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  • Writer's pictureAustin Yates

Advice for Early Career Success

Updated: Mar 8

Hillcreek's inaugural cohort of interns rolled off this week. A special thank you to Jacob Wood (Harding University), Olivia Guo (University of Southern California), Lizzy Adler (Washington University in St. Louis), and Cody Evans (St. John's University) for their effort this quarter! Hillcreek is better because of them, and I'm excited about the career success that awaits them. Know a student who would be a good fit? Have them apply here!

In our final team meeting, I shared a list of things I wish I'd known beginning my career. Much of this advice applies to both personal and professional life, given that both settings are dominated by interpersonal dynamics. I've included my advice below. I welcome your thoughts, additions, caveats, or challenges! This is a living document and I anticipate updating it with each new intern cohort.

Adopt an antifragile mindset.

We all know what fragile means — easily breakable. But what is the opposite of fragile? Terms like “robust” or “durable” might come to mind. It’s popular to try to appear durable; to act like nothing or no one can hurt you. But this isn’t the opposite of fragile! If fragile defines something that weakens in response to stress, its opposite is something that gets stronger in response to stress. This concept, termed "Antifragile" by Nassim Taleb in his book of the same name, is observed throughout nature, including in plants, our muscles, bacteria and our minds. As I reflect on my own life, many of my biggest moments of personal growth stemmed from from difficult situations and hard conversations.

Here's my advice:

  • Embrace Your Antifragility. View yourself as someone who grows from adversity. Receive constructive feedback with open arms. Lean in to difficult situations. This is the key to growth.

  • Acknowledge The Antifragility in Others. Don’t let your fear of discomfort prevent you from helping others grow. Fear and self-preservation often masquerade as compassion, like letting a coworker walk around all afternoon with spinach in their teeth. Awareness is the first step toward improvement (see the Johari Window). Bring what is hidden to light, and watch yourself and others grow as a result.

Note: Delivery and timing are crucial. Someone must be in the right headspace for feedback to be beneficial. Consider a gentle approach, asking, "Do you mind if I give you some feedback?" Be direct but compassionate, always clarifying your intent.

Finally: Practice this! Practice with your family and friends. Feel free to preface it. Practice with small things to build confidence and prepare yourself to handle life's bigger challenges with grace and resilience.

Don't be afraid to fail.

A major flaw of modern education is that it teaches people to avoid failure at all costs. I regularly encounter young professionals who have never experienced failure, and as a result, are terrified of it. Attempting to replicate their academic success, they pursue career paths that shield them from blame and criticism. Driven by fear and imposter syndrome, they stunt their early career growth as a result.

The older I get, the more I realize that failure and learning are two sides of the same coin.

Like kids, adults learn through failture. Kids fail hundreds of times a day—stumbling,falling, running into things—and it’s through taking risks and receiving feedback (correction from adults or stimuli like pain and frustration) that learning takes place. As Ray Dalio puts it, Pain + Reflection = Progress. He illustates it this way:

True learning and growth requires quieting your pride. Don’t be afraid to look dumb. Don't let the troughs of failure keep you from the peaks of progress. No one is sure of themselves - we’re all just pretending!

Learn to crave feedback.

Don’t wait until the conclusion of a project or task to ask for feedback. Learning compounds like interest, so it’s important to get feedback frequently. Solicit feedback from bosses and peers. Ask specific questions that allow others to answer simply without having to craft a response (your boss won’t always have time to cleanly summarize your performance). Proactively communicate to others your antifragility and your desire for improvement. Finally, practice processing constructive feedback through a growth (positive) mindset.

Own up to your mistakes.

Recognize when something is your fault, and plainly claim it. Don’t attempt to distance yourself from your mistakes, redirect blame, break out a list of excuses. Don't stop at an apology though! Once you've owned it, turn your focus toward a solution. As depicted in Ray Dalio's growth cycle above, learning requires diagnosing the problem and designing a solution.

Early in my career, as a new employee, I made a system error that cost my small company about $750,000. Once I realized my mistake, all I wanted to do was crawl in a hole. I typed my resignation letter, printed it out, and crumpled it up. I quickly came up with three options to offset the loss. I called the C-suite (at 11pm) and claimed ownership of my mistake, followed by three options for moving forward. Once a decision was made, I stayed up all night personally implementing the solution.

In hindsight, this was a turning point in my career. It was through how I handled the worst mistake of my career that I earned the trust of the executive team, resulting in being given more impactful work.

When handled the right way, failure can improve others’ opinion of you. It is in these moments that people are able to observe your integrity.

Do what you say.

Don’t commit to things you’re not sure you can finish through on. A consequence of performing well is increased demand for your time. You simply can't do everything. A difficult “no” is better than an easy “yes” that goes unfulfilled. Small things consistently left undone will cause you to lose trust.

You can be a team player and still have personal limits. Decide what those are now, and try to stick to them. This will make you a better employee in the long run.

Prefer simplicity over complexity; conciseness over verbosity

“Any darn fool can make something complex; it takes a genius to make something simple."

— Albert Einstein (allegedly)

Complexity tends to be associated with intelligence (and job security). This is a façade. Practice distilling complex things into simple terms. Avoid using industry jargon when possible. Speak plainly and concisely. Never fall in love with the sound of your own voice. True influence is a matter of quality, not quantity.

Never present a problem without a plan

As an early career person, it can be easy to view yourself as an order taker; as someone who simply executes on instructions they’re given. That describes a computer, not a human. You’re (probably) not a computer, so don’t limit yourself to a computer’s functionality.

When a computer finds a problem, it sends an error message and waits for more instructions. In contrast, good employees not only identify issues but also identify solutions. This is called taking ownership. You will be tempted at times to say “this is an issue for my manager.” Don’t let your initiative stop there! Have an owner mindset. This is not your boss’ problem, it’s yours!

Think of next steps. Propose a solution. Your boss is paying you to think and execute. Sending an error message just gives your boss more work. A proposed plan of action (even a bad one!) gives your boss something to respond to and keeps ownership of the task on you.

Related HBS article: Who’s Got the Monkey?

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