Here’s a bit of an introspective question for today: what have you learned from watching other peoples’ careers? Who has surprised you with their “success” — who has gone in a different direction than you anticipated for them — and have you seen people who you always thought were rockstars not enjoy as much “success” as you’d expected them to? Has it changed how you define success — and what have you learned from it? What career lessons can be learned from other people?
I’ve been out of high school for more than twenty years now, amazingly. I’ve almost been out of college that long. Many people I know are, like me, sort of at the midpoint of their careers — we’ve been working for decades, we will be working for decades more (barring that lottery win, of course). I was scrolling through my personal LinkedIn the other day and reflecting on where friends and colleagues ended up — were the “successful ones” the ones who I would have guessed twenty years ago, when I was in that ubercompetitive spirit that school puts you in? We are blessed to have such a wide age range of readers on this blog, so I thought I’d put together some reflections if you’re on the younger end of that spectrum… readers who’ve been around the block a few times, I do hope you’ll chime in with your own reflections. Here goes…
- Success doesn’t look like what I thought it looked like. It’s measured by something far more than your resume; it’s often having a picture in your mind of a life for yourself, and then being able to paint that picture as best you can. Family — friends — pets — big reaches like second homes or building a business — little things like time for yoga or marathon training — they all play a part in the paintstrokes you make and the colors you choose. I know some friends took what turned into a boondoggle — years spent away from their “career track” working on a novel, start-up, or freelancing career that went nowhere, for example. But they never have to wonder “what if” — and that’s worth a lot too.
- Some of the smartest people I know aren’t afraid to take risks and blow things up. In my old nonprofit legal job I got to be friendly with a lot of high ranking, well-positioned lawyers who could have happily stayed at those jobs for years, at least from a resume perspective — they were working at Dream Jobs. I’ve been shocked to see many of them leave for much smaller, scrappier companies with much less cache. It’s possible (perhaps likely) that there were buyouts and other changes that made those Dream Jobs less dreamy — but it’s still fascinating to see and fun to watch them go.
- Serendipity can’t be underestimated. Fate, chance, blind luck: she’ll kick you in the pants. Sometimes this works in your favor… sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve seen people’s careers take hits in the 2008-2009 recession and still not recover fully… and I’ve seen some people be very “lucky,” at least career-wise, like being essential on that nine-figure case as it heads into trial at the same time as your partnership meeting… and I’ve seen really brilliant, five-dimensional chess kind of people not make partner because their essential case settled a month before that partnership meeting or their sponsor. (Obviously more went into it than just this, but still — serendipity is a huge chunk of the pie.) Similarly, I know far too many stay-at-home moms who hadn’t planned to quit their jobs (or even to lean out), but did because their child had special needs, or other family circumstances got in the way.
Readers, what are your thoughts — what career lessons have you learned from others? Has watching others changed how you define success — and what have you learned from it? What career lessons can be learned from other people?
Stock photo via Deposit Photos / Madrabothair.
After I got out of college I attended a Young Alumni event for people who had graduated within the last five years. That was long enough for quite a few classmates and others to have finished law school and started their legal careers. I vividly remember two things from that event: people who had not gone to law school were button-holing the fresh-baked attorneys to ask advice about the LSAT and how to get into a good law school, and most of the young lawyers were frantically trying to come up with something else to do with their lives. One classmate dreamily told me that she was moving to Hawaii to become a landscape architect. I asked her why she had gone to law school. “I thought I could do some good that way, but I really hate it.” And becoming a landscape architect? Well, she loved being outdoors, and Hawaii, and so on …
I’ve been a paralegal for more than 25 years. The first day of my paralegal training the teachers asked if anyone in the class was thinking about eventually becoming an attorney. About two thirds of the class (of 90 people) raised their hands. I thought of the wanna-be landscape architect and the other unhappy law school escapees, and did not raise mine. On the last day of the training program, nearly a year later, the same question was asked; this time, only a few determined souls raised their hands. Once again, I did not.
This is so interesting. When I went back to GW and told them I was working in NYC in law, a group of people all asked me how I liked it and whether I spent alot of time in court. I told them yes, and yes, and 2 guys thought I was pretty enough to be on Law and Order. I said hardly, but thanked them. The 2 guys asked me if I wanted to go out to dinner with them, and I was hungry so we went to a restraunt nearby at 19th and M, where we met some other women freinds of theirs. I was so happy that people thought of me as another college student, even tho I had been out of law school for 2 years then! I am sure they would NOT recognize me now, given that it was many years ago and I am not what I was then. I still enjoy my career, but wish I were MARRIED with Children by now. That is what I would tell the youth of today. Don’t work so hard, as you will get old and flabby and no one will recognize you. FOOEY!
As a married stay at home mom with no career, I contemplate my own life choices. While I don’t regret my choices to stay at home with my young children, I worry about ageism as I prepare to enter the workforce (BS computer science in progress) for the first time at 40 years old. I think about how much more money those who have started in their 20s and 30s can command, much less trying to compete entry level with younger generation. My 401k will be lower and at almost 40, retirement is much more important than when i was younger. Im at an age to see the first wave of divorce hit amongst my social network and while my marriage is great and my husband is in a corporate career, I’ve realized that marriage is not some end all be all. We all make our choices and they all seem to have different pros and cons.
Also, as an aside, I agree with the comment of selfish entitled people getting ahead in general over decent people, per my husband’s stories of work. Makes me glad I am a stay at home sometimes when I hear the stories….
I’ve learned that taking the road less taken can sometimes be the shortcut that no one ever realized. I’m not familiar with this blog (just discovered it & love it!) and am not familiar with the law field. Nonetheless, I think my story is relevant so I hope you’ll hear me out. I graduated from a private university (yep, I’ve got loads of student debt) and was miserable and insecure for four years because I felt I wasn’t as competent, ambitious or attractive as my colleagues. I studied a field in which most people end up choosing careers in medicine or research, but I never was passionate in either. When it came time to graduate, I decided I wanted to spend two years abroad as a volunteer instead of going to graduate school like 90% of the people in my major. When I announced this to my advisor and those around me, there was not a single person who supported me. “Why would you go to a third world country and volunteer when you can get an office job or pursue research?” But I ended up leaving and working abroad for as a volunteer with no pay whatsoever. It was the best decision I made because I truly enjoyed my work; was given a lot of trust, which raised my confidence level and leadership skills; and managed to maintain a large network of very competent colleagues from all different backgrounds and expertise levels. This eventually led me to my current position to work in a federal agency, something that most civilians want for the benefits but have difficulty in attaining without the right experience abroad or network known. Ultimately, I think taking the risk of doing something not everyone is willing to do and following my heart allowed me to discover my potential and to find happiness in the road I paved.
I just realized my comment sounds as if I think there is something wrong with attorneys – I certainly don’t think that! I know a lot of attorneys, obviously, and admire quite a few of them. I do believe that being happy in that career requires a certain mind-set, and the ability to accept that you may not be able to fulfill other dreams. I don’t know if my classmate did, indeed, become a landscape architect, or if that turned out to everything she hoped for. She might not have spent three years in law school and two more unhappily at her law firm desk, if she had really focused on her love of the outdoors, the desire to work with her hands, watching things grow, etc. Of course, she said “landscape architect,” not “gardener.” Maybe she still ended up spending more time in an office than she had intended.
No offense taken here, I’m an attorney and there is only a 50% chance that I’d do this again. The most important thing I learned from other lawyers’ careers was to think for myself in terms of defining “success” for me, since none of the people held up to me as “successes” had much of anything I wanted (yes, big house and big SUV but also big debt, big depression or substance abuse problem, and/or big ego).
I worked until recently with a fantastic corporate paralegal. She mentioned wanting to go to law school at night a few years ago (she’s smart and works hard, she could totally do it) and I think she was waiting for a glowing response like “ZOMG yes it’s so wonderful to be a lawyer!” My response was more like “well, it could be worse…” I make more money, I also get chewed by board members more often and am checking my email at all hours. There are many different levels and flavors of suck in the work world. You pays your money, you takes your choice.
I have learned that selfish and immoral people get ahead at a rate higher than decent ones. I have learned that faking it until you make it is a highly valuable skill. I have learned that being self-entitled is the way to get what you want most of the time.
Most important thing I learned from other peoples’ careers? To think for myself, and define “success” for myself, since what I was being shown as “success” in law did not look anything like success to me. And to have the courage, and the respect for myself, to hold my own values in the face of occasional revulsion and condemnation.
Note – I find no revulsion or push-back in in-house work but boy, go against the conventional mindset in some big law firms and you’d think that you’d murdered all of the equity partners’ favorite BMWs… Not an environment that tolerates free thinking and non-materialist values well.
Not from other people’s career, but from my own: if you do something you don’t enjoy, you will eventually fail. It’s very hard to excel doing work you hate. I have now found something to do that I love, and I am a superstar.
I’ve learned not to be loyal to people/firms that don’t recognise your worth. I’ve seen so many people stay in a role for years, treated like they’re part of the furniture while they wait to be promoted to a role that doesn’t exist.
I’ve also seen men in particular apply for roles far beyond their current skill set and pay grade and get the job. I’ve learned to be ambitious and let the interviewer decide if I should work there instead of dismissing any role I’m not 100% meeting the requirements for.
The #MeToo movement taught me that my experience was not unique, and that so many wonderful friends of mine have been forced out of jobs or made career shifts prompted by harassment. Sharing those details with friends opened my eyes about how egregious behavior by one person can be propped up by systems and power structures. I had defied a career shift in my life as related to one bad boss, but it was bigger than him (because the higher ups did not act): it was endemic.