Nine Mistakes You Don’t Have to Make in Your Career

I saw a blog topic the other day titled “My Biggest Mistake.” The intent of this topic was obviously to teach, to explore a hard but useful lesson a broader audience could benefit from.

…But I’m not really wired to think that way, so let me flip it around. Here are 9 things that I got right, whether by design or accident, that others could learn from.

1. Always embrace new ideas and learning – be curious

One of the biggest errors anyone can make is to think learning stops when you leave school. Learning never stops. You can benefit from learning something new at any age.

From the start of my career I looked for ways to learn new things and took advantage of any opportunities for structured learning. I had the great fortune to start my career at Digital Equipment Corporation, where they financed employees to gain additional degrees. They also offered free APICS certification classes for anyone who wanted to take the tests. I got my CPIM, which qualified me for new roles in consulting to the company’s Asia Pacific supply chain. I was able to travel the world, meet new people and take in new experiences I would never have known had I not raised my hand when those courses were offered.

Today, almost all the knowledge you could ask for is available to you. I am an avid reader and take advantage of travel time to consume 2-3 books a month—not just business books, but histories, biographies and the classics. Occasional Liberal Arts booster shots contribute to a well-rounded and thoughtful person. Feed your mind every day.

2. Travel and learn

Traveling around the world has taught me that people are people. There is no Us vs. Them. Mark Twain said “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

Don’t make the mistake of vegetating in one little corner of the earth, take advantage of opportunities to travel. Learn new cultures and shake off preconceived notions.

3. Cultivate the mind of a student

But what if learning doesn’t translate into personal growth? One of the most unfortunate mistakes I see is the dogmatism of knowing too much. When you embrace opportunities for learning, when you travel to other places, don’t make the mistake of thinking you know everything. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you know anything. The Zen teachers would tell you to approach learning with the “mind of a child.”

So look at each trip as an adventure. Whether boarding a flight for Copenhagen or Cincinnati, view it as a portal to new learning. When you start to think you know everything you become dull to the world.

4. Work yourself out of a job

Wouldn’t working to eliminate your own job be a mistake? Not necessarily. Once upon a time I developed and delivered training on a new product. Problem was, I got trapped in an endless cycle of doing the same training over and over. So I locked myself in a conference room for a week and recorded the entire training. Now I wasn’t the bottleneck. Anyone who wanted to get the training could just do it.

Don’t make the mistake of assuming your job or your role is a fixed entity. Work to retain the value but eliminate the job. Be the person who sets up systems and automates or eliminates manual processes. Set your proprietary knowledge free. Lead the charge and you will not only add value to your organization but will position yourself as a leader.  

5. Don’t be afraid of hard work and don’t give up too early

Expect that there will be hard work. Expect some failures, and be ok with that. Embrace it. You will find that most worthy projects follow a U-shaped curve. When you first start the project you will be excited and the work will be fun. At some point it will start to get hard and you will have to trust in the results without being able to see the finish line. You will have to fall down, sometimes multiple times, get up and keep working. Eventually the work will turn a corner and you will see the finish line. The work will become fun and meaningful again as you approach your goal.

When you find a project that is the right thing to work on or that you have a passion about, be willing to put in long hours of focus. Worthy results will come. To quote Mark Z. Danielewski, “Passion has little to do with euphoria and everything to do with patience. It is not about feeling good. It is about endurance.”

Patience and passion come from the same Latin root, which means to suffer. That doesn’t mean working for hardship’s sake. Rather be willing to apply and focus your energies on things you care about and things that will make a difference.

6. Never use the word “Overwhelmed”

There are a few phrases I have eliminated from my vocabulary. One of them is, “I feel overwhelmed.”

I think when you say “I’m overwhelmed,” you are telling the world that you are out of control and have given up. Whenever I hear the words start to form in my head I see them as a trigger. A trigger to take a step back and look at the choices I have made and the choices I am making. Don’t think like a victim. There is no such thing as being overwhelmed. There are only poor choices.

Instead of declaring yourself overwhelmed, see it as an indicator that you need to look at your priorities and decisions.

7. Never use the phrase “I don’t have time”

Another of the phrases that I have cut from my vernacular is, “I don’t have time.” This is usually a verbal crutch people lean on when in fact they are struggling to prioritize.

“I don’t have time to exercise.”   “I don’t have time to read.”   “I don’t have time to work on that project.”

Whenever I find myself starting to say “I don’t have time to…” I change the statement to reflect the reality, which is, this isn’t a priority for me. That changes the whole context of the thought. Feeling that you lack time is living in the world of scarcity. That scarcity attitude may bubble over into the other parts of your life and career. Cultivate an attitude of abundance. You do have enough time to do the important things. Time is abundant. Try to talk in terms of what should be done and what can be done. When you find yourself thinking “not enough time,” ask yourself if you know what the important things are.

8. Understand that you are a leader

Whether you manage people or not—whether you want to be one or not—you are a leader. Everyone you interact with in your life and in your career is influenced by you. You will attract or repel people based on your actions and your attitude. Act like a leader.

What is a leader? It is that person out in front of the herd finding the way. A leader has an attitude of abundance, doesn’t complain, and looks for ways to help their co-workers and company succeed.

Don’t make the mistake of thinking that you aren’t a leader. Be a leader in action and attitude.

9. It’s not about you

Finally, it’s a humbling but liberating concept that you don’t know what is going on inside other peoples’ heads. I guarantee they aren’t thinking about your problems or your challenges. It’s not about you. Let me repeat that. It simply is not about you.

Whether you are working on a problem, selling a solution or creating a blog post, what you are doing, or writing, or saying must somehow impact your audience. That’s a liberating idea. Now that you know, you don’t have to worry so much: all those thoughts that may be rattling around in your head regarding not being good enough, or smart enough, or strong enough are not important to others. They each have their own cacophony of thought that they are dealing with. Organize your actions and attitude to truly address the needs and wants of others. That is where you will find true success.

Remember that errors are the table stakes for growth, self-awareness and maturity. We all make countless mistakes in our lives and careers, but if we learn as we grow, we have the ability to keep what proves true while casting aside things that are not. Great mistakes teach you humility and the importance of service.

What do you think? Would you add any to this list?