What I Wish I Knew When I Was 40
It is graduation season, and the world is filled with advice for those who are just launching their careers. But, there are lots of transitions in our lives, not just when we go through a formal graduation. We get to reinvent ourselves many times in our lives.
As most people are reflecting on what they wish they knew when they were 20, I’m reflecting on what I wish I had known when I was 40.
Forty was an interesting time in my life, and one where I could have used some guidance. Despite the fact that I had some successes behind me, I was really lost professionally. I had tried lots of things, changing careers every two years of so, and still hadn’t found something into which I could really sink my teeth. I also had a 9 year old son, and figuring out how to balance my career with my personal goals and obligations was tough. I struggled to figure out who I wanted to be and how to get there.
Twenty years later, on the eve of my 60th birthday, here are my initial reflections on what I wish I had known about building a career at 40:
1) Start Anytime
There isn’t only one time to launch a career. You can start any time. Some people find the right career right out of college, but that’s rare. Just like dating, it usually takes a lot of experimentation to finally know when you have found a good match. Later in life you are in a great position to dive deep into one domain. Like swimming pools, each domain is different, but has many similarities. With two decades of professional experiences, you have knowledge and skills that can be applied to whatever field you choose to explore in depth.
2) Start Anywhere
It doesn’t matter where you start in an organization. As soon as you are inside, there are endless opportunities to expand your role. Like entering a swimming pool — you can walk into the shallow end or dive into the deep end. If you walk into the shallow end, there are usually opportunities to swim toward the deep end. You don’t need to dive directly into the deep end of the pool if that is your ultimate objective… Therefore, find a pool that is the right size and shape for you, and jump in anywhere!
3) Set your intention
Once you get into the “pool” you need to actively decide what you want to achieve — set your intention very clearly, point yourself in that direction, and start swimming. If you just do the job you have been assigned, you are treading water, and have made it very clear to yourself and everyone else that you have reached the limit of your skills and aspirations. If you want to take on bigger roles, you need to make it clear that you intend to dive deeper and swim farther. You do this by literally doing more — going well beyond your stated role, and squeezing more out of every day. And, keep in mind that lane lines are just recommendations — you can always swim under them!
4) Help others reach their goals
Work is a team sport. You are not going to reach your objectives unless you help other people reach their objectives. Make time to make other people successful. This doesn’t mean doing other people’s work for them, but finding ways to contribute in meaningful ways. For example, send them relevant resources, alert them to potential roadblocks, or encourage them when things get tough. Using the swimming analogy, throw in a life preserver when someone is struggling, let them know when they are going to run into someone else, and cheer them on from the sidelines… Creating a culture of helping others leads to a much more successful organization overall, and it is more likely that people will help you if you demonstrate a pattern of helping them.
5) Find role models
When you enter a new job, identify those people who are thriving in the organization and watch what they do. Don’t make assumptions about how the organization works, but watch how it really works. There are always people who navigate the “pool” more deftly than others. Pay attention to how they swim, and consider asking them for lessons. Also, look at the path they took. Is it one that might work for you? And, who do they look to for guidance — who are their role models! There are real skills required to swim efficiently and effectively. You can and should learn from others.
6) Identify advocates
Beyond role models who serve as an inspiration, you need to find those in your organization who are willing to support your career aspirations. They might be the same individuals, but not always… These are people who are excited to sing your praises to others. It is much much much more effective to have someone (or many people) talking about your accomplishments and potential than to do it yourself. Find those people who are eager to help others reach their goals. They understand that your success ultimately enhances their success. And, just as important, when you are in the position to do so, make sure to support others by singing their praises.
7) Observe and reflect frequently
Lift your head up out of the water frequently to assess where you are and where you want to go. The context of your work environment is always shifting, with new colleagues, new initiatives, and new challenges. Pay careful attention to the changing organizational landscape which inevitably opens up new possibilities. The door that looked closed a few weeks ago might open next week; the gate that was ajar this morning might slam in your face tonight; and next month a brand new path might open up just around the corner. By paying careful attention to the evolving organizational landscape, you are poised to see and seize opportunities as they materialize.
In essence, I wish I had known that it doesn’t matter when and where you dive into a new career. It’s never too late to launch into a new opportunity, to set inspiring goals for yourself, and to build a team to help you reach them. Your skills, drive, and team determine whether you sink or swim.