Even though my wife deeply loves and respects me, she enjoys teasing me once in a while. She’ll refer to me as the “Dear Abby” of the business world because I get hundreds of e-mails from people all across the world asking for advice. And I do my level best to personally answer every one of their questions.
Not surprisingly, many of their questions center around such topics as … how can they get ahead at work … what advice do I have for their career … how can they be a greater success at work … or … how do they find a new job. They’re all very important questions, but the answers to all the questions are surprisingly similar.
If you engage in a few practices … consistently and deliberately … the chances are very good that you will get ahead at work; you will be a greater success at work, and if need be, you’ll be in a stronger, more marketable position to find a new job.
So what are those key practices? Nothing too shocking here. You’ve probably heard them all. But I’d also bet that you’re far from applying all of these practices to your work and your life, every day, day after day.
The first practice is to…
1. Get excited about your work.
You may be thinking, “No, the first prerequisite for getting ahead at work is to work, work, work.” Well, that’s nice, but work in and of itself won’t move you forward. We all know people who have almost, if not literally, worked themselves to death, and have very little to show for it.
No, the first bit of career advice I would offer is to get excited about your work.
Of course, some of my audience members will say, “Dr. Zimmerman, it’s easy to get excited about something as glamorous as your work, traveling and speaking around the world. But if you had the lousy job I have, you wouldn’t talk like that.”
Yes, I would. My previous jobs have included the door-to-door selling of greeting cards, cutting and dragging Christmas trees through snow-filled fields at temperatures below zero, selling shoes in a department store, busing tables in a restaurant (working 60 hours a week for a paycheck of $14 a week), and actually living inside the walls of a reform school as I tried to teach juvenile delinquents. Nothing too glamorous about any of those jobs. And yet I learned to get excited about every one of those jobs.
I’ll let you in on a secret. Whatever kind of work you’re doing always implies a certain amount of pain, struggle, detail, wheel-spinning, monotony, and weariness. And everyone of us has to overcome these obstacles … no matter what our work is … if we’re going to get ahead in our careers.
After all, it’s not the gripers, moaners, whiners, and complainers that tend to get ahead. It’s the ones that can show real excitement about their work that tend to get selected as the ones for advancement.
Just remember, it’s easy to get excited about something you’re not doing. It’s easy to get excited about someone else’s job. And it’s easy to get excited about the work you’re going to do someday. But career advancement starts when the powers-that-be notice you’re already excited about the work you’re doing.
2. Develop a sense of urgency about your work.
British author G. K. Chesterton noted, “There is no such thing on earth as an uninteresting subject; the only thing that can exist is an uninterested person.”
In a similar sense, there is no such thing as totally worthless, useless, boring, uninteresting work. Oh sure, some work is certainly more engaging than others and some work has a greater impact on the world than others.
Nonetheless, if you’re going to have greater success at work, develop a sense of urgency about your work, no matter what your work might be. A sense of urgency prevents you from shirking today’s work because you know that it will make tomorrow worse. A sense of urgency helps you accomplish the tasks that are set before you … today.
As Charlie “Tremendous” Jones would say, “Thank God for the sense of urgency that can change a dull, menial job into a sparkling career. A sense of urgency is not the complete solution, but it is a tremendous step in the right direction.”
And when it comes to promotion time or finding a new career, believe me, this sense of urgency is one thing that companies are looking for.
3. Control your attitude.
As I point out in my keynote on “The Payoff Principle: How You Can Motivate Yourself To Win Every Time In Any Situation,” your attitude is one of the few things that is totally under your control.
You may not have much influence over what happens to you, but you are completely in charge of how you react to it. And your attitude toward anyone or any change in your organization can make a real difference.
As W. Clement Stone, the founder of Combined Insurance and the author of several books, has said, “There is very little difference in people. But that little difference makes a big difference. The little difference is attitude. The big difference is whether it is positive or negative.”
It’s like the two convicts sitting in the Army guardhouse. You can always find a way to put a positive spin on things.
John asked, “How long are you in for?” “Thirty days,” Bill responded.
John probed, “What did you do?” Bill said, “I was AWOL. What are you in for?”
“Three days,” John replied. “I murdered the General.”
Of course Bill asked, “How come I got thirty days for being AWOL and you only got three days for murdering the General?”
John answered, “They’re hanging me on Wednesday.”
Maybe your organization is going through a merger. As author Price Pritchett notes, “You will be the one to choose whether you brood over what has been lost or what might go wrong. You can worry yourself sick. Or you can search out the opportunity, embrace the challenge, and live optimistically.”
It’s certainly understandable that you might be upset or disappointed about some big changes or a merger in your organization. But how long should you let these feelings go on? Two weeks, six months, a year? Are you going to hold a grudge for ten years?
The people who can let go, smile, and move on will be the ones most likely to move up in their careers.
4. Focus on progress, not perfection.
I would be the first one to advocate doing your best in whatever work you have. But I would also caution you from spending too much time on making your work perfect.
In fact, if you major in perfection, you’ll produce little more than dreams. Oh sure, if you work on some things a little longer, or a lot longer, you might produce better results, but many times you won’t produce anything at all. As I often coach my clients, “Done is better than perfect.”
As French poet Charles Baudelaire so well said, “He that leaveth nothing to chance will do few things ill, but he will do very few things.”
Or as American inventor Charles F. Kettering put it, “You will never stub your toe standing still. The faster you go, the more chance there is of stubbing your toe, but the more chance you have of getting somewhere.”
So if you’re looking for career advice, if you want to know how you can get ahead at work, or even if you want to find a new job, people will always look very favorably on you if they see a person who is focused on continual learning and ongoing progress.
Charlie “Tremendous” Jones said it well: “We never stop growing until we stop learning, and the people who are learning this simple truth will grow old but never get old.” So keep on learning. Keep on making progress.
5. Focus more on giving than getting.
The truth is … we don’t know much about giving. It’s one of the greatest problems in marriage, for example. We know all about giving something to our partners, hoping to get something in return. But that’s not real giving. That’s trading.
And the same goes for work. If people see you as more focused on the contribution you can make than the “what’s-in-it-for-me” syndrome, they see a person worthy of trust and career advancement.
Focusing on what you’re getting may seem like the prudent thing to do, and sometimes you win that way, in the short run. But you if always focus on #1, yourself, and what’s in it for you, you almost always lose in the long run.
It’s like the young contractor who married a contractor’s daughter. The father-in-law wanted to give a boost to his new son-in-law. He said, “Son, I don’t want you to start at the bottom where I did. So I want you to go out and build the greatest house this town has ever seen, put the best of everything in it, make it a palace and turn it over to me.
Well, this was an opportunity to make a killing. The young man hurried out to slap together a building that would barely survive a stiff storm. In short order, he was back to his father-in-law saying, “Well, Dad, it’s finished.”
“Is it tremendous? Is it a palace like I asked?”
“Yes sir, Dad.”
“Is it really the finest house in this town, son?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“All right. Where is the bill? Is there a good profit in it for you?”
“Very good. Here is your check, and where is the deed?”
As he looked at the deed, the father-in-law said, “I didn’t tell you why I wanted that house to be the very best. I wanted to do something special for you and my daughter to show you how much I love you. Here, take the deed. Go live in the house; you built it for yourself.”
The young cheater crept away a shattered, frustrated man. He thought he was making a fortune at his father-in-law’s expense by saving money on inferior materials and short-cuts, but he only cheated himself.
Contractor or not, you’re building your life and you’re building your career. And the only way to build a great life and a great career is to focus more on giving than getting.
To a great extent, your future success at work is dependent on the consistent use of these five practices. Now that you know them, it’s up to you to apply them.