on what you’ve done.
This means taking time off regularly – we’re not robots, and you can have a more constructive impact in your work life if you’re building up other aspects of your life and maintaining balance in all areas.
8. Savor the moments because time will fly. One part of pacing yourself is taking the time to relish in the successes and special moments you have in your career along the way. Too many people rush headlong to the next goal or ambition without taking enough time to enjoy the incredible things you are contributing to in the bigger picture. This is especially true when you are working 6-7 days a week in a job that’s everything you dreamed of earlier in your life but perhaps more intense and draining than you ever imagined.
Take the time to write down the main accomplishments and celebrate with others those special moments in your career. Some of the best and most engaging stories I’ve heard from friends and mentors are the ones that come from the busiest periods of their work life, and the strains of the jobs including the lack of sleep and stress make some of the memories fuzzier with time.
9. Strive for balance in your life. The happiest people I know are the ones who didn’t put all of their eggs in one basket, especially the career basket. Have many, many things outside of your work life and do your best to make sure your career isn’t your only identity. As John Halpin advised, have other things in your life – sports, music, movies, hobbies, and other things that aren’t directly connected to what you do in your career.
If you’re taking the time to regularly assess how things are going for you in your career, you’ll have a sense of when it’s time to step back and do something different.
10. Know when to take a breather or call it quits. Nearly two years into the Biden administration, and I’ve started getting phone calls and emails from friends who joined the administration in political appointee jobs, and they are burning out and looking for something new to do. That’s about the natural life cycle of these jobs, and it’s good to recognize when the time has come to do something new or pack it in.
The secret to a happy ending?
It’s knowing when to roll the credits.
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