How To Build a Career from Scratch
I hate to burst your bubble, but despite all the top 10 lists out there, I’ve realized there is not one set of rules for building a career. Career advice can be as varied as the number of careers, personality types, and definitions of success.
Nonetheless, I’ve gathered a few truths about launching and building a career in my years as both an executive and entrepreneur. Three of these rise to the very top — if you can do these, everything else will likely fall pretty well into place.
Don’t just take my word for it, either. These insights come from many career coaches, colleagues, employees, and bosses — including some who showed me what not to do!
Feel free to take what works for you — the rest will come to you in its own way and time.
1. Envision what you want your life to look like.
Otherwise known as visioning, setting intentions, and praying for your future. This has to be first.
Most of us do this accidentally as kids when we envision our life as our favorite superhero (or real-life hero). Surprisingly, that’s a perfect place to start, but let’s tackle it with our adult wisdom in a more structured way.
In short, simply dream about what you want your life to be like. God made you to be you and to make your unique impact on the world — and beyond (you have an eternal destiny, don’t forget). It doesn’t matter what someone else’s calling is. What are the desires of your heart?
Do you imagine yourself retiring at 30 and joining a commune in the mountains of Tibet? Buying a yacht and sailing the ocean blue? Starting a non-profit? Living in Barbados?
It does not matter what it is. Just get it really clear in your mind. Dream it in detail. Write it down: where you live, what you do for work, who you’re spending your life with, how much money you want in the bank. It doesn’t matter how far away those dreams are from where you are now. God definitely has left seeds of your potential inside your soul. Just start digging.
Then sift through what you have captured. Whatever draws you, go there. Whatever repels you, go the other direction. Most importantly, don’t worry if it changes over time. Some paths will grow more compelling. With others, you’ll realize it wasn’t exactly what you wanted. The point is to start paying attention to your inner voice as a compass.
Just make sure you write it down — any form is fine (bullets, a story, a report complete with line graphs). Then revisit it at least once a year (downtime over the holiday season is a perfect time), and share it with the people who share your life.
You’ll be amazed at what comes up over the years and how it changes. My husband, who hates spending money, announced recently that he wants to visit 20 countries in 20 years. You could have knocked me down with a feather. But so far, we’ve hit England, France, and Spain. Where should we go next?!
2. Listen to your gut.
I ended up running communications for one of the largest companies in the world, and then was asked to be a partner in a consulting firm. But those roles started in the most unlikely of places — not with a business degree, but with a great books program.
In my sophomore year, I announced that I wanted to drop my pre-medicine course of study. My father threatened to pull financial support for my education (which I needed). Many conversations later, after I’d convinced him that I could, in fact, make a living as a lawyer or PhD after this line of study, he finally relented. And I spent the next two-and-a-half years loving school, life, and the history of Western thought.
Then, in the intervening years, I discovered that graduate school was not for me (the reality of mounting student loans made my stomach turn). So instead, I got a job at a consulting firm.
I got that job not because I was top in my business school, and not because I’d had some impressive internships (I hadn’t done any). I got it because I could think and speak on my feet. And where did those skills come from? I chose a line of study where I had to defend my assessments and opinions in every class. I had to understand the big picture in whatever we were reading, and how Plato’s Republic or Newton’s laws of physics fit into that picture. Kant, meet Buddha. Buddha, Kant.
Your gut may not be screaming at you about what to study. But when it does speak up in your life, listen. The great books program I joined certainly did not make sense if I was trying to start a career — it gave me zero practical skills that could be directly applied in a line of work. But it did develop me as a thoughtful, articulate person, and it turns out, those are pretty valuable skills, too. Somehow, it worked out better than I or my dad could have imagined.
I didn’t know what was next. I just knew what was right for right now, and trusted that everything would work out. And it did.
3. Do your homework.
I say that I got the job at the consulting firm because I could think and speak under pressure (thanks to all those year-end oral exams with professors staring down at me over their hallowed spectacles).
I’m sure that helped (a lot). But what I think actually got me the job (besides good grades and showing up properly attired) were two things: 1) really wanting it; and 2) doing my homework.
When I applied, I read everything I could find about the company: its structure, its biggest business deals, its history, its future, its annual reports, its competitors, even the details on the new “solution centers” where I would be working if I got the job. So when I got called for interviews (all seven of them), I went in looking smarter than the average bear. (I was also aware that I’d only seen the tip of the iceberg and had just enough questions to prove it.)
Whether it’s getting a job, meeting a new colleague or boss or client, finding out you’ve messed up royally and that you’re up for a reaming — do your homework before you start any conversation. Find out everything you can about the situation, and go in armed with information, humility, and thoughtful questions. Knowledge, as Sir Francis Bacon said, is power.
Launching a career comes down to desire. But we’re such fickle beings that it’s not easy to know exactly what we want. It takes careful attention and intentional reflection. Give yourself space to discover what is speaking to your heart.
Prayer can be a great asset here. You’re not in this alone, remember — God put you on this planet to do something important (even if, like St. Therese of Lisieux, it’s about “doing small things with great love”). Getting in touch with the voice of God in your life is a way to get in touch with your deepest, most authentic desires. You can’t go wrong when you’re following your deepest desires because it means you’ll be doing what you were made for.
All that boils down to what religious people term a “calling.” It’s a continual process of digging and listening and paying attention to what’s going on inside and outside you. The key is desire — what do you really want, and why?
Then, when you pick up the scent of something true for yourself, translate that desire into hustle and you’ll go places and do amazing things.
Or you might stay put and do amazing things with great love.
Either way, amazing things.