I was going over some of the posts of the last year which have had a large number of views and/or comments, just to figure out what interests you folks the most. One of the articles that stood out in terms of number of comments definitely was “How do I get to the next level“. Not just the comments, but I also recall the large number of tweets and feedback I received in person. I just read the article again, and there are a few things which I think I should have probably emphasized more. I figured I would write a follow up… Lets start with a quote from that article.
There is also that thing called “being at the right place, at the right time” and of course seeing opportunities, grabbing opportunities and taking risks.
This phrase was in the first paragraph of the article, and I think it captures a lot more of the essence of success than may seem obvious. A month or so ago I was having a conversation with someone and that person mentioned that in terms of my role within VMware I was lucky to be in the position I am in today. Although I agree that I am very fortunate to have found such a great role, and that there is always luck involved in some shape or form, luck is usually not the reason you are rewarded with a promotion or a new opportunity.
Being at the right place at the right time is one part of it, seeing and grabbing (risky) opportunities is another part. Although you need to be somewhat lucky to have picked the right place and time, one could also argue that it is a skill / talent (like football / hockey players knowing intuitively where the ball / puck will be). Also, don’t worry about failures. Everyone makes mistakes, some pick wrong focus areas, some pick the wrong role or even wrong company to work for, be open and stay alert and assess your position or situation. How is the world (around you) evolving? Is your path leading somewhere? Is this what you expected it to be? Use the information next to make decisions. Do you keep going? Do you need to adapt or even abort and go back to the drawing board?
If I have learned one thing, than it is definitely that I learn the most when I am out of my comfort zone. And if you want to set yourself up for success, you will need to make sure you are capable of adapting fast and learn quick. Learning quick typically happens outside of your comfort zone. Now don’t mistake being out of your comfort zone with being in your panic zone. It is okay to be anxious, to be nervous, to have that jittery feeling… but be aware that this does not turn in to anxiety. Most of you have been in that place at some point in time, you need to do something far far out of your comfort zone, for me that was designing and configuring a network environment (including routing) when I had been responsible for Windows/X86 servers for a couple of years. Way out of my depth for sure back then, which resulted in anxiety and ultimately a failed project. Which leads me to the next skill that will help you grow: Knowing what you know.
But maybe more importantly, knowing what you don’t know and admitting you don’t know. Many people know what they are good/great at, and many will also advertise that broadly. But it is more importantly to understand what your limits and weaknesses are. Knowing that will allow you to understand where you need to grow, and come up with a plan to improve skills / behaviour etc. Also, it will allow you to say “no” when you are out of depth, this is key if you want to set your self up for success, and if you want to grow.
For me personally the one thing that stood out as a weakness (or even lacking skill), when I looked at where I wanted to be and what it would take, was public speaking. I tried it, I failed, no need to pretend, I knew I had to get better at it to grow from a personal perspective, but also from a career standpoint. At a certain level within each organization, presenting is simply required. I was foolish enough to throw myself in at the deep end, my first public speaking experience was at one of the largest conferences (VMworld). That was definitely far outside of my comfort zone and straight in to the panic zone. I should have taken 3 steps back, in hindsight, and started with a small session as a small VMware User Group. Read my article on this, don’t make the same mistake I did… Anxiety doesn’t even come close to describing what I felt. Yes, I did take a step back, reconvened and decided I would never do this again… Well that was my first conclusion. Quickly after that I reached the conclusion that I went too fast, I needed to slow down and take smaller steps. I needed to start with something less nerve wrecking (but still right at the edge of learning and panic zone), which was presenting at a VMUG. Today, I spend most of my time talking to customers or at events, it is safe to say that I have overcome the anxiety. Also, I managed to get really close to where I wanted to be in 3-5 years as a result.
As mentioned in “part 1”, being able to share your thoughts/opinion can make a big difference for your career, whether that is in a meeting / a blog / public speaking is besides the point even. But also speaking up and fighting for something you (strongly) believe in can make a big difference (it did for me). Passion, enthusiasm, energy are all character traits I personally value high and is what I look for when I interview potential candidates. Willingness to take that extra step and go all-in when you believe in something, yet at the same time also know which battle to pick, know when to sit down and listen. That last part is probably the most important, you cannot win them all and you cannot even fight all battles, knowing when to back down is key and an important skill to master. (Is it a skill, or a character trait even?)
Last but not least, perseverance and focus. If you truly want something, focus, make a plan and get things done. Learn from your mistakes and adapt. Don’t be afraid to take a step back and take a different route, even if it will take longer to get where you want to be. As Winston Churchill once said, “Continuous effort, not strength or intelligence, is the key to unlocking our potential.”