Top 16 Pieces of Career Advice

Pointed advice for various stages of the job hunting and career success.

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Marty Nemko
Marty Nemko
With petabytes of career advice out there, how do you find what's really crucial? Here's one guy's votes:

Choosing a Career and Job

1. Focus on what really matters. You're more likely to be happy with your career and job if you focus less on its prestige or coolness and more on finding a career and job that uses your natural strengths and doesn't tax your weaknesses, is appropriately challenging, with a good boss and co-workers, reasonable pay, commute and job security.

2. Career passion comes AFTER you've chosen it. Most people came to love their career only after they chose it and took the time to become a go-to guy or gal at it. So take a month or three to explore career options and then pick what feels best, even if it doesn't make you want to do handsprings.

Landing a Job

3. One job-search method does not fit all. For example, networking works only for some people. If it hasn't worked for you in the past, more networking will more likely burn you out than land you a job. Based on your past performance and current preferences, decide the proportion of job search time you should spend on in-person networking, online networking, cold-contact of employers, answering ads and headhunters.

4. Use a point-by-point cover letter. In answering a job ad, the best cover letter explains, point-by-point, how you meet the main job requirements.

Negotiation

5. Get a second offer. When you think an offer is coming, let your other prospects know and ask if they're willing to fast-track the decision to hire you. Having two or more employers competing for you boosts your negotiating position.

Succeeding on the Job

6. Find out the truth. Most people think they're above average. It's a phenomenon known as illusory superiority, according to a recent LiveScience article. Getting the truth might help you before it's too late. And if you are above average, feedback helps you be even better. Ongoing, get feedback from your boss and respected co-workers, perhaps using Checkster's Talent Checkup (www.checkster.com/solutions/talent-checkup/).

7. You must stop procrastinating. Procrastination is a career killer. Please remember that the short-term relief of deferring tasks is far exceeded by the long-term pain. Procrastination may have worked in school but, except in low-level jobs, there's much less grade inflation in the workplace. Get comfortable being uncomfortable. That too shall pass.

8. Think time-effectiveness. Ongoing, ask of yourself, "Is this worth doing?" And if so, how perfectionistically?" Just as we drive faster or slower depending on the situation, we should choose the right speed for tackling a task.

9. If you're smart, avoid teams. Not withstanding the ubiquitous public extolling of teamwork, the following rule of thumb is generally wiser: Try to work solo if you're brighter and more motivated than most of your co-workers. If you're not, get on teams.

10. Tell quest stories. Everyone knows that most people are persuaded more by story than by statistics but less well-known is that a most powerful form of story is the quest story: Describe a serious problem and the travails of trying to solve it, ideally a problem you tackled.

11. Hire slow; fire fast. Hiring may be the manager's most important task. Rather than rely on responses to job ads, tap your extended network – they're more likely to refer good candidates. Then evaluate applicants mainly by having them do simulations of tough tasks they'll encounter on the job.

If an employee is doing poorly, after a brief attempt at remediation, it's usually wiser to cut your losses and try someone else. Extra time is usually not only wasted and stressful but increases the employee's enmity and, in turn, likelihood of filing a wrongful termination claim.

Self-Employment

12. Don't innovate; replicate. The leading edge too often turns out to be the bleeding edge. Guinea pigs usually die. You lower your risk in starting a business by taking a proven business idea and cloning it in a new location or giving it a minor tweak. For example, you're more likely to succeed by incorporating the best features of five busy laundromats into yours than by trying to invent some new product.

13. Keep it simple. The more complicated the business, the bigger the risk. Do one simple thing well. For example, sell amazing grilled cheese sandwiches.

14. Be cheap. Money is a business's lifeblood. Spend too much and you'll die. So, for example, work from home or see if you can get space free from a friend, a room in a church, whatever. Hire on a just-in-time, by-the hour basis. Use a template website, not a custom-created one. Figure out how much to pay for products based not on the retail price but on what it must cost to manufacture. Example: Eyeglass frames may cost $200 retail but pennies to make – they're just cheap metal or plastic. So if you, Mr. Optician, think you're getting a good deal in buying frames "wholesale" for $50, you're wrong. $1 is closer to right.

General Advice

15. Work long hours. That doesn't sound like fun but when you're doing work you're good at and realize that the life-well-led really is mainly about productivity, you'll be glad to work long hours, even if it didn't increase your job security or make you more money.

16. Never look back. Boris Nemko, a Holocaust survivor, explained why he rarely talks about the Holocaust: "The Nazis took five years from my life. I won't give them one minute more. Never look back. Always take the next step forward." There's no better advice.

The San Francisco Bay Guardian called Dr. Nemko "The Bay Area's Best Career Coach" and he was Contributing Editor for Careers at U.S. News. His sixth and seventh books were published in 2012: How to Do Life: What They Didn't Teach You in School and What's the Big Idea? 39 Disruptive Proposals for a Better America. More than 1,000 of his published writings are free on www.martynemko.com. He posts here every Monday.