The Best Career Advice I’ve Ever Received

When I was first starting to get a good idea of the bad financial situation Sarah and I were in, I wrote an email to my professional mentor at the time. This person was a pretty well known person in our narrow field, with a high paying job and a lot of respect within the field and lots of professional options on the table before him. He was not my boss, though I had worked with him in the past and it was potentially possible that I could work for him again.

I simply asked my mentor what I could do to help build my career in a meaningful way, mostly in terms of money. He knew that Sarah and I had just brought our first child into the world, that we made decent but not great money, and that we were struggling with finances as many people in their twenties often do. I knew that he was not the kind of person to pull punches.

His response was wonderful, and I saved it for future reference. I just happened to be digging through that folder of ancient emails and came across it, and I wanted to share it with you, along with some commentary at the end. I did edit it a little to remove some references to other people and some of his rough language (he did have a pretty rough tongue, even in emails, if you knew him well).

* * *

Trent –

I’m assuming that you are interested in staying in data mining for many years. Here are some thoughts for building a career.

* Work on how to communicate and how to think through problems. Don’t worry about accumulating knowledge as it will naturally come to you over time in your career. You are good at writing but extend that to speaking. Work on problem solving – all kinds of problems. Don’t do easy [things] and when you have to get it out of the way ASAP or pass it off to someone. Hard [things] [teach] you way more than easy [things].

* Get used to asking lots of questions. Even if they’re dumb ones. Questions serve two purposes. One, it helps you build your knowledge in a practical way. Two, it helps to connect with the person you’re asking questions of. Ask for help when you need it, esp. when you can break it down into something simple for someone else to do like answering a specific question.

* Go to professional meetings. Pay attention in the sessions that are really relevant to you but for the rest of the meeting just get to know other people in data mining especially people a little bit further along than you. Talk to lots of people. Share your work and present in every avenue you can, but the value isn’t in the presentation itself but in the conversations after with people interested in what you’re doing.

* Dress like you care. Don’t have to wear a suit but don’t show up looking like you just rolled out of bed. Dress like [your boss] and you’ll be fine.

* If you go in and ask [your boss] for a raise, do everything you can to make it easy for him to make a case to [people higher in the pecking order]. Bosses usually want to pay their good subs as much as they can get away with but people higher up the pecking order want to pay the lower level people as little as they can. Give [your boss] tools to argue on your behalf. Figure that out by thinking about what [your boss’s boss] wants and supply [your boss] with that ammo.

* Get more education. It never hurts and [your boss] has funds for just that purpose.

* Help as many people as you can, be nice, and don’t backstab. I don’t just mean other data jockeys. Do the same thing for receptionists and janitors. Never, ever treat people [badly]. You help someone and they’re going to like you. Don’t give them any reason to think you’re going to backstab them later. Don’t worry about getting “paid back” because most of the “paying back” will happen when you’re not around when people speak highly of you. You’ll never directly see it but it will be a huge benefit.

* Point out good things about others all the time. Way better than saying bad things. Way better than bragging about yourself.

* Don’t brag about your achievements ever. Instead, dole out as much credit to others as you can without sounding weird. The only time you can “brag” is in a cover letter or resume or when you’re talking to your boss about a raise. If you brag outside of that, it will hurt you more than help.

* Learn as many names as you can and what they’re working on and, if you can, something about them that’s good.

* Get in the habit of talking to successful people you’re intimidated by. You practically ran away from [someone respected] at [a meeting]. People are people. [Respected guy] laughed it off but it wasn’t the best impression.

* Don’t pretend to be something you’re not. No one thinks bad of you if you’re into nerdy [things] as long as you don’t drag them into it. You play D&D right? Don’t be ashamed of it, as long as you don’t start talking to everyone about paladins and wizards and [other high fantasy things]. At the same time be cool with whatever other people like and if you’re even halfway interested dig in with them a little. Nothing better than finding someone who at least somewhat shares an interest with you.

Do that stuff and raises and promotions will come super easy.

* * *

For the next two years, I continued to work in that career path and I watched his advice start to pay off for me even as I became disenchanted with that career for other reasons.

The biggest change was that I stopped looking at meetings and conferences as an undesirable hassle and instead began to look at them as an opportunity.

If I was in a meeting or a conference session, I did everything I could to focus on what was being presented by taking notes and listening and asking questions during the Q&A session. My goal was to extract from their talk everything that was possibly relevant to what I was doing or what I might be doing in the future, along with the general summary of their talk.

When I was at conferences and not in a session and not sleeping, I was doing something with someone in my field, whether someone at my approximate level or someone who was further along in their career.

During the last several conferences I went to at that job (my boss was pretty big on sending people to conferences and encouraging them to present), I built a bunch of really good relationships. I fondly remember eating sushi with one of the absolute best people in my field and discovering that he also liked D&D. I built four different friendships that I still have to this day, two of which have told me that if I ever go back to that field, call them first.

My advice? Find ways to talk to people that are doing what you do in a positive way. How you do that is going to vary a lot depending on your specific job and specific career. It might simply be talking to your coworkers and having a laugh with them. It might be looking for a professional meetup in your area, or going to a professional conference. It might even be on social media. The point is to seek out ways to talk to people in your field in a positive way and share ideas and professional experiences and life experiences.

This was a struggle for me because I’m naturally introverted. I tend to clam up in situations where I don’t feel confident. I knew this was something I needed to work on, so I started learning how to hold meaningful conversations with people I didn’t know well. I found the book How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie invaluable for this. This became a skill set that I was able to pull over into my personal life as well and it’s helped me actually build a lot of personal friendships and connections in the community as an adult.

Another step I took was to try to eliminate any and all bragging from my professional conversations and extend as much credit to others as possible. I tried to avoid talking about myself and my achievements. Rather, I tried to focus on the achievements of the group as a whole if I was pressed to talk about it and dole out lots of credit whenever I could.

What I found to be really effective for this was to get into a habit of thinking about gratitude. Each day at work, I’d try to think of five people who did something that made my job easier to do or more effective or who gave me a key idea. Who was I writing software for? Who was I extracting data for? Who was actually employing me to do this? Who were the people who would bring key ideas to the table that I would implement?

What I found is that when I regularly showed gratitude at work and tried to think of things from that perspective, it was easy to come up with a healthy list of people to share credit with. I could share credit with people who offered good feedback on my work. I could share credit with the people who gave me great ideas. I could share credit with the people who were simply nice to me during the day, making it easier for me to work. I found that I was consistently giving credit to the people who showed up in my thoughts of gratitude.

This gratitude pattern actually migrated over to my personal life and has become something I do personally as well as professionally. I think of people I’m grateful for because they made my life better in some respect, and then I find myself naturally giving credit to people who show up regularly in my gratitude thoughts. Not only does this give them credit for being awesome people, it also keeps me from falling back on being self-focused and potentially arrogant.

Another valuable thing I learned was that you’re always better off tackling hard problems than easy ones. If you have a choice between a hard task – particularly one complex enough that you can’t quite visualize how to pull it off – and an easy task, choose the hard one.

First of all, you actually learn things from hard tasks, which makes you more effective in your job and your career path. Easy tasks rarely teach you anything and can often lead your skills to atrophy.

Hard tasks often give you a good reason to ask questions of others, which often leads to relationship building. I found that when I work on hard tasks, I find myself turning to notepads and whiteboards much more often, and that translates into asking questions and having conversations with others.

Hard tasks make it much easier to get into a flow state, where you’re so engaged with the task that you lose track of time, and I’ve found that being in a flow state is incredibly good for one’s mood for a long while afterwards.

Hard tasks are also effective resume builders and often provide the foundation for presentations and conversations. No one wants to hear about the easy tasks. They want to hear about the hard tasks.

I do this very thing with The Simple Dollar. It would be really easy for me to fire off endless piles of ordinary “list articles” where I just list 20 frugal tactics or 10 good Crock Pot recipes or eight reasons why you should be financially independent. Those articles are easy. I don’t have to think about them. I don’t have to reflect when writing them. I barely have to research them.

Harder articles center around doing a lot of research, evaluating and reflecting on the interesting points, and writing something that’s actually meaningful. Those are much more difficult to write, but they’re the rewarding ones, and I try to do them as often as I can.

Almost always, a “hard” article that I invested a lot of thought into and mixed together research and my own personal experiences effectively results in a lot of great reader feedback, which is a sure sign that it hit home. The “easy” ones? They might be valued by some, but I don’t think they hit home in quite the same way.

This is true in any field. The hard work matters. The easy work is forgettable and doesn’t help you make a name for yourself. It doesn’t help you build skills or build a reputation. Choose the hard work.

A final strategy I wanted to focus on was to make it easy for the boss to make a case for you when you want a raise or promotion. In general – though not always – your boss knows your work and would genuinely like to pay you more or give you whatever other compensation you deserve. The problem is that the person your boss has to justify that to generally doesn’t know your work, at least not on an intimate level. That person up the food chain wants to maximize the “bang for the buck” in terms of getting the most value out of every dollar spent, and unless there’s a really good reason to do so, giving you a raise doesn’t help the bottom line.

First of all, ask yourself what you’re doing for the organization that’s beyond what any warm body could be providing. If you’re not doing anything that someone with a very basic resume off the street couldn’t quickly do, then you’re not going to warrant a raise. Ask yourself what you’re doing and what you’ve done that’s beyond what a minimally qualified person for your job would be doing.

Then, ask yourself what the company wants out of your position. What are you doing to add to the value of your company’s bottom line? More importantly, what are you doing that’s exceptional that’s adding to the value of your company’s bottom line? What are you doing that’s adding more to the bottom line than your coworkers or than someone fresh off the street could add?

Figure those things out. Condense those things down to a handful of very clear and direct bullet points, ideally with actual numbers as evidence. Make a single PowerPoint slide if you have to, one slide that makes the case that you are doing far more for the business than the guy fresh in off the street could ever provide.

Take those bullet points and deliver them to your boss as you’re making your case. Give him or her the ammunition he or she needs to take your case up the food chain and argue on behalf of a raise for you with the person actually cutting the checks. If your boss is cutting the checks, then deliver those bullet points to him as justification for that raise or promotion.

If you can’t do this, you’re not giving anyone an incentive to give you a raise. If you’re not providing anything that anyone off the street could provide, why should you be paid more than anyone off the street? The answer is you shouldn’t be. You’ve got to figure out what it is that you’re providing that’s more than the random person off the street.

If you don’t know what that might be, step back and look at what the owner of your company would want from a very high value person in your position, and do more of that. If you don’t know what that is, ask someone who does. Keep track of your own performance data – how much you’re here, how many tasks you complete, the impact of the most important tasks you do. Use those things to make the bullet points.

The easier you make it for your boss to argue on your behalf, the more likely it is that you’re going to get the raise or the promotion that you want. Keep that in mind every day.

In the end, it’s all about making yourself valuable. You do this by having more skills. You do this by completing the hard tasks. You do this by having tons of relationships. You do this by giving credit to others. You do this by exceeding expectations. If you don’t make yourself valuable, how can you expect others to treat you as though you’re valuable?

Good luck!

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  • Trent Hamm

    Founder & Columnist

    Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 and still writes a daily column on personal finance. He’s the author of three books published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press, has contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and his financial advice has been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.