The following advice may initially come across as cold, cynical and harsh, but stick with me. In my experience, you have to own your career because nobody else cares about you.
In my parents’ generation, people took jobs that didn’t even require a college degree—incurring hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt—and stayed with the company for their entire career. There was an implicit contract between the parties. Employees agreed to work hard, punch the clock and would be reasonably rewarded with a gold watch and pension—just good enough to supplement social security and last until you were in your late 60’s or early 70’s (people did not live as long as we do now). For example, my dad was in teaching for his whole career. In my neighborhood, which probably isn’t the best example, all my friends’ fathers stayed in the same jobs for their entire adult lives. They were taxi drivers, butchers, grocery store managers, light bulb salesmen, police officers and insurance salesmen. The moms at that time didn’t work outside of the home; although, my mother taught elementary school in Brooklyn when my brother and I were old enough to look after ourselves and she remained there until she retired.
Now, the world is different. You may sign a contract when you accept a new job, but don’t be deceived by this piece of paper; there is no real agreement between the corporation and the individual. It is a free-agency workforce, but employees are not feeling so free. The corporations will use you, squeeze dry everything you have to offer and then toss you out the door when they are finished. You’d like to think that your boss is your mentor and cares about your career. They are—so long as you make them look good. If there is a choice between saving their job or yours, then expect that you will be out. If you get a large bonus, it might mean there is less for them and that certainly won’t do. When a project goes awry, who gets the blame and thrown under the bus? It’s a rhetorical question that everyone knows the answer to, which drives my point home. Technology is deployed with the pretense of making your work life easier, but the real reason is to cut the workforce to save money. If the company can move jobs to cheaper locations around the world, you will get a visit from a cheery human resources representative telling you, “Thanks, we greatly appreciate your contributions over the last decade, but your services are no longer required. Good luck in your future endeavors.”Then they’ll add, “May I please have your access card? Our security guard, Rocko, will escort you to your desk, glare menacingly at you while you clear out your desk and usher you out of the building. Have a nice day!”
Co-workers may seem like friends, but they have their own agenda, jobs and family to look after. Most people have a scarcity mindset in that if someone else receives more attention, it follows that they will receive less. They view work life as a zero-sum game and that the accolades and cool projects lavished on another employee means that you will have nothing. Therefore, as you start getting noticed and attain a small modicum of success, you will create enemies. They will be envious of your emergence. Secretly, they will hope you fail. As you climb up the corporate ladder, internal enemies will grow in numbers and they will give half-hearted smiles and good-morning nods, but seethe with resentment because they believe they are so much smarter than you.
If you have a longtime spouse, partner or significant other, they are probably sick and tired of your talk about your job by now. Your spouse used to listen attentively at the trials and tribulations of your workday. They would weigh in with advice and counsel when a tricky situation arose at the office and feel excited to be part of your world. Now, there is distractedly polite “Uh-huh. Yes. Hmm” followed by “Hey, did you pick up the prescription for Susie? You know that Billy has a game and you need to drive him because I’ll be working late?” You notice that they are annoyed and irritated when you regal them with your exploits at the office.
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Your friends, family and siblings were once interested in your job. Now, they are too busy to bother. When you get together socially and are asked how you are doing, you invariably share what’s happening at your job. You notice the subtle change in their facial expressions and body language. Clearly, they couldn’t care less about your promotion. Some start resenting your success, forget to invite you to Thanksgiving dinner, feel that you are braggart and stop liking your Facebook posts.
Parents may have had their own agenda for you and are not terribly happy that you chose a career other than the one they had planned for you. My parents thought of me as a loser for years because I didn’t adhere to their vision of what they expected. Later on, when I became successful, they said that they were always proud of me. I was hurt back then, but not necessarily happy when they changed their opinion, as I had hardened and learned that only you can determine the right path for yourself. Ironically, I was a bigger jerk when I was at my most successful and a really nice, kind and sweet guy when I was broke and floundering in my career.
You can’t look to others. Your career is entirely up to you. I know it sounds hard, cold and brutal, but only you can choose, change, fail, restart, pivot and build your future. People will only care so much. You need to think of what you want to achieve in your career and life. Set a plan and work like hell to get it. If you have the chance to succeed, do whatever it takes. Don’t look at what others are doing; focus on yourself. Go to sleep early, wake up early and work your butt off. If there are distasteful and hard tasks to do at work, take them on and prove yourself. Fight for promotions. Fight for raises. If you can’t get ahead where you are, find a new job. If you become stuck, consider a new career or become an entrepreneur. If you need to get a college or advanced degree, don’t make excuses—just do it.
It sounds scary, but it’s not. It’s actually liberating. Think of how much easier your life is if you don’t have to worry about what everyone else is thinking about you. How much could you achieve if you follow your own path? Think of how far you will go in your career if you don’t subject yourself to oppressive managers who don’t have your best interest at heart. Why should you give precious years of your life to a company that would replace you with a robot or slave labor in a third world country? There is a sense of power when you take back control of your career.
I am writing this piece 21 years after I started recruiting. It’s so shocking that I truly can’t comprehend how fast the time went by. I have now worked in this field the same length of time from birth to college graduation. If I’m very lucky, I’ll maybe have another 20 good years left in life—meaning that I’ll still have relatively good mental and physical health.
In light of the short window of time we have, you owe it to yourself to make the most of it. You will spend about 83,000 hours of your life working. Why waste one second doing something that you are not excited and passionate about? One year turns into another really fast. You need to act before 21 years pass by and you regret that you didn’t attain the career path you really wanted.