Students and young professionals often ask me what are the most important career lessons I have learned.
The first one came during my very first job as an economist. I was very proud of my ideas but thought their presentation was much less important. I completed my written material quickly, often submitting it without worrying about small mistakes. I was very brash. My boss took me aside one day and said that although my ideas were good, I was alienating him because it wasn’t his job to proofread my work. He explained that the errors I thought were small and meaningless actually created the impression that I felt my time was more valuable than his. I was embarrassed and horrified.
I could see, however, that my boss was trying to teach me something important. I took away a very important career lesson: how you communicate is as important as what you communicate.
A few years later, I joined an investment bank as an arbitrage trader. I was very sure that my academic success at Cambridge would put me at an advantage. My naivety was challenged on my first day, when my boss looked at me and said straight up, “Your education doesn’t mean jack here.” I was dumbstruck but collected myself and asked him what did matter. He wanted me to be humble and not insist on reinventing the wheel by doing everything “my way.” I was offended at the suggestion that I should take ideas from other people, since that was cheating.
I remember him laughing at me and saying, “I’m not talking about you stealing other people’s ideas, genius. I’m asking you to learn how people succeed in getting along and become great colleagues.” I realized that what he was talking about was being part of a corporate culture – being attuned to the way people worked together and how they expected their colleagues to act. I quickly got over myself and realized I had learned a second important lesson: you need to be aware of how well you connect with those around you if you wanted to succeed in business.
The third lesson that really accelerated my career was about when to stand out. Not long after starting as an associate in an international law firm, the economy soured and there was very little work. Most of my colleagues spent their time avoiding the partners. Looking around, I realized that the partners were frightened too.
Up to that time I had believed that it was the role of senior people to figure out what to do in times of crisis. Yet one day at a firmwide meeting, I realized that no one else had any better ideas than I did, and that if I did nothing I was likely going to lose my job because no one was going to find work for me to do. I spoke up and said, “I know we are all frightened, but we can either let our fear disable us, or we can get out there and find work.”
For the next two years, the partners never stopped chiding me for being the first-year associate with the temerity to speak up, and I wasn’t too popular with my peers, but I never backed down from what I had said. Long after most of my colleagues who hadn’t taken responsibility had been laid off, I was still employed. This was when I learned my third important career lesson: leaders are people who are willing to stand up and take responsibility when others are not.
These three lessons helped shaped my career. But in some ways, focusing on specific lessons misses the point. What matters most of all: the ability to stand apart from the moment and take in the lesson to be learned. Being self-aware is the most important career lesson of all.