The Best Career Advice: Do Stuff

Yesterday, I read a really interesting article about career choices on Charlie Hoehn’s blog. A quick excerpt:

I haven’t really talked about this before, but I’ve failed more times than I can remember. I’ve tried starting up several businesses, tried patenting inventions, tried starting up online communities, tried building several websites, tried to win contests… and failed almost every single time. But I never chalked any of them up as failures in my head, because I learned so much in the process each time. So now, when I’ve finally reached a point where things seem to fall into place with far less effort, I can’t help but think about all those times where I didn’t succeed over the course of the last eight years. And I look back in fondness, because those lessons learned are the reason I’m here. None of this stuff happened over night — in a way, I’ve been working to reach this point since I was 15.

[...]

And therein lies the best career advice I could possibly dispense: just DO things. Chase after the things that interest you and make you happy. Stop acting like you have a set path, because you don’t. No one does. You shouldn’t be trying to check off the boxes of life; they aren’t real and they were created by other people, not you. There is no explicit path I’m following, and I’m not walking in anyone else’s footsteps. I’m making it up as I go.

I know exactly what he’s talking about.

In college, I worked for quite a long time in a plant pathology lab studying soybean diseases. I learned some things – including that the work wasn’t right for me. I eventually moved on to computer analysis of massive quantities of data. I learned quite a lot from that as well (including that I really loved the work, but I found it really stressful). From there, I did another complete 180 and became a writer. I did all of that before the age of 30. What does the next decade hold? I really, truly have no idea.

The key thing is this: I never stopped trying new things. I still don’t. In the last year, I’ve tried a podcast, video production (on an unrelated topic), and architecture of a community website in my spare time (what little I have of it). Each time, things work with varying degrees of success – sometimes it really clicks and other times it doesn’t at all. Either way, I learn something from it.

Many people are afraid to try new things like this. They look at their career as a set path. In five years, I’ll make partner. In ten years, I’ll be a GS-13. In fifteen years, I’ll be mayor.

Careers almost never work like that. Companies are downsized. The political landscape changes. Your interests evolve and change. You gain a spouse – or you lose one. You have kids. You have a health crisis. Something sweeps you off your feet and carries you along for the ride. An old friend calls out of the blue and offers you an awesome opportunity.

The only way to prepare yourself for such chaos is to constantly try new things in your spare time. Take a class. Try out a new hobby. Teach yourself a new skill. Meet a new group of people. Launch a project of some kind. Start a side business.

If it doesn’t work out, so what? You learned something. The learning is the most valuable thing of all. Because, when that right thing does come along, you’re more likely to succeed at it if you have a lot of life lessons under your belt. Life lessons generally come from failure, not from success.

What can you do today? That’s the real question, isn’t it? Try something new – something outside of the normal way you do things. Start a blog. Sign up for a class. Start a side business. Go to a group meeting that you’ve never been to before.

Where will you find the time? Log off the computer and turn off the television, for starters. For many people, those two things alone will free up a lot of time.

Good luck.

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  1. Little House says:

    Great advice. I think people sometimes get caught up in their fear of change and don’t dare try something new. My husband has been my main inspiration for trying new ideas, he always has some creative business idea. Even when they don’t work out as planned, we never see them as complete failures. We learn something from them and move on with more knowledge.

  2. Scott says:

    Sometimes a “career” is not about making money. I’ve always told people my career was raising my kids. My job was just how I made money. I work for a non profit and have held many positions but it’s just been work not my life. I have many hobbies and things that I enjoy doing. The job was just the means to do those things.

  3. Nick says:

    Great post Trent. Really resonated with me these days…

  4. Sheila says:

    One thing I learned from becoming disabled and not being able to work is that people should never define themselves by their career. What do you have if it’s taken away?

  5. Craig says:

    Being proactive can get you a lot in more aspects of life than just work. Do other things outside of work, enjoy life and just live.

  6. KS says:

    Timely advice. I’m a college prof who is being denied tenure and while I’m fighting it, I am keeping my eyes and options open. I do love my career – which I see as teaching and research and writing – but not my job! That said, I’ve learned a lot of skills over the years that translate well beyond the university, and during that learning, expanded m network.

  7. spaces says:

    Heh, I’ve followed similar advice, and have an unusual career path. Highlights include beginning working at age 12 as a performing musician, working as a musician throughout my teens and well into my 20s, to being in the legal department of a crooked-vowel company back when we truly believed we were the smartest guys and gals in the room, to representing indigent clients. Big fun all over! And that’s what it’s about for me — Find a fun and interesting way to pay my rent. Bonus points if its intellectually challenging or brings me into contact with interesting people regularly.

  8. michelle says:

    truth! trying to “do stuff” was the major turning point in my life, and I am so much happier now.

  9. Leah says:

    How would you sell these differences to employers? I’m not set into one career path, and I have experience in different fields, but I struggle with how to translate this in my resume and cover letter. I’ve done a wide variety of jobs in my 12 years of work history (starting at 15, so I’m still quite young), and I’m a quick learner. But that’s not exactly something you write in the application, is it?

  10. I like it that you’re encouraging people to “get involved” and just try some things, not wait for something to happen.

    john DeFlumeri Jr

  11. almost there says:

    It is good to have a plan “B” for life. I hope to expire before my spouse but if I don’t I have a plan to get rid of all the baggage/stuff that comes with marriage and downsize big time. I would even move to a different climate. I would get back to the basics of food, clothing, and shelter with very little else. Life is experiences and not the trappings one latches on to along the way.

  12. Diane says:

    Your career advice sounds like the story of my life. But by always following my interests in life, I’m always starting at the bottom over and over again. I often feel more like a failure than a success.

    I would rather be learning something new than being bored at something I mastered long ago. And I don’t want to be a manager, so it’s always off to the next new thing.

    I can’t say I’ll ever be rich or have a wealthy retirement, but life has been interesting. At least I’m resourceful and flexible.

  13. jake says:

    Change has a bad negative tone associated with it.

    In a social sense, it represents, unreliable, indecisive, untrustworthy etc.

    Someone who changes all the time, is frequently label as unstable, lost, untrustworthy.

    Yet we keep saying that they should find what they love to do, but frown when they take too long or make to many choices.

    I am with the mindset that make as many changes as it takes you to figure out what you would like to do. Listen to the critics, but dont let them stop you from at lease trying.

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