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My Early Career Principles

Lessons from a year in the working world

After 16–20 years of schooling designed to produce efficient, docile factory workers, students are released into the “real” world, where none of the rules they’ve learned apply. Working with others is now called collaboration instead of cheating, there are no simple right/wrong answers, and, instead of being told to sit down and shut up, you’re expected to make contributions. It’s no wonder the transition from college to the working world is challenging.

Although the move may be trying, it also has rewards: you (usually) don’t have to take work home, there are no stressful exams, and, perhaps most importantly, someone is paying you to show up and do work that’s (in most cases) easier than what you spent tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to do in college. So, what’s the secret to excelling in a job immediately after college? Like most other areas of life, there’s no single answer everyone is hiding from you; instead, there are basic principles and actions that, when repeated thousands of times, can increase the chances of success.

It’d be outlandish to claim I’ve mastered the art of working in a little over a year, but, I have learned early-career principles which have served me well:

  1. Own your mistakes: admit errors, get feedback, and improve
  2. Ask twice, execute once: make sure you are solving the right problem before starting, break large problems into manageable parts, and ask for continuous feedback
  3. Understand your domain of control and domain of influence: solve the problems you can, and stop worrying about those outside your control
  4. Know when to switch from text-based to face-to-face communication: know the limitations of instant messages
  5. Prioritize mental and physical health ahead of work: take care of health issues immediately and balance work/life early

Author’s note: it’s impossible to find specific career lessons that apply universally because of differences between jobs. However, I do think there are pieces of advice that, when followed, can increase the chance of success in a broad array of careers. These lessons are based on personal experience (data scientist at two startups) and numerous books (some picks: Principles, The Power of Habit, Give and Take, Drive, Influence, and Mastery). If you’ve had contrasting experiences or have criticisms, I’d like to hear it in the responses.

1. Own Your Mistakes

There are two reasons to take immediate responsibility for your errors.

  • The longer a mistake goes unnoticed, the greater the damage when someone eventually discovers the error. Furthermore, actively trying to hide missteps is a recipe for disaster as cover-ups result in worse outcomes than the error itself (see Watergate, doping, My Lai, pollution, etc.). Instead of letting an error be discovered by a co-worker, eroding their trust in you and increasing damage, own your mistake with “I made the error, how can I fix it?” It can be tough to do, but you’ll immediately feel a sense of relief (keeping a secret puts a heavy burden on the secret-keeper) and can get to the important work of fixing the problem.
  • By failing to admit a mistake, you miss an excellent opportunity to correct your behavior. Success is enjoyable in the moment, but in the long run, working past failures produces long-term growth because you gain new knowledge. Failures are as common (if not more) as successes, which makes responding positively to them critical for your career.

People are often hesitant to offer constructive criticism, so you’ll usually have to solicit feedback actively. Make it clear you are open to feedback, so people are more comfortable giving it. I like to preface my presentations with “compliments are great, but constructive criticism is more valuable” and ask about weak areas in my work. One example is to follow-up on the compliment of “great presentation” with “Thanks, but do you think I had too many words on each slide? I want to know how to do even better next time.” You can also ask for feedback anonymously if people are not willing to say it directly.

It’s one thing to say in an article you should ask for feedback on your errors, but it can be hard in person to respond positively to criticism. One way that helps me receive feedback (and also helps when giving it out) is to view a piece of work as a separate entity, not a reflection on anyone’s person. Initially, I bristled during code reviews because they involve dissection of your code and pointing out all the flaws. However, once I detached myself from my code by saying, “this review has no bearing on me personally,” it became easier to take and respond to the criticism. It also helped when I admitted the point of a code review is to make the code better, not to attack “my” work personally.

You shouldn’t make errors on purpose, but you should own your inevitable mistakes. Schools tend to penalize students heavily for mistakes with little constructive criticism. In contrast, at a job, you can usually redo a task, and if you’ve sought out and received feedback, you’ll do it better the second time around. Early in your career, ask for lots of feedback from more experienced colleagues who already made plenty of mistakes. In the best case, you can learn without having to make the error yourself, and, at the least, you can figure out how to get past your mistakes. Failure is not fatal, but failing to admit mistakes and take corrective action will only hinder a career.

2. Ask twice, execute once

It’s much quicker to take the extra time to determine the exact problem to solve instead of rushing to complete a project that perfectly addresses the wrong issue. Moreover, going slow and doing a project correctly the first time is faster than sprinting through a job and having to go back to fix mistakes. Finally, the earlier errors are caught, the fewer resources required to fix them. All of this leads to the conclusion: going at a controlled pace and focusing no quality is more efficient than hurriedly doing a poor job.

Measure twice, cut once is a saying in the trades that means check to make sure you have things set up correctly before taking irreversible action. This saying is adapted to intellectual projects as “ask twice, execute once.” Starting a project with an unclear goal or the wrong goal is only leads to frustrations and multiple redos. Before working on any problem, ensure you know what you are being asked to do and break signicant problems up into small pieces, each of which can be checked by your colleagues.

This is not in opposition to owning your mistakes, as even going at a cautious pace cannot prevent all errors. Your objective should be to keep mistakes confined to a small part of a larger project to reduce the time spent in rework. Moreover, continuously asking for feedback will help you course-correct instead of only asking for feedback at the conclusion of a project.

At this point, you may ask, doesn’t this go against the Silicon Valley ethic of “move fast and break things?” Absolutely it does, and that is a positive. While sprinting straight towards errors has worked for a handful of companies a small fraction of the time, it’s not a sustainable methodology, either at the individual or company level. The positive perception of this mantra is due to the survivorship bias: we only take note of the startups for which it worked briefly (Facebook, Uber, WeWork, all of whom are now running into serious issues), and not the thousands of others that broke things until they failed (Theranos, Juicero, Sprig, etc.). The longest-lasting companies are those who move at a moderate pace and try to get the little things right.

The concept of going at a controlled pace to make quicker progress is captured in the Navy SEAL’s saying, “slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” Rushing leads to mistakes while thinking out each step produces continuous forward progress.

At first, I was surprised at how slowly it seemed my colleagues worked, but then I realized that although the sheer amount of code they produced was less than what I had written, their code was of a far higher quality. None of that early code I wrote made it into production, but nearly all of their code did. It appeared they were working slower, but they were working more efficiently, ensuring they got each step right before moving on. Over time, I’ve accepted that producing quality work takes time. Further, slowing down to complete tasks deliberately leads to better output and sustainable habits.

3. Understand your domain of control and domain of influence

In a job, as in life, there are things you can control, things you can influence, and things that impact you, which you cannot control. These are best visualized as concentric circles:

Domains of control, influence, and concern (Source)

In the domain of concern are our actions and the choices we personally make. This should be your main focus on a day-to-day basis because it’s the only area where your actions have a direct impact on outcomes. Moving out one layer to the domain of influence, we have to understand we do not have direct control over anyone else’s thoughts and actions, but we may be able to influence the people closest to us. This requires an understanding of what motivates people and excellent conversation skills.

(I’ve found the most effective way to change people’s behavior is to exhibit the desired behavior yourself. If you are not willing to make a change, how can you expect others to do the same?) That being said, your influence over other people is limited, and often it’s not worth the effort of trying to change others.

Finally, in the most extensive region, the domain of concern, are events outside of your control and influence, but which do affect you. This region contains numerous entities, including the actions of people in other departments of your company and the outside world, such as markets or weather. It can be extraordinarily difficult to not worry about these events, but you have to accept that no matter what you do, your actions have no power over these events. Simply put, if you cannot solve a problem, then what is the point of worrying? (supposedly from the Dalai Lama). Don’t be apathetic about the world, but if there is no chance of you altering a situation, you have to put it out of mind to reduce your stress.

People have a finite amount of mental and physical energy, and you’ll quickly use yours up trying to push against an immovable wall. If you are seriously frustrated with your position, then leaving may be an option, but first, see if putting the issues out of mind relieves the stress. Don’t let fruitless worrying distract from the performance — only yours — you can control.

4. Know when to switch from text to face-to-face communication

Human language originated at least 100,000 years ago, and, in the intervening time, despite our technological advances, we have not invented a more effective method of communication than face to face conversation. As a former extremely enthusiastic Slack user (no more email!, instantaneous problem-solving!), I now believe that instant text-based messaging causes more problems than it solves and displaces valuable human interactions.

There are two fundamental problems with instant text chat:

  • The ease of replying leads people to send messages without thinking them through. Immediate answers are now prioritized over thoughtful replies.
  • All non-verbal communication cues are entirely lost. Text messages are often misinterpreted, causing conflicts.

Fortunately, these are both solvable problems: move to face-to-face conversations for debating crucial issues and at the first disagreement (and in general, to increase your productivity, spend less time in chat tools). If a decision is essential, then it must deserve more than a few seconds of back and forth text messages. There’s friction to an in-person conversation, but that is one of its benefits. It forces people to slow down and think before they reply.

Moreover, while it may seem to take longer to have a voice conversation, verbal discussions can resolve issues much quicker. I‘ve experienced numerous problems that consumed hours of back-and-forth over Slack, which were finally resolved with a 10-minute conversation.

The majority (maybe over 90%) of communication in a conversation is non-verbal. That means when you send a Slack message, you are losing up to 9/10ths of the nuances of a conversation. Text-based communication is excellent for simple information exchanges — meet me at 9 pm on the corner of Grand and Lafeyette — but most exchanges between humans are not raw data. It’s too easy to raise tensions over Slack because of the loss of personal connection, and I’ve learned to move to in-person conversations at the first sign of disagreement. Maybe in another 100,000 years, we’ll have evolved to communicate flawlessly through only words, but we’re not there yet.

In conclusion, to be more productive, stop firing off 10 Slack messages a minute, shut your computer, and have face-to-face conversations. You’ll make better decisions, solve problems faster, avoid nasty arguments, and maybe get to appreciate your colleagues a little more in the process.

(On a related note, I think conversations between people peak in productivity at 3–4 individuals then start to decline — this is when a discussion turns into a meeting. If you must have a meeting, require an agenda, a clear outcome, and a time limit to have any hope of accomplishing anything).

5. Prioritize mental and physical health ahead of work

The previous pieces of advice cannot help unless you are in a position to perform at your best. Achieving high productivity requires your health, both physical and mental, to take precedence over any work activities. Prioritizing health means taking breaks when necessary, finding stress-reducing activities, and balancing work with other rewarding pursuits.

Careers are long, and it is not worth sacrificing your health for any single job. If, like many of us, you’ve struggled with health issues in college or early in your career, consider taking time off to work on your health. When you’re young without a lot of responsibilities (and maybe still on your parent’s health care plan), your primary focus must be getting your mind and body optimal.

On a personal note, instead of taking a break after college to address some mental health issues, I immediately began working (my first job started the day after graduation). I thought I could run away from my problems or work hard enough to forget about them. And, my plan went flawlessly, at least for a while. Once the initial elation of the job wore off, though, the problems came back far worse, resulting in a more prolonged treatment than if I had taken care of the mental illness during or after leaving college.

I’ve already made plenty of mistakes since starting my career, but the only decision I regret was not putting health before a job. Since that initial choice, I’ve gotten better at making health the number one priority. This includes taking sick days — including mental health days — and taking vacation days (the tech industry’s policy of unlimited vacation days is terrible for people disposed to overwork).

I’ve also learned the importance of finding rewarding activities and relationships outside of work (for me, volunteering has helped on both fronts). Rather than measuring my self-worth by the number of hours I spend in front of a screen per day, I’ve tried to spend my time outside of work by doing personally meaningful activities. Not surprisingly, working fewer hours and addressing health issues has made me a more productive worker.

We as a society (talking about you Americans) are terrible at prioritizing wellness, and we’re not going to solve that problem by working harder. Instead, we need more compassion towards each other, especially around health issues. Moreover, we should celebrate not the workers logging the most hours, but those who dared to put their health before their career. While focusing solely on work may seem to deliver initial benefits, in the long run, your career and life will be much richer if you learn how to balance your work with outside pursuits and relationships. When you look back decades from now, you won’t wish you had spent more time at work, you’ll wish you had more experiences and built better relationships.

Conclusions

Transitioning to the “real” world of work can be intimidating, but it also has the potential to be very rewarding. No one is going to show up and present you with all the answers (because there are none), but, at the same time, you don’t have to cram for finals every four months or worry about spending your entire weekend writing a final paper. Instead, with the right attitude, you can solve real problems, start contributing, and begin to support yourself.

Ultimately, excellence only requires doing the small things right repeatedly. If you can learn to embrace mistakes, let things outside of your influence go, ask for continuous feedback, and communicate face-to-face, you’ll be well set to have a productive career. Furthermore, making the choices to invest in your health now and finding rewarding pursuits besides work will let you perform at your best throughout your career.

As always, I welcome feedback and constructive criticism. You can reach me in the responses, or on Twitter @koehrsen_will.

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Data Scientist at Cortex Intel, Data Science Communicator

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Will Koehrsen

Will Koehrsen

Data Scientist at Cortex Intel, Data Science Communicator

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