4 Habits for Early Career Confidence

Friday, July 24, 2020

I'm hesitant to write some smug listicle insinuating that I've got my professional life all figured out and feel qualified to give advice -- because that's really, really not the intention here. But I've been mildly successful by most standards and extraordinarily lucky, and thought it worth at least documenting some habits that have helped me feel really confident in my career.

01 | Default to independence. 
There are no truly stupid questions. But consider that you might be wasting someone's time.
I personally have a lot of patience in answering questions but inordinate social anxiousness in asking them, which means I don't usually turn to colleagues and managers until I've exhausted all other options (i.e., Googling, searching through Confluence, etc.). The good news is that most questions - especially technical/logistical ones - can be answered this way; the better news is that by trying to solve problems yourself, people think you're scrappy and self-sufficient. Save your face time for thoughtful, critical questions (or even small talk to develop better relationships) and try to figure simple things out on your own. It's not impressive or interesting when it's obvious that you haven't done basic research!

02 | Manage upwards through positive reinforcements.
Be communicative about managerial behavior that resonates with you; for example, if you appreciate when someone consistently credits your efforts in team meetings, Slack them to let them know! Start adopting no-nonsense language like, "I liked hearing you say [...] because..." or "it's helpful for me to know [...] because..." I've been lucky to have great managers, but I've also (hopefully) taken a proactive approach in developing a rapport that works for both of us. I figure the clearer I can be with what I need/want, the easier I am to deal with and accommodate. I've gotten so many opportunities that wouldn't exist if I hadn't explicitly expressed an interest in them. Assume that most managers have a "help me help you" mentality, so do that! If you want to be fast-tracked for a promotion, tell them what specific qualities/milestones you want to achieve (client meetings with executive visibility, project management, etc.) on a certain timeline so they can plug you into the right projects.

03 | Become known for an exceptional skill.
Even if that exceptional skill is being generous, thoughtful, and compassionate (arguably more valuable than knowing how to debug code!). Something that seems minor and inconsequential - like having good handwriting - still helps associate you with immediate, practical value - like being a top-of-mind participant in whiteboarding sessions. Volunteer often and eagerly for tasks you know you're good at (and hopefully enjoy). Become reliable, trustworthy, and - most importantly - requested for the skills and perspectives you uniquely offer. Always aspire to be known for work that elevates your standing and character. If you haven't figured out your personal value proposition yet, try to identify a missing skill set on the team and work hard to take its place.

04 | Aspire for and define work-life balance beyond time investment.
I've come to realize that work-life balance is only partially about the number of hours in/out of office. I'm pretty sure I set the record for most PTO taken last fiscal year (we have a flex policy that I am VERY generous with), but this feels most meaningful when I don't consider my life in an at-work/not-at-work binary. I've written about productive days off before, saying that I'm deeply unhappy when I feel defined by a 9-to-5 career; [but] I also can't live without the stability of one. Personal days feel like a happy compromise that have completely revitalized and enhanced every aspect of my career and life beyond it. But in addition, it's also taken me a while (and it's still an ongoing consideration to wrestle with) to not equate the prestige of my workplace with my personal worth. There are honestly times I believe that the unexpected way my career played out (I had a lot of ambitions as a college student and this extremely corporate gig was not remotely one of them) was a God-given lesson in humility, trust, and ego. I'm still snooty and elitist and pretentious in many awful, flawed ways; I've also given myself the grace to just succeed in and steward whatever opportunity I'm given. Work-life balance for me at this moment means that I feel valuable, loved, appreciated, and competent regardless of how the workday went, or what my resume looks like, or how my salary ranks (cries in Bay Area cost of living). I couldn't imagine being in this mindset as a college student. It has done wonders for my sense of self (in additional to that $0 co-pay for therapy because amazing corporate health insurance!!). 
That being said, I'm often very behind on emails - especially because I freelance - but that's just how things go sometimes. Shrugs. 

I hope the title conveys my sincerity - that I don't always feel traditionally successful, but I've developed so much career confidence. And I'm finding this, after job security/stability, to matter much more than I ever realized. I wish this for everyone.


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