4 Things to Know at 22

In this series, professionals share what they’d do differently — and keep the same. Follow the stories here and write your own (please use #IfIWere22 in your post).

Back when I was 22, it was an interesting time for me and the internet. It was 1998 and I was just graduating from Penn State with an English degree and studying Microsoft’s Networking Essentials. The internet was still largely in its infancy but, like me, it had a lot of potential. I just wasn’t so sure how the two would work together. So, let’s jump right in there!

Thing to Know #1: Having a Career Unrelated to Your Degree Can be a Good Thing
In 1997, it became clear to me that technology would be more lucrative than most things my English degree could offer (Law School aside). I had a knack for building web sites and troubleshooting computers and could see what was coming down the road. This realization came too late for me to switch majors though, so I graduated with my English degree.

This worked out to be one of the best decisions of my life. As I progressed in my career, my English degree supplemented my technical skillset. It took me about 5 years to realize what was happening. Of all the skills I had in my arsenal, excellent communication and empathy proved to be the most important. I quickly moved up in IT in my first Enterprise role, moving from desktop support to lead architect in just 5 years.

Embrace all the passions in your life, there’s likely not only one! If you’re lucky, you can find a job that covers them all!

Thing to Know #2: Work is Not Life
Your career is not your life, no matter how much time you spend on it. I have made countless ridiculous decisions around thinking I was impressing someone when my life was sacrificed.

For example, when my wife and I had our first child, there was a lot going on at the office. The day after my daughter was born, there was an all hands with the new CIO just after our company was acquired. I thought it would be good for my career to make a showing. I left the hospital, went home, got cleaned up and went into work.

What a waste! While I made it through the acquisition and flourished at that company, it wasn’t due to my appearance at some meeting. It was due to my work ethic and the other skills I had gained over the years. My wife will always remember that I did that. Meanwhile, that company has been gobbled up and systematically taken apart.

Remember this, as you get older, your job may change, your peers come and go, but your family is forever. Spend time on finding the balance, it will be well worth it.

Thing to Know #3: Complacency is Bad
Look around at any Enterprise and you will find a small group of people working that have been doing the same thing for a long time with little career movement. Sometimes, these people just have found what they do and are really good at it. Other times though, they are just plain stuck.

Your career requires a balance in this area. You don’t need to job hop like crazy or even ever leave the company you work for to find new opportunities. Keep an eye out for market trends and make sure not to become complacent. Sometimes, this means changing jobs, other times it means changing companies or locations. What I’ve learned, especially in IT, is that today’s skills are tomorrow’s layoff fodder.

Life is change, but pace your career intelligently and look for opportunities to grow. They are out there!

Thing to Know #4: Be Confident and Have Fun
When I was in college, I used to be a chauffeur of a sort. I was a rare breed who owned a car at college. I had the privilege of driving some girls from my home town back home on the weekends. One of them gave me advice that was so simple, I couldn’t believe I had missed it.

One of the girls asked me why I always walked around campus with my head down. I wasn’t sure what she meant really, I just thought I was walking. Her perception though was that I lacked confidence. She also gave me some advice – walk with your head held up.

I tried this and noticed an immediate difference. People will engage you if you’re confident and conversations naturally just start.

I supplemented this new confidence with humor, which is something I’ve had for years and then grew again with my English degree. Once again, I found balance. Humor was more difficult to master than confidence though in a professional setting. It needs to be used lightly and cannot be overbearing or offensive.

Both humor and confidence can build trust and move you forward.

One Last Thing: Short Term Pain is Sometimes Worth It
These 4 things have served me well. Not ever career decision I made worked out though. I once worked for a company that was going bankrupt. The timing worked out in that my wife and I were looking to move closer to family to start our own. I made a huge mistake though. The company offered severance packages and I thought I would be hard pressed to find a job where near family, so I took the first well paying job I could find. I left the drowning company and lost the severance.

About a year later, a lot of my co-workers had made out quite well as the severance packages materialized. I learned this lesson, but didn’t think I would have time to reapply it.

Last year though, the company I was working for was purchased. Severance was offered once again. I bid my time until the my end date and got my severance. Rather than just wait in misery, I took the opportunity to learn as much as I could about how the new company operated. This led me to learning a lot about a competing technology, ultimately helping me in my current role.

Make the most out of a bad situation and ride out the storm. Sometimes that package is worth it!