A few years ago after a particularly rough project, I applied to another consulting firm - considered the best of the best, the kind of place that brands itself on having the smartest consultants in the world and tests them by asking them to calculate in their head important Universal questions we all have such as how many golf balls could fill up a stadium.
Much to my surprise, a recruiter called me to set up an interview. What she said will stick with me forever: "We had to understand how you turned a state school journalism degree into a consulting career!" Reading between the lines, she meant: "You're grossly unqualified and have zero credentials to be doing this job. Tell us your secret!"
So tell her I did. I also completed several interviews where I was asked to estimate all sorts of things in my head, imagining how I'd sit around with my new Mathlete friends and laugh gleefully at those who improperly sized the market for paper ketchup cups. In tandem, I also read Eckhart Tolle's "The Power of Now," learned how to deal with my work stress in a productive way, got promoted, and stayed put.
Anyway, despite all the painful estimation exercises, that experience reminded me that I was in fact grossly unqualified and had zero credentials for a consulting job, and it forced me to reflect on what steps helped me to get where I am today. In a nutshell, I learned that getting what you want is a repeatable process that we can use in any area of our lives.
If you read my last post, you'll remember that I was in a terrible rut where I spent a lot of time struggling with how to move forward with some of my creative goals, questioning why I haven't achieved more in those areas of my life. After taking some time to reflect on the specific actions that helped me to become successful in my career, I realized that I was failing to repeat those steps in other areas of my life to generate the outcomes I wanted. Simply put, the reason I've been struggling to make progress in my creative ventures is because I haven't even taken the first step!
As a friendly reminder for myself, for you, or for anyone in general who might be a bit down and out for not making Forbes 30 Under 30 List*, here are the fundamental steps to getting anything you want in life:
#1 Decide what you want, despite advice you may get to the contrary
Although it seems obvious, this is the hardest step to take. Identifying what you want can be hard, because it means making tradeoffs. The word "decide" literally means to cut off all options. This step is about defining what you're going to focus all of your attention and energy on. If you don't decide what it is that you want, you'll be distracted, unfocused and will have a hard time making progress. I recently read a GREAT book called "The Compound Effect" by Darren Hardy, where he made an analogy about the power of focus. He described how a little kid, when using a magnifying glass, can harness the energy of the sun and focus it in a powerful way to burn things at will. The power of decision and focused action is like a magnifying glass for your energy, helping you to harness it and get the results you want.
This is the first thing I told that recruiter who asked about my success-in-consulting-despite-utter-lack-of-credentials: I decided that I was not going to be a journalist, because it sounded like the industry was dying and I didn't want to be surviving on ramen noodles in an English basement apartment. I decided that I would have a corporate job, learn about business (whatever that meant…), make lots of money, travel to exciting places, and do whatever else corporate types did.
A lot of people told me I was unqualified, couldn't do it, should have picked a different major, etc. Many advised that I just bite the bullet and take a job related to my degree because it would be easier. My parents offered this perspective: "College degrees mean nothing. You all know exactly nothing when you graduate, and companies expect you to be able to learn on the job."
Taking that in stride, I crashed the business career fair** at my university after doing extensive research on the companies represented to find the ones that didn't require a business undergraduate degree, stood in the long lines and used my rehearsed 2-minute blurb on why I loved the company, wanted the job and thought I'd be a perfect fit for it. Then I bombed a few interviews, including one for a buyer position where the interviewer STOPPED the interview and asked me if it was my first time after it became evident that a) I had no idea what a buyer was and b) I knew nothing about the company.
Despite the ego bruises, reality checks, embarrassment and list of other reasons to quit, I kept at it because it was the only route to getting the corporate job that I decided I would have. Special shout out to General Mills and their business management associate development program for interviewing late in the process and snapping me up for my first job after I'd gotten all my mistakes out of the way. (It was one of two total bites, out of Lord knows how many interviews…)
#2 Commit to doing what it takes, no matter how hard or lonely it gets
When we think about "doing what it takes," sometimes we realize that we don't really want the thing we thought we wanted after all. It's nice to imagine yourself happily married to the man of your dreams, but signing up for Match.com, going through a series of awkward first dates, falling in love only to discover your dream man has an expansive collection of reptiles living in his apartment, and then going back to the drawing board and allowing your mom's friends and your hair dresser to set you up is a whole different ball game. Doing what it takes in this scenario sounds exhausting, but it's necessary to commit to doing those things to find the man of your dreams. And if doing what it takes sounds like too much, that's OK too. It's probably a sign that you don't want it badly enough. (Note that committing to do what it takes also applies to marriage.)
My first company transferred me across the country twice. The job was tough, requiring me to do pricing and margin analysis when I'd never even taken a finance class. I lived through a cold, lonely winter in Minneapolis***, and learned a few times over what it felt like to be in a new city with no friends. My phone stopped ringing and I'd spend Saturday nights alone on my couch with a bottle of wine and a bunch of tabloids because my mom AND grandma were both too busy to sit on the phone with me.
There were a hundred times that I felt like throwing in the towel, moving back to my old bedroom at my parent's house, and finding an easier route. Actually, I almost did: I verbally accepted an offer that would have taken me back to Chicago. It was safe, it was easy, and it didn't sit right with me. In my gut, I knew that the role wouldn't have been challenging enough for me to grow, and the only reason I wanted it was because it would solve my two biggest problems: loneliness, and knowing that my current job wasn't it, either.
Have you ever heard the old adage that you only fail when you stop trying? I totally believe this. Trying, failing, applying your newfound lessons, and continuing to take action is literally the only way to grow and advance towards what you want. Success compounds on itself, builds your confidence and gives you momentum to do and become more.
#3 Figure out the steps as you go, regardless of how confused you may feel
It's tough to figure out the right steps to take, especially when there are plenty of distractions, alternate paths and no right answers. It's easy to get discouraged, lose your confidence and want to give up when you're charging towards something and the map isn't totally clear.
After sticking it out in my first role just long enough to get pretty good at recommending trade spend, I got transferred again to DC with a totally different set of responsibilities that I had to learn. Although I got better at the whole making friends in a new city thing (e.g., get comfortable with asking girls out on awkward friend dates, join group activities that require minimal talent / hand-eye coordination, etc.)****, over time I started to realize that pushing Cheerios might not be a venture worthy of accepting a transfer to yet another city. So I got really clear with my objectives for a next role, did my research, sent out my resume, networked like crazy, and ended up with a job in consulting.
Which was terrible. As in, I cried the first week on the job and wanted to quit after the third. OMG. I cannot even tell you how bad it was. There were many times on my way to work in the morning when I would stop in Starbucks and gaze too long at the barista, jealous of her job, wishing I could be behind a counter making lattes instead of spending hours on end in a windowless conference room silently making Visio process maps and counting down the minutes until I could leave.
This next step was supposed to SOLVE my career woes, not trade them in for another set of problems! Looking back, it was exactly the right step in my path: I needed to learn a few lessons, and it was the perfect environment to teach me. The first thing I learned is that there is no such thing as a perfect job. The second thing I learned is that I knew nothing. The third thing I learned is what I never wanted to be when I became responsible for managing other people. It was at this job that someone taught me how to make a life filter and explained how to use it to make decisions more in line with my values, goals and aspirations. (It's a tool I still have and use, years later!)
#4 Stick with it for as long as it takes
One thing I've learned to be true in my life to date is that anything worth having can only be obtained over time. There's no such thing as an overnight success, and the process with all of its highs and lows is absolutely necessary to get you where you're going. You need to develop patience, because it takes a lot of time to fall down and fail, to be pushed to your limits, to be stressed, to be uncomfortable and to come through it on the other side as a better version of yourself. I wish someone could have explained that to 25-year-old me. But even if someone did, I probably wouldn't have listened because I needed to learn it for myself.
Long story short, learning some lessons the hard way, understanding how to be more strategic in my decision-making and gaining enough real-world experience to have the confidence to wait for the right opportunity aligned to my goals is what ultimately led me to my current role. I've been at my consulting firm for more than five years, and while there have certainly been some trials and tribulations along the way, sticking with it has been one of the best decisions I made in my career to date.
It has has allowed me to work with colleagues and clients who are smarter than me, who push me, who challenge my thinking and who hold me to extremely high standards. I've been able to grow constantly, and can honestly say that I am a better person for it.
Following these simple steps - making a decision, committing to do what it takes, figuring out the steps as you go, and sticking with it - sounds easy, but it's not. Getting what you want takes intention, energy, and a ton of focused effort over the long haul. I think the process is necessary to make you value whatever it is once you have it, and to be worthy of having it in the first place.
For me personally, it's helpful to think about what I want to achieve in my creative ventures in the framework of this process that I've applied to my career. It takes the pressure off of producing results, and puts the emphasis on taking consistent action over the long game.
Ok, the end. Would love to hear your thoughts on this post, especially if you're like me and have some areas of your life where you've been wanting to make progress. Let me know in the comments.
*The kid voted "Most Likely to Succeed" in my high school is valued in the BILLIONS by Forbes. We all doubted his money making schemes back then, but look who's laughing now.
**I simply walked past the guy checking University IDs without offering mine. It really wasn't hard. I don't know why more people don't do this.
***For my non-American readers, this is basically Canada. It regularly gets to -34 degrees Celsius or lower in the winter.
****Post entitled "How to make friends when moving alone a to a new city that you likely would never have chosen for yourself" coming soon. [UPDATE: This post has been written, read it here.]
P.S. For my next newsletter, I'm writing a synopsis of the 10 small changes Darren Hardy recommends to immediately improve your health, your relationships and your life. You can sign up for the newsletter here if you're interested in reading it.
P.P.S. Thanks so much for all of you who have signed up for the newsletter already. You're awesome and I am forever indebted to you for trusting me with your Gmail.
P.P.P.S. If you STILL haven't signed up, I respect your hard stance against my enticing gestures to lure you in. But just know that I see those repeat page views and I know we're secretly friends and you'll eventually be on my Rolodex for life.
So cough it up, girl. You know you want to.