Advice for Early Career Success
Updated: Dec 6, 2022
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 each of 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 as an undergraduate student. Much of this advice applies to both personal and professional life, which doesn't surprise me as they mostly relate to interpersonal trust and safety. 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.
Based on a book by Nassim Taleb (read short excerpt here)
We all know what fragile means — easily breakable. What is the opposite of fragile? Most people say “robust” or “solid” — durable. 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! A logical opposite is something that gets stronger in response to stress. Examples include many plants, our muscles, bacteria, and (Taleb argues) our minds. You can probably think of personal growth you’ve experienced from difficult situations or hard conversations.
Choose to see yourself as antifragile. Receive constructive feedback with open arms. Lean in to difficult situations. Welcome tough conversations. Because you know this is the key to growth.
Choose to see others as antifragile. Don’t let your fear of discomfort prevent you from helping others grow. (Just like not telling someone they have something in their teeth, this is often fear masquerading as compassion.) If they aren’t aware of something, they can’t do anything to address it (see the Johari Window). Bring what is hidden to light, and watch yourself and others grow as a result. NOTE: Delivery and timing are key, and people must be receptive for this to be beneficial (consider asking, "Do you mind if I give you some feedback?").
Practice this! Practice with your family and friends. Feel free to preface it. Practice it in the small things so that it will be in your toolbelt for the truly difficult moments in life and career.
Don't be afraid to fail.
Failure and learning are two sides of the same coin.
Adults aren’t that different from children in that failure is the path to growth. Kids fail hundreds of times a day, and it’s through taking risks and receiving feedback (correction from adults or stimuli like pain or frustration) that learning takes place.
As you get older, failure becomes more psychologically painful and the tendency is to insulate yourself from it. This is a trap. Most people spend their whole careers (and lives) trying to avoid failure and severely limit their growth as a result.
This requires quieting your pride. Don’t be afraid to look dumb. Don’t let uncertainty keep you from growth. No one is certain - we’re all just pretending!
Learn to crave feedback.
Don’t wait until the conclusion of something to ask for feedback. Learning compounds like interest, so it’s important to get feedback frequently.
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)
Communicate to others your antifragile-ness and your desire for opportunities to grow
Practice processing constructive feedback in a healthy way through an antifragile 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 — “It was my fault, I’m sorry” carries far more weight than “I apologize for the inconvenience.”
Don't stop at an apology, and don't wallow in it. Turn your focus toward a solution.
This builds trust! When handled the right way, failure can improve others’ opinion of you. It is in these moments that your integrity is on display.
Do what you say.
Don’t commit to things you’re not sure you can finish through on.
A difficult “no” is better than an easy “yes” that isn’t followed through on.
Even small things consistently left incomplete will lead you to lose trust.
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 has a tendency 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.
Never bring someone a problem without a proposed solution (or a plan to get there)
Related HBS article: Who’s Got the Monkey?
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. Guess what: That is what a computer does. You’re 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.
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 gives your boss something to respond to and keeps ownership of the task on you.