This resource is for those finding themselves in a place with little professional and/or personal hope. I am writing to you who have and are pursuing a dream but perhaps have recently googled “how to get a job in a pandemic.” To the one questioning whether all the work and sacrifice required to “make it” in this world is worth it. This is for you. There is hope. You absolutely can accomplish your dream. You are valuable and can turn this thing around. And, it is worth it. I entered the career of my dreams in a rebounding economy when it was debatably too late in life to make a career change. I found life purpose, established by vision and mission and am moving ever closer to the three qualities every human longs for – purpose, freedom and assurance.
I had just graduated with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and quit my first job after six months in the workforce with nothing lined up (the job was good and a stroke of good fortune a few years after the market crashed in 2008). I was arrogant, entitled, lazy and unmotivated. I fit all the millennial stereotypes. “I’ll find another job in a heartbeat,” I said to myself and to the woman I just married.
Vastly overestimating myself and underestimating the surrounding world, I looked past her unease and concern and entered a "reality" period with a few harsh (and much needed) lessons.
Fast forward two years later into unemployment and self-transformation, and I experienced an unfathomable career progression in a very short amount of time. It started with accepting a position as a grocery clerk at the corner grocery store (literally the only place willing to hire me) and coming to terms with the fact that I had little self-awareness, no appetite for success, a poor life attitude, ignorance of my aptitudes and no desire to invest in life anchors. Between my time in an apron and the next several years, I re-entered the corporate world receiving several promotions, leadership positions and launching a business that is growing during the COVID-19 crisis. My mental framework is the same today (presenting creative concepts to global business leaders) as it was when I resolved to stock shelves.
The catalyst for my personal life transformation can be summed up in rebuilding my life on the foundation of these five A’s. I hope they can be of value to you.
The number one make or break quality in the workplace is self-awareness, situational awareness and organizational awareness. Those who possess the ability to read themselves and a room well are usually those with a seat at the table and have earned the status as a “go-to.” Individuals who are able to read both AND are well versed in their organization’s strategic objectives are uniquely positioned to bring immense value and gain great constituency during major initiatives.
All these individuals have something in common. They own one crucial piece of knowledge that gives them the platform to make objective real-time self and situational assessments, to flip a switch and become a neutral third-party. A fundamental skill in a great leader and an “A” player. Effectively deploying this skill requires both experience and maturity but originates with the acceptance of who you are. Much like powerful brands, “A” players are aware of why they do what they do followed by how and what. They possess a core purpose. Answering the question: "Why do you exist?" While this thought thrusts the mind into philosophical and existential territories, the answer to that question is not only essential to professional leadership, but I’d argue it's essential to a fulfilling life.
The next step of awareness is knowing your strategy. As my mentor puts it - What are you prepared to do? For personal purposes, I like to combine my life vision and mission to define what my life strategy is.
Vision is the big picture you have for yourself. What is my end game? Mission is how you plan to achieve that life vision. Beyond these are life values and beliefs, but for this article, we’ll focus on core purpose and strategy in order to map yours with your organization’s. I view these exercises and the overall skillset of awareness as the core mass of an iceberg. While the world around you is unaware of the mass, it is critical to the surface.
- A knowledge of one’s purpose in life and having a vision and mission that provide direction to one’s actions, words and deeds.
- A knowledge of one’s actions, words and deeds and how they shape and affect the perception and response of others.
- An understanding of and and application of one’s purpose effectively in the moment with consideration to the environment, people and objectives at hand.
- A consideration and assessment of past and probable future behaviors applicable to a current situation and their likely outcome.
- A knowledge of your organization’s strategy and line of sight into how your role and team can best contribute to that strategy.
This is the formula I used from my home church, Perimeter, to develop my Purpose, Vision and Mission Statements.
Once I had a clear understanding of who I truly was and had reached the final touches of my life plan, I had a decision to make. What was I prepared to do? Would my core purpose, vision and mission just be words on a page? Or would they transform every square inch of how I approached life?
Fortunately, my life circumstances at the time forced me to come to a quick and favorable conclusion. I vowed to myself and my wife that I would do whatever it takes. No matter what. Step one was accepting the only job offer I had in nearly two years at the corner grocery store. Naively and full of pride, I viewed the job as beneath me and not worthy of my talents. But my plan said otherwise.
Before walking in the doors on day one, I looked in the car mirror and said, “I’m all in.” To this day, I begin nearly every day, every workout, every prayer, with that mentality. Why? Because it produces results.
Since my job stacking shelves, I’ve held four different jobs. Before each first day, I paused before walking through the main doors. “No matter what is waiting for me on the other side and what this place throws my way, I will do whatever it takes to succeed. I will come in early, stay late, skip lunch, work on weekends, volunteer for things out of my standard job duties or comfort zone, be intentional with others, and go the extra mile.”
Appetite for success is a choice. One of my favorite movies in recent times is “The Pursuit of Happyness.” Based on a true story, the film captures the essence of how deep you must be willing to dig in order to attain your vision. An unquenchable appetite for success is a highly sought after and noticeable quality. But it is exceedingly rare. Although the executives at the brokerage firm in the movie see a man rough around the edges, they also see someone with high situational IQ (he knew he didn’t have it all together) and someone fully committed to going beyond expectations to serve the customer. The executives hire him because his self and situational awareness paired with his appetite, attitude and aptitude would create the most value for the company.
Not many are willing to go beyond what’s required. Strategy is what you do, not what you say. Of those who possess an unquenchable appetite, there are fewer still who work with a humble attitude.
- Level of willingness, motivation and drive to accomplish your vision.
- Actions that indicate level of commitment, motivation and desire to bring value to an organization through your unique skillset.
This is the formula I used to challenge myself and pinpoint obstacles.
If there are any managers reading this, it is your responsibility to foster environments of appetite by giving your team high levels of autonomy and accountability. I recently went to a conference and encountered this helpful matrix.
Nothing can squash a potential opportunity faster than having a poor attitude. You can have all the skills and intelligence with the most excellent resume, but I’d take the person with a high score on awareness and appetite with a great attitude over skills every time. What is a great attitude? There are eight components:
Gratitude | Empathy | Humility | Compassion | Kindness | Conviction | Peace | Courage
This is where I believe the true balancing act begins to becoming an indispensable asset to an organization. One must balance an unrelenting appetite for success with an attitude that encourages and facilitates productivity through servant leadership and collaboration.
Part of being an “A” player is being able to function highly as a team player in high-stress and difficult situations as well the normal day-to-day routine. I’m talking about going beyond the ability to maintain composure. The ability to adapt, make sound decisions and function with graceful collaboration when in high-pressure situations.
What does this look like? In most work situations, this type of attitude looks like taking responsibility and owning the imperative of investing in your team and colleagues. Being a true team player and putting others first. It is a relatively lonely road to be kind and intentional in the workplace. However, I have found that with patience and perseverance, key leadership does take notice.
I fully believe in virtuous and vicious cycles in the workplace as outlined in the book, The First 90 Days. Forming cross-functional alliances and, most importantly, favor with your boss happens over time with consistent positive performance and behavior. A great attitude is the tip of the spear in forming virtuous habit loops with your manager (also see The Power of Habit). Paving the way to earning your most important alliance – your boss. In my experience and when it came time for annual reviews, I began to see the eight components exhibited towards me in the form of verbal affirmation and promotions.
My career progression wasn’t solely due to becoming an aware, hungry and happy guy. So far, we’ve been exploring the why and the how. Now we’ll focus on the what. As Liam Neeson put it, “…what I do have are a particular set of skills…” Joking aside, being excellent at your craft is why most places will hire you.
- Verbal and nonverbal projections of feelings, state of mind and opinions towards someone or something.
- The ability to exhibit Gratitude, Empathy, Humility, Compassion, Kindness, Conviction, Peace and Courage consistently through verbal and nonverbal interactions across all job functions to all colleagues.
Here is a worksheet that I use often to keep myself in check. The one below is a general evaluation, but can be tailored to specific situations or individuals to identify growth areas.
Here is another worksheet to help action growth areas.
The most important decision I made in my professional career was to take the time to identify and pursue what I was meant to do.
There are some things that I am naturally gifted at but not passionate about and visa versa. Sports is an area where I have a natural talent, but I don't have the work ethic (and don't want to have the work ethic) required for a shot at success. Music is a passion in my life that I am dedicated to but am lacking in natural ability. Both areas would have been a mistake for me to pursue as a vocation.
Then there are life pursuits that I thought I had a natural giftedness and passion. These happened in two phases:
- I wanted to pursue a career as an Army Officer in the Special Forces. I was in shape and consider the military to be a noble and exciting career path.
- After that didn't work out like I had hoped (due to details I'll perhaps share in a later piece), I then wanted to pursue an MBA to become an executive in the corporate world.
During both phases, I learned that I neither possessed the gift, nor was willing to put in the work for either. I also was after the wrong things: respect and money. Neither of these are bad things to want. They are good things to desire in fact! However, as the sole drivers for life, they paint a sorry picture for fulfillment. An old college professor of mine once touted, “Find out what you love to do, and money will take care of itself.” At the time, I ridiculed the idea. Money is always a factor, if not THE factor.
But turns out, he knew what he was talking about. During the college exercise, the question was posed, "What would I do in life if money wasn't a factor?" I knew immediately. I would have started making movies and creating stories. But who can support a family doing that? Fear drove my career for years and became a wedge between me and my dreams.
I was passionate about storytelling and the visual arts but had buried it away in search for money and the elusive respect of others. After a dream opportunity presented, I took a leap of faith and went all in (with a major pay cut).
As a relative novice to the industry, it took me a few years to wet my feet and sharpen my skills. But once I did, the puzzle pieces came together. For me, pursuing my passion as a vocation did not seem like work. It felt like I was being paid to have fun all day. In fact, I would, and still do, lose track of time. I discovered that I had a natural desire to work long hours and continuously learn and grow. After a few years of developing and practicing my passion, I could produce industry quality work across several disciplines quicker than industry standards. I had identified, accepted and invested in my aptitude for the visual arts.
Note: Some of you may be in precarious financial positions, and all areas of life should be weighed before making a change in your career - especially at high risk. But all things considered, it's worth the leap. There's also a bit of chance/destiny involved, as opportunities are handed out without thought to equality. But an entire book could be written on that! So I'll leave it as a footnote.
- A natural ability to and desire to do something.
- Developing and tailoring your life aptitudes to becoming competitive advantages, value drivers for organizations and to better the world.
Here is a worksheet to help identify your life aptitudes.
Every high-performer with a satisfying life I know has a set of clear anchors in their life.
I consider mentors or trusted friends that can provide wisdom and outside perspective as primary anchors. I’ve seen others rely on their faith to bring balance and perspective. Others find community in their hobbies such as fitness. All three of these in some shape or form act as anchors in my life.
A critical component in my personal career progression is my mentor. He simultaneously places high expectations on me while encouraging me on at least a monthly basis. His perspective provides much needed reality checks and accountability that I need to “stay the course” towards my life purpose. It is near impossible to become a true life “A” player without some sort of mentor in the equation. In fact, I’ll go so far as to classify those without anchors in their life as closed systems. And I believe that there is a life lesson to be taken from the second law of thermodynamics in that closed systems maximize entropy. Life anchors do exactly what literal anchors do: hold you in place amidst unpredictable and moving elements.
We aren't meant to do life alone. Even in the midst of a pandemic, we need connection and growth. Life moves too fast and in too many different directions. Find someone steps ahead of you in the game. Find a mentor who both places high expectations on you while encouraging you and providing wisdom. You can possess the prior four “A’s” and be tremendously valuable for a while. But I firmly believe that without life and workplace anchors, burnout and abandonment of purpose is at risk.
- Someone (but not a family member or significant other) who has more life/work experience and wisdom than you and is dedicated to meeting with you on a regular basis to challenge, encourage and help you grow.
- A combination of hobbies, activities, family and friends that provide perspective, encouragement and balance in life.
The contents of this article are purely based on my observations and experiences. I am not of superior intelligence. I do not come from a family of great resources or connections. I am average in height, weight, appearance, IQ, and athletic ability. I did not wake up and decide to be successful. Over several years of grappling with truth, discovering my life purpose and gaining an unwavering commitment to my life vision (working harder that I ever though I could), things started to fall into place rather quickly.
Invest the time to create a personal life plan. Without any doubt, this exercise was the starting point of my personal and professional transformation. I don’t think these five “A’s” can simply be mustered up and sustained with will power. These five “A’s” come from a place of deep conviction and dedication to discovering why you were placed here on Earth. Once this self-discovery phase has been done properly, anyone can experience growth and most importantly, increased fulfillment in life.