Some lessons we learn by observing those who succeed; others we learn the hard way. Here are some lessons that have served me well.
Keep your spiritual house in order. In my experience, to excel one must tap daily into the power of the divine. Include whatever nourishes your spirit, whether that is yoga, prayer, running, reading sacred texts, meditation, etc. Do things that make you laugh, that help keep your professional life in perspective; it’s an important part of who you are, but it’s not all of who you are. And stay in touch with those who love you whether you succeed or fail.
Operate from a position of strength: leverage your unique gifts and passions. As a new graduate in systems engineering, I realized that I had capitalized on my analytical abilities, but that I wanted to exploit my talent for oral and written advocacy. So I passed up lucrative consulting opportunities to attend Harvard Law School. I endured three more years on a student’s budget, but I was much happier.
Master your craft—learn from the best. While researching law firms for summer jobs, I found that many of the finest trial lawyers practiced at Hogan & Hartson. I landed a summer position there, earning an offer to return as an associate. When I returned after graduation, I made sure that management knew I wanted to become a great trial lawyer and was prepared to hustle to achieve that goal. As a result, I learned from the very best how to write briefs, take depositions, examine witnesses, and persuade juries. I never miss opportunities to hone my craft.
Cultivate fertile ground in which to grow. Build a support network of peers and mentors who can help you develop a vision for your career, encourage you when you’re down, answer ‘dumb’ questions, and give you fresh perspective on challenges. Know the key people in your business unit and make sure they know you and what you do well. Seek their counsel on opportunities to advance your career. Keep in touch with colleagues from your college, industry conferences, and the like. These relationships will allow you to grow and evolve.
Take charge of your own professional development. Think of yourself as the CEO of your career. Remember, no one has a greater stake in your success than you. Take responsibility for your successes and failures, and for creating new opportunities to grow. If you find yourself in an environment that does not support you—move on.
When you fail (and you will), get up, learn from your mistake, and get back in the game. If you’ve never failed, you’ve never taken a risk. And if you never take a risk, you aren’t stretching yourself and will have to be satisfied with something less than your best.