The Career Ladder Isn’t In The Office

Too many people believe it’s their company’s job to carve out a career and professional development plan for them. It can be awesome when a company does thisit’s one of the big goals of our company this year. But it’s rare.

It’s also not an excuse. Your inability to make progress is not a function of your company’s ability to train you.

It’s your job to train yourself.

What You Do At Night Matters

I was lucky to have this drilled into my head when I was younger by my parents and mentors. I graduated with a marketing degree but wanted to become a designer. So I spent my evenings and mornings practicing, doing real projects for free to get the skills I needed. It took a long time, but eventually it paid off.

When I become a business owner we decided UI/UX was no longer my highest and best use and I switched back to marketing. After the kids went to sleep I practiced and learned and experimented. It took a long time, but eventually started paying off.

I never would have become a creative director or led product development or taught marketing to MBA students if I relied on professional development initiatives from my employers. I had to create my own curriculum, and I had to practice. For a long time.

Most people I know who are successful follow the same pattern. One friend graduated with a history degree, but had an interest in technology and sales. He started doing inside sales and learned programming at night. He eventually became a VP of sales at a startup. Now he’s a CTO.

Another friend had a political science degree, but was interested in startups as well. He learned enough design and development to build an agency that he later sold, and he ended up in venture capital.

In both of their cases, the things they did between 6pm and 12pm were what determined their future.

There obviously needs to be balance. If you have a spouse and kids, you need to be fully present with them each night. Even if you’re single, you need to carve out time to exercise, see friends, connect spiritually, etc. And of course, giving yourself the opportunity to catch a movie or a game periodically is fine.

But what you don’t need to do is queue up another season of Downton Abbey on Netflix, spending the 14 hours a week the average American spends watching television. You don’t need to spend as much time playing Candy Crush or stalking high school friends on Facebook.

So what should you do instead?

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My college mentor grew up in a poor African American family in Alabama. He managed to be the first in his family to get into college, attending West Point. He was a decorated officer before getting his MBA at Harvard. When I met him, he ran economic development in Colorado Springs.

When I asked him what he most attributed his success to, he said it was because he started reading and never stopped.

He believed knowledge was the key to getting what you wanted in life. So much so that his life goal was to build libraries in underprivileged communities like the one he grew up in.

He always asked job applicants what book they were currently reading. The A players were folks who could answer without hesitation. They usually were in the middle of 3 of 4 books, and at least one of them was professional in nature.

Reading gives you a huge head start on your peers who don’t.

You’re more likely to identify strategies and tactics from other industries that might work in your company.

You’re more likely to avoid making common pitfalls that otherwise would only come with experience.

You’re able to transfer that knowledge in your organization, creating new capabilities for your company.

And you’re more interesting to talk to.

It’s unlikely you’re going to have a conversation at a networking event about the 4 P’s of marketing or some other concept you picked up in your textbooks. But it’s very likely you’ll have a conversation about the long tail, or the 10,000 hour rule, or the build-measure-learn loop.

Anthony Robbins used to say that if you spend 1 hour a day learning about a particular topic, you’d know more about that subject than 99.999% of the world within a year.

Even if you have only 30 minutes a night, you can easily read a book a week. Maybe you’re not an expert, but I guarantee you’ll know more than your peers.

Read. Take good notes. Repeat.

Work on (Real) Projects

Ideally, you’re able to take what you’re learning and apply it in real world situations. If your company doesn’t provide that opportunity, you need to create it yourself.

The reason is that it gives you reps. You simply learn more on real projects with real constraints than you do working on imaginary projects for a portfolio.

You get to learn how a principle applies in an actual industry, with actual team members, and how it impacts actual customers. You learn how to execute under a deadline, and have the benefit of a real feedback loop to see if what you did actually worked.

When you’re not very good yet, that experience is invaluable. May more valuable than the measly fee you’d collect as a novice.

If you can realistically justify charging for it and you can convince someone else, go for it. But don’t let fees get in the way of the work. Do whatever it takes to get as many reps as you can. The more times you get to practice the faster you improve.

The other way to get more reps is to take on projects no one else wants at work. By taking on those projects, reframing them, and making them successful you get opportunities to acquire new skills and influence within your organization. It’s unlikely you’ll have a ton of time to do this during the day since you’ll have your normal job responsibilities. You’ll have to do these projects at night. But the payoff can be huge.

Aggressively Build Your Network

A strong network accelerates everything you do in your career. You should spend considerable time building yours if you aren’t already.

A good network gives you smart people to bounce ideas off of.

A good network gives you access to information and knowledge that are otherwise hard to come by.

A good network gives you introductions to consulting or freelance work that can give you more reps.

A good network will lead to more potential partnerships or revenue opportunities for your current company.

A good network will become the source of your next gig.

If you start your own business, your network will be the source of your early customers, your best employees and your most favorable sources of capital.

Rather than going home or going to the bar with your college buddies, you should be hitting up Meetup groups.

You should join your local chapter of whatever professional organization is most relevant to your career.

You should be grabbing coffee or drinks or breakfast with new people every single week.

And you should always stay in touch, actively looking for opportunities to help your networkto make new introductions, offer advice or share knowledge.

Your network can become your most powerful career asset, and the time you’re spending watching Duck Dynasty can be spent building it.

Change Your Destiny, Starting Tonight

The great thing is you don’t need permission. Your boss doesn’t control your down time. When you’re home, your kids are in bed, and you normally shut your brain off, you can instead be doing things that will make you smarter, more capable and more connected.

If you spend an hour a day doing these things, I guarantee your professional life will be dramatically different in a year than it is today.

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Now That I’m No Longer a Girlfriend

I still put three creamers and three Splendas in my coffee every morning, making it taste less like coffee and more like a hot chocolate. I still let my toothpaste clump around the nozzle in the way that he used to think was so repulsive. I still talk to everyone at the store as though they were my life-long friends. I still let empty coffee and iced tea containers collect on the passenger side floor of my poor neglected vehicle-turned dumpster. I still surprise my friends with little treats for rainy days and write seriously dorky, yet cheerful, Post-It note messages for my co-workers. I still sleep on my stomach and tell horribly long stories. I still look in the mirror and like the way my hair falls over my shoulders and my eyes get squinty when I smile. I still feel a warmth in my soul when I think about love.

Now that I’m alone, I still do everything that I once did. The beautiful kaleidoscope of my life has kept turning. It seems that I am still me, which is surprising, because I thought that wouldn’t be the case.

As a girl who has not been “single” for longer than three months since she was pubescent, I thought I wouldn’t be able to function alone. I am sure plenty of other women can relate to this apparent loss of purpose. I thought I would fade away. I thought every little detail of my life would be thrown into the wind where he went. I thought the glow of my normally overly-happy demeanor would be dimmed by the loss of who I thought was my true love and of my relationship activities. I thought that what I refer to as my “sulking time,” consisting of Netflix marathons and microwavable popcorn, would become a permanent existence for me. I thought I couldn’t be me without him. I thought I couldn’t be me without someone else. What I didn’t understand was that though he may be gone, I’m still here, and I shouldn’t need anyone else to be proud of that person who is still here. I shouldn’t have to be someone’s girlfriend to be “someone” to myself.

Often, we grow comfortable establishing ourselves in the satisfaction of a relationship with someone else and then when that role diminishes, we are at a loss when it comes to our identity. We think that loving someone and then losing that person has to also mean losing yourself, and that isn’t true. While they do take a part of you, they do not take who you are. That is because they don’t create who you are, either. All that anyone can ever really do is merely build upon who you are; you don’t have to be a girlfriend or a wife or any title, for that matter, to feel fully satisfied with yourself. People will walk in and out of your life. The most important element to understanding human relationships is that there will always be one person that won’t walk out of your life, and that’s you.

So yes, I am no longer a god-forsaken girlfriend. And yes, sometimes I look to that space beside me on the couch when I’m in the middle of a sulking Netflix marathon and wish he were lying there as he once did. I think about how he would probably be releasing his silly short snores because he never took too kindly to my crappy taste in television. And then, for a moment, I let myself miss him and miss being his, because it’s OK to feel that way sometimes. It’s human nature. But you see, in that same instant, I realize he chose not to be there, and therefore I am content with his absence. I realize I don’t need him to be there. I don’t need anyone to be there. I don’t need to take care of someone and I don’t need to “feel needed” in order to know I am worthy of self-confidence. I’m me without anyone else, and so are each of you.

That sleeping boyfriend and his endearing smile shouldn’t be what gives me the gratification that I am worthy of love. Emotional relationships are gifts, and sometimes those gifts are ephemeral for a reason. Men will walk in and out of my life, but I’ll still be here. I will be here with my own talents and hard-earned accomplishments to sustain my inner happiness, not the title of so-and-so’s lovely female companion. I’ll still be drinking creamy coffees and having15-minute conversations with random strangers at the grocery store. I’ll still have plenty of squinty smiles and proud moments. I’ll still be me, regardless of who is by my side.

I want to spread this message to any other girl that believes she needs the “friend” additive placed on her title for true fulfillment. Sometimes, heartbreak closes a door that then opens another one that leads to… knowing yourself. I know it doesn’t feel this way immediately, but your life will go on just as it had without your ex. It will become even better. You are still talented, unique and beautiful in every way that you were with someone else. Just be the “girl” you want to be entirely, and let the “friend” part of it fall into place when it’s the right time. Because now that I’m not a girlfriend, nothing has changed about who I am, other than the lessons that I have learned and ways I have been made into a stronger person.

Now that I’m not a girlfriend, I’m still me, and that’s all I could ever ask for. That’s all any of us could ever ask for.