Chicken or Beef?

February 19, 2007

A story I often share with folks who ask for advice is based on an exchange I had w/ a waitress several years ago. I am often indecisive when choosing an entrée at dinner and will ask for advice. Pointing to one dish in each of the pasta, chicken and beef sections, I asked for advice on a final selection. Her answer (in the form of a question); “well…do you want chicken or beef?”  

Of course, I meant is any particular dish wonderful or something to avoid. But I had asked imprecisely. And the answer is one that has stuck w/ me because I think it illustrates an important life lesson. You have to decide what YOU want. Others can offer advice, but only you can know what you want. There is no shortcut. You must think for yourself. It’s also no one else’s responsibility. It’s your life and career. Be proactive in making decisions.

Often, a career counseling session ultimately boils down to me being asked what should the other person want. We agree on the options on the table, the pros and cons of each and all of the various particulars. But when it comes down to A vs. B, they balk and want an out, an easy opinion from me on “the right” choice for them.

There are two problems with this:

1) People hesistate due to what a friend of mine refers to as “the fallacy of infinite choices”. By this he means we all think that making decisions cuts off options. This is the “if I don’t make a choice, both paths are still open” assumption. This is a false assumption.

2) Also, making a choice means we need to know ourselves and our goals well enough to be confident in the choice. So many of us want to avoid the “buyers remorse” of a wrong move while also seeing all the greener grass on another lawn. This clarity of mind is rare, but can be developed.

Take-away: There are many factors to consider as you make specific choices in advancing your career. We will explore them over time on this blog, but you need to be prepared to actively think through what you want.

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Hard Work & Experience Matter

February 19, 2007

This all takes hard work…A dirty little secret of business and career books is that spending the cover price and reading it will do nothing for you on its own. Learning and developing (obviously) requires doing. For example, you can’t learn to interview well from reading. You have to interview. By this I mean, really interview. Not handle easy questions in your own head or prep stock answers to softball questions. I mean put your self in uncomfortable positions and be made to sweat, then accept feedback and act on it.  

Here’s a personal experience on practice and preparation that has truly helped me in my career. The “best” interviewing experience of my life was a professional mock interview early in my MBA course work. I was 26 and quite the talker. I was (and still am) reasonably confident in my capabilities and thought then “what could be more interesting to my interviewer than me?” I realize now that the interview was inevitably a trap. Anything I said would be used against me in the court of post performance assessment. However, I wasn’t so swift at the time.  

I did prepare for the interview, but not enough (important idea: make sure your personal measuring stick is properly calibrated to external market. If you think you’re great, you better be!) I fell into the trap of offering too much irrelevant information early in the interview. I was punished in 3 ways. 1) I took too long telling my story, stealing time from communicating more important information. 2) my interviewer, like a skilled prosecutor, used my excess information to further steal time by essentially beating me over the head with my mistake. He followed up on many non-essential points I had raised. 3) I then had to watch the entire painful, sordid event again on a video recording. The feedback I received was not as bad as having to watch the entire ordeal unwind again and again in real time.  

I’m being a overly dramatic for a reason. The lesson was burned into my head. It’s one we all make and I still do, but a lot less frequently and I’ve learned to recover. This experience only comes from practicing, (w/ good feedback – more on this later). 

Take-away: Actively practice new skills and create opportunities to do so. There is no substitute for experience. You can glean ideas from reading, but it is your responsibility to apply them in your own way. Remember, it’s your career!