Small children have big dreams. As a kid, I wanted to be everything from a NASA astronaut to a Major League Baseball star. Yet as most people age and mature their dreams tend to evaporate and morph into something more practical and attainable. But impractical does not mean impossible. That is if you’re really willing to work for it and go the extra miles. The future is now, as they say.
In high school, for example, I worked as a pizza delivery guy after receiving my driver’s license. Prior to that, I unloaded inventory from 18-wheeler trucks one summer in 90 degree heat with no air conditioning.
It’s no secret that building a strong work ethic at a young age helps lay the foundation for short and long-term career success. For example, while I was fortunate to land my “dream jobs” in Congress and the White House while still in my early 20s, there was a lot of grunt work that preceded reaching these lofty goals. In high school, for example, I worked as a pizza delivery guy after receiving my driver’s license. Prior to that, I unloaded inventory from 18-wheeler trucks one summer in 90-degree heat with no air conditioning. I also worked in retail handling inventory in a department store stockroom and laying it out on the sales floor. Then, in college, I worked at the student newspaper and completed multiple internships in the public and private sectors – all while balancing a full course load. I was young, ambitious and simply refused to take “no” for an answer.
The point here is that early career success is earned in incremental steps starting from the bottom up.
Gens Y & Z
As a Gen Xer, I want to share some professional advice for all the teens and 20-somethings out there pondering their dream jobs, preparing to embark on new career paths, or just trying to climb the corporate ladder at a young age. Millennials and Gen Z represent a new generation of leaders who will profoundly impact the future of work.
It’s important to recognize that Millennials (also known as Gen Y) are over 80 million strong and growing. They are entering the workforce at increasing rates and now comprise the largest age-based demographic. Their foothold as future leaders will only continue to solidify as older generations, like Baby Boomers, retire at a greater frequency. Moreover, let’s not forget about the up-and-coming Generation Z. Even though most of these youngsters are still in grade school right now, some nonetheless harbor high ambitions and career aspirations during a new century of innovation.
For example, some of today’s talented young people are not just dreaming of becoming NASA astronauts, but actively working toward their goal of venturing to Mars on a future manned mission. An impressive young woman known as “Astronaut Abby” is a case in point. Check her out here on LinkedIn to see what I mean about a new generation of leadership These two generations were born into the Digital Age. They can’t comprehend of a world without smart devices which allow them to leverage mobile, digital and virtual technology at their fingertips. This has serious consequences for the workplace, flexible work and the elusive work-life balance.
Even so, some old-school lessons regarding career success are still applicable today. In fact, these time-tested techniques are arguably more important now than ever. This is because they have either been forgotten or taken for granted at the dawn of a new century when most young people would rather text than talk as their primary means of communicating
Landing Your Dream Job
When I was 19 years old during college, I developed a career plan to help land my dream jobs. My goal was to work in the White House for a new president after graduating. The year was 1988 and George H.W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. I had never even heard of Bill Clinton at the time – and what was in the news about him was unflattering per his alleged infidelities as Arkansas Governor. The conventional wisdom back then was that he had no chance of becoming president. Yet somehow my far-fetched plan magically worked out in the end, as I made the right contacts, secured the right internships, and ultimately worked on the 1992 Clinton-for-President campaign. The rest is history, as they say. While the career roadmap I used back then is applicable for people of all ages, I think it’s especially ripe for a new generation of leaders. Following is a 10-point plan for Millennials and Gen Z to make their professional dreams become reality in short order:
1) Define Your Vision
First, you must have a dream and vision of success. Be bold and think big. Just make sure to be specific. Ponder these questions:
- What am I really good at?
- What do I love doing?
- What innate skills or God-given talents do I have?
- What would I do for a living if money weren’t an issue?
In high school, I was always a good writer and fascinated by national politics and public affairs. Thus, I began writing an op-ed column about these topics for my college newspaper during my freshman year at the University of Maryland. At first, my submissions were rejected. Then I tried a new tactic. I personally went to the newsroom, introduced myself to the editorial page editor and volunteered to work as his assistant. Thus, my op-eds were soon published on a weekly basis while I learned the ropes from the inside and befriended the other editors.
2) Build Bridges
Obtaining the academic and professional knowledge to position oneself in a competitive marketplace is only a start. This process includes pre- or post-graduate studies, jobs, and internships, and making professional connections with influencers in your field. Finding good mentors is also of critical importance to build bridges to your goals. Mentors are key to helping you sharpen your skills, impart valuable knowledge and put you in touch with those who can help shape your early career path.
Ashley Stryker is a Millennial in my network and an online content expert. She offers the following valuable advice for a new generation of leaders:
“Start working in your desired industry early doing the scutwork and building your repertoire of skills and projects. Freelancing and volunteer projects are great for this,” Ashley advises. “Then, when applying for that job, you’ll be better able to demonstrate practical—rather than theoretical—knowledge.”
3) Dare to Think Big
An important part of my career advice to young people is this: Don’t be afraid to think big and follow your dreams, wherever they may lead. In short, dare yourself to take risks in order to plant the seeds which, hopefully, will blossom into your future dream jobs at a young age. In one of her last TV interviews, famed American poet, the late Maya Angelou, was asked by ABC News what advice she would give to her younger self. She offered these timeless words of wisdom:
“Dare — dare to be more than you think you can be — dare.”
In my experience, it’s better to think big and take risks at an early age to jump-start your career. Don’t limit your goals or think small. Rather, set your goals high, think big, be positive and go for it! Don’t be afraid to put yourself out on a limb if you want to achieve big goals. Don’t be afraid to take a leap of faith. Do so while you’re still young and have your work life ahead of you. Recall the saying, “No risk, no reward.”
4) Remember the three Ps
Perseverance, positiveness, and personality all go a long way toward achieving success of any kind in life. Don’t invent artificial reasons why you can’t achieve your professional goals at a young age. Don’t talk yourself out of it before even trying. Rather, maintain a positive attitude, be positively expectant, be persistent and persevere. Also, be personable and polite along your career journey because those whose help you seek might be very busy and tough to connect with at first. Be careful not to cross the fine line between being persistent and being a pest. The latter of which will only work against you.
I’m reminded of a high school history lesson about the famous California “Gold Rush” of the mid-1880s in the Wild West. Some teams of miners dug for gold for months or years on end, only to quit unknowingly just feet away from hitting a gold vein. Yet other miners who refused to give up ended up striking it rich. What’s your current California Gold Rush?
Therefore, if you face initial failure then redouble your efforts, revise your strategy and continue to move forward with your revamped game plan. Go with your gut feeling if all else fails. Remember that persistence and perseverance pay off in the short-term and over the long run.
Remember: nothing worthwhile comes easy. After one semester of writing and volunteering for my college newspaper, the editorial page editor (for whom I worked) was fired due to an internal dispute with upper management. Therefore, I was well positioned to take his place – and that’s exactly what happened. I became the new editorial page editor during the first semester of my sophomore year, the youngest editor on staff. I also went on to win an editorial writing award from The Society of Professional Journalists that semester.
Following that experience, I spent a summer working as a daily beat reporter for BNA publications, now Bloomberg BNA and got accepted into the University of Maryland’s top-rated College of Journalism. But reaching the White House was still a long way off.
Thus, please stay tuned for Part 2, featuring Points 5-10 on how I landed that gig at age 23.