Career Advice From Someone Who Broke Free

I have had, and continue to have, an eclectic career—on purpose. Besides being more interesting, it has also protected me from a “follow-the-herd” mentality that’s all too common in just about every profession and industry. It enables me to look at situations and see things others may not, and to find connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.

My career has equipped me with a reservoir of insights and creative solution alternatives. And, because my success depended on it, it increased my ability to learn quickly, to adapt to new and different environments, and to sense and respond to changing conditions. It helped me break free of my own Chinese village.


15: The Year I Entered the Workforce

I’ve been a member of the workforce since I was 15 years old. If you count delivering newspapers, mowing neighbors’ lawns and shoveling driveways, I’ve been in the workforce a lot longer than that. But it was at age 15 that I got my first “real job” and received my first paycheck.

I can tell you without hesitation that the job and life lessons I learned in the jobs I held prior to my graduation from college are every bit as important and insightful as those I learned in the ones after.

At 15, I landed a job at McDonald’s, where I learned to do every job in the shop, from the “scut-work” of manually mixing tartar sauce and loading it into cartridges, to the anchor position in the value chain, keeping up with a continuous flow of 48 hamburger patties during rush hour. Other pre-college and college jobs included:

  • Drummer in a rock band from high school through college
  • Permanent, part-time stock boy at a grocery store from high school through college
  • Permanent, part-time retail clerk at a mall department store during college
  • Temporary, part-time snowmobile salesman during the winter while in high school and college
  • Temporary, part-time dump truck and tractor/trailer driver for an excavating company during the summer while in college
  • Temporary, full-time forklift operator and pallet repairman, responsible for unloading boxcars and trailers at a Fortune 100 manufacturer’s distribution center
  • Temporary, part-time TA in the Quantitative Methods department during the class years of the college I attended

After College Graduation to Now

Upon graduation from college, I began as a rank-and-file grunt in a large corporation, changing jobs and companies way more often than was common. I worked my way into the C-suite in a global $5 billion business, then founded and co-founded my own businesses.

I’ve worked for companies of many kinds: publicly traded, privately held and family owned. I’ve worked for companies of all sizes, from small start-ups to global corporations. I’ve worked for companies under all economic conditions, from periods of hyper-growth and expansion to ones of recession, severe cost-cutting and brutal layoffs. I’ve worked for companies in a variety of industries, regulated and unregulated, including:

  • General manufacturing
  • Medical devices
  • Disk drive manufacturing
  • Technology
  • Biopolymer engineering
  • Product security
  • News media
  • Entertainment media
  • Automotive wholesale
  • Private aircraft manufacturing
  • Management consulting

Additionally, I’ve held leadership roles in IT, product development, operations and sales and marketing. I’ve also served on three boards of directors, started three companies, and self-published a book on leadership and leading cultural change.

Career Advice From Someone Who Broke Free

Why does all of this matter? I’ve shared this with you so you understand where the advice I’m about to give comes from, advice that will help you break free from the norm.

1. Have a Job Where You Get Paid to Accomplish Something

Maybe it’s a consultant position where you only make money when a client pays you. Or, maybe it’s a realtor position where you only get paid when you sell. When you earn money in this way, it forces you to be clear about your vision and values. It also gives you a healthier perspective on customers and service.

Any sense that you may be entitled to another party’s business is completely destroyed. It will make you a better vendor/supplier/provider/value creator.

2. Work in a Part-Time Retail Position

This doesn’t mean a back-office job, but one that places you out on the floor, so you must interact with the general public. You’ll be amazed at how a customer’s treatment of you can range from enlightened advisor to indentured servant.

You’ll experience managers who genuinely care to ones who are soul-sucking demons. You’ll experience co-workers who range from lazy and spoiled to those who perform daily acts of heroism. This will make you a better customer and a better person in general. It’ll also give you a more meaningful perspective on your fellow humans than you’ll ever get from the results of any poll or survey.

3. Work in a Construction Position

In construction, you’ll learn the absolute joy of producing results that are immediate and tangible. You’ll learn what it feels like to produce something with your own hands, mind and heart—the true meaning of craftsmanship. You’ll understand the importance of plans, schedules, budgets and commitment. Plus, you’ll learn that reality has little respect for those same plans, schedules, budgets and commitments.

Above all, you’ll discover what it means to depend on the work of others and to have others depend on your work, too.

4. Play Competitive Team Sports

As part of a team, you’ll experience coaching that translates directly to the workplace such as the proper way to give feedback. Through either good or bad experiences, you’ll learn how to demand without being demeaning. You’ll learn the natural truth that the only way to get better at anything is to practice.

You’ll be able to read the field, the other team, your fellow players and the situation, responding by adapting, improvising and overcoming. You’ll learn that competitors are rivals, not enemies. You’ll feel what it’s like to be rewarded based on your performance alone, and you’ll experience the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

5. Participate in an Individual Activity

This might include running, biking, painting, writing, or any activity in which you’ll participate in solitude. Alone with your thoughts, you’ll learn that you can push yourself a lot further than you thought possible.

6. Learn How to Fly

Everyone should learn how to fly. It’ll teach you the importance and practice of working in harmony with the forces of nature. You’ll learn how to read the weather and the terrain, how to use basic physics and engineering, and how to plan for contingencies.

Operating in airspace that’s shared by aircraft of all kinds, you’ll learn to appreciate the rules that govern such space. As the pilot in command, you’ll learn the meaning of ultimate, the-buck-stops-here responsibility. When stopping at an airfield that you’ve only read about, you’ll learn to appreciate the knowledge, advice and almost-universal friendliness of those for whom that place is home.

By learning to fly, you’ll flip from thinking about where other things are in relation to you to where you are in relation to other things. You’ll no longer be the center of your universe.

It’s Time to Break Out of Your Chinese Village

Beyond all of this, make it a point to involve yourself in meaningful volunteer or military service. Seek to cultivate a healthy relationship with Mother Nature by hiking, camping, farming or something else. You must break out of your Chinese village to continue to innovate, create and see beyond what’s in front of you.

To learn more about breaking free of your own Chinese village, or for more career insights, send us a message.