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Career Advice I'd Give My Child

By Marty Nemko

I’m reaching the stage of life when one starts to think about leaving a legacy. For me, part of that is to pass along to the next generation what I’ve learned about work from being a career counselor for the last 20 years.

Status is the enemy of contentment. Even when it’s to their detriment, most people pursue the highest-status option: they attend the most prestigious college they can even though they know that prestigious universities shortchange students in favor of research. They buy a Mercedes even though a Toyota breaks down less often. If they can, they become a doctor or lawyer, even though it requires years of expensive, difficult training and job satisfaction is far lower than, for example, librarian, genetic counselor, mediator, clergy, or optometrist. Saddening me even more are the people who strive for glam careers such as performer or activist. Millions of people are clawing for just thousands of those jobs. And because of that, salaries are generally low and bosses can treat workers badly, knowing there are so many wannabes panting for the job. Far wiser to pick a not unduly popular career that you’d do well in and then do a thorough job search so you get multiple job offers. That enables you to pick one that has as many of these as possible: moderately challenging, meaningful work, a kind, competent boss, pleasant co-workers, learning opportunities, reasonable pay, reasonable work hours, and a short commute. Those are the things that lead to career happiness, far more than some glam career. If being a movie star were so great, why do they all seem to be in and out of rehab?

Procrastination is career cancer. There is a moment when you—usually unconsciously-- decide, “I’m going to do that task later.” Stay alert for that moment of truth, and each time, picture the benefits and liabilities of doing the task and then ask yourself, “Would I be wiser to procrastinate on this task or to do it now?” You’ll procrastinate less. Then break the task down to baby steps and, when stuck, get help. If the reason you’re procrastinating is that you fear failure or rejection, decide to improve your skill so you’re less likely to be rejected, or remember that you can survive rejection. The only thing you probably can’t survive is stage 5 cancer.

Don’t ruminate. Take a low-risk action. Many people try to think their way out of problems. You’re more likely to get unstuck by trying low-risk actions. For example, if you’re trying to choose a career, job shadow people in candidate careers. Not sure whether people would buy your product? Don’t theorize? Ask them. Beware of going into therapy--it encourages excess rumination. So often, therapy gives you insight into yourself but your life is no better. Indeed, many therapy junkies become self-absorbed and a bore.

Accept your basic nature. Every mother who has had two or more children knows that each child emerges from the womb with attributes that tend to endure for a lifetime. People may read endless self-help books or spend years on the therapist couch and still find it tough to change their basic nature. So, it’s wiser to put yourself in career situations in which your natural self--social or loner, intellectual or playful, intense or laid back--can succeed rather than try to change yourself so you can fit into some otherwise desirable workplace.

Work hard. Today’s mantra is work/life balance, but some of the most fulfilled people I know, work long hours. From where I sit, the cardiologist who sees patients in the evenings so they don’t need to wait weeks for an appointment is not a workaholic; she’s a hero. The salesperson who does his paperwork in the evening so he can be free to make sales calls during the day so he can better afford to support his family is not a workaholic; he’s a hero. And, of course, while luck and networking matters, hard work is generally rewarded--and if your employer doesn’t, find another one. I’ve seen many people live lives of limited productivity and ultimately they feel pretty useless, like a parasite on those around them. Perhaps the key to a life well-led is to spend as much time as possible (without stressing yourself unduly) using your best skills to make a difference in the world.

Ask for what you want. Many people are taught not to be too willful. They misinterpret that to mean they shouldn’t be assertive. Key to a successful life is to--as long as it’s ethical--ask for what you want. Learn to embrace rejection: winners are rejected all the time. Losers are so afraid, they don’t ask and so rarely get what they want. So, ask, and if someone says no, ask someone else. Of course, if 20 of 20 people say no, perhaps the world is telling you that you should ask for something else.

True self-esteem comes only from accomplishment. Forget about slogans: “I’m Italian and I’m proud.” or “Black is beautiful.” Forget even about the accomplishments of “your people.” In truth, you deserve no credit for that. You can feel worthy only to the extent to which you have left the world a better place than when you entered it. Get the skills to be a real expert at what you do, whether you’re an astrophysicist or an administrative assistant, then work hard and ethically. Then your self-esteem will be good enough. Don’t let it get too high--that leads to complacency and arrogance.

Consider low-risk self-employment. Most employers will pay you the least they can get away with and that usually isn’t much unless you’re bringing in megadollars for the boss. It may be smarter to be self-employed. True, most businesses go bust within a few years but you can beat the odds, ironically, by doing the opposite of what they teach you in business school. Don’t innovate; replicate. Being a guinea pig is risky and you don’t have the deep pockets to afford a failure. Take a proven, low-cost, simple (less to go wrong) business, for example, a nail salon, espresso cart, or transmission repair shop. Visit the five most successful ones and incorporate all their best features into your business. Execute it with loving care, keeping expenses to a minimum, and you have a far better chance of achieving great success than working for The Man, who not only pays you little but can downsize you on a whim.

Don’t spend much time paying dues. Bosses like employees willing to do a lot of scutwork. But do that for long and you may get typecast as a slow-track employee. If your boss wants you to spend a lot of time at the Xerox machine, say something like, “I’m willing to pay my dues but I’m a pretty good writer and researcher. Perhaps I could be of greater value to you if I used those skills more.” If that doesn’t yield results, don’t be scared. Go and find a better job.

Network when you don’t need to. Everyone knows you need to network to land a job, but then, your motives for networking are too transparent. The time to network is when you don’t need anyone’s help. Even if you’re not social, force yourself to get involved in your professional association, alumni association, or start an in-person or online support group of people in your line of work. Look for opportunities to help others. As master salesperson Zig Ziglar says, “To get what you want, give people what they want.”

Put your savings in the highest-yielding bank CDs. Conventional wisdom is to put most of your money in the stock market. But if you invest in the highest-yielding bank CDs (listed on,) you can usually get double the inflation rate with zero risk and zero stress. Especially in these uncertain times, that’s a heckuva deal. That also avoids investors’ frequent error--their emotions make them buy stocks when they’re high and sell them when they’re low.

Be nice. Look for opportunities to brighten the day of every person you encounter, even if it’s just to flick a piece of lint off their jacket. If a coworker is less capable than you, repress your impatience and offer to help. If you’re a boss, be generous with deserved praise. Many people crave praise more than money—feeling worthy is a primal need. If you have hired someone, don’t ignore the unsuccessful applicants. Afford them the dignity of a kind rejection letter, if at all possible, a personal one mentioning their strengths.

Integrity is key. My mouse pad is imprinted with the statement, “Integrity is Key”. Yes, cheaters often win—in the material sense. Many, maybe even most deceptive salespeople, plagiarizing students, and cook-the-books accountants, get away with it, but they still lose. They lose in the bigger game of making their life meaningful. If you—especially when it’s to your selfish detriment—do the ethical thing, you will be loved and respected on this earth, and if there’s a hereafter, honored in that one. And you will go through life with your head high, knowing you are making the world a better, not a worse, place.

Never look back. Always look forward. I learned that lesson from my dad. I asked him, a Holocaust survivor, why he never complained about having lost his teenage years and his entire family. He replied, “The Nazis took five years from my life. I won’t give them one minute more. Martin, never look back; always look forward.” We’ve all had bad things happen to us, but my most successful clients do not wallow. They always ask themselves, “What’s the next positive little step I can take.” I can offer you no better advice.

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