Twenty years

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Twenty years ago today, I woke up at my parents home and went to eat breakfast. Even though I had just graduated from college, the economy was bad and I had been working a $6.00/hour landscaping job. But after breakfast, I did not go to my landscaping job. Rather, I loaded a car with most of what I owned and with my mother crying on the sidewalk, began to drive from Tennessee to Rhode Island to start a career in software.

Now let me be honest: I was scared. I pretended like I knew what I was doing but I barely knew how to get to Rhode Island (no GPS’s and no internet in those days). Regardless of my naiveté, I had decided that it was time to spread my wings.

I can’t believe that was twenty years ago. I can’t believe everything that has happened since then either. Here is a quick recap of my career: I stayed in Rhode Island working for EDS about five years (marrying Marla about halfway through that time). Just after Marla got pregnant with our first child, we moved to Atlanta and I worked for Delta Airlines for two years. On my two year anniversary, I resigned and went full time on my own with my first internet retail company. A few years later, I (along with two brothers) started Vitabase. Last year, we sold Vitabase and I moved to music full time.

That is a quick synopsis but be assured there has been a lot that has happened during that time. There have been very high points and very low points. I can tell amazing stories from those twenty years. But rather than stories, today I want to tell you some important things I have learned about work and careers. This is mostly geared at young people at the beginning of their careers and admittedly, there are a lot of opinions here that might be a bit controversial.

1) Get started! It is important to get an “in” in front of “dependent.”

I mentioned above that I lived with my parents for a few months after graduating from college and I know that sometimes that is unavoidable. But that being said, I do not like the current trend where children are living at home longer and longer. That is not the way it should be.

Don’t be satisfied until you can spread your wings. Find a way to become independent. And when you do, become independent. Don’t ask your parents for money if you can possibly help it. If you have to choose between a cellphone data plan and independence, choose independence. If you have to choose between a vacation and independence, choose independence. Rent a home instead of buying one if the down payment means you have to give up independence.

Independence is not just about being independent. Independence is about growing up. It is about being an adult rather than a tall child.

2) Purge these two attitudes from your life.

When things go wrong in your career (and they will), the average person always does these two things: they make excuses and they attempt to shift the blame. Don’t be like the average person.

When things go wrong, your first reaction should always be to question what you could have done better. You will find that most of the time, you could indeed have done things better. If you face that truth, you will learn and grow.

3) Resolve to do exceptional work.

Guys, I have to tell you the sad truth about the state of employment today: just doing good work in the workforce will set you apart. Most work being done is far from good work. It is not because those employees can’t do good work. It is more because they just don’t care enough to do good work.

Very simply, decide to care enough to do good work. And if you can go beyond that and do great work, you will have more success and opportunities than you would have imagined (especially if you pay attention to the next tip too).

4) Always focus on the big picture.

Advancement comes to people who can see the big picture. Your career is bigger than what you are doing today. Your employer is bigger than what you are doing today too.

Focus on doing work that aligns with how you want your career to look. Be intentional about your career. You can’t control everything (God is sovereign), but that does not mean you should not plan.

If you want to be a star in the eyes of your employer, focus on their big picture too. Rising through management simply means taking more and more responsibility for the big picture of a company. Get your head up out of the minutiae of your job to look for ways to help your employer in a bigger way.

5) Remember that life is predominantly work. Make your work significant.

A few of the generations that proceeded me often tried to compartmentalize work from the rest of life. I think that was a mistake. Your work is a huge part of your life. If you can’t find significance in your work, you will be unhappy and unfilled. That is an Ecclesiastes principle. It is entirely appropriate to find work that you enjoy and find fulfilling.

6) Burn the midnight oil

The idea of a 40-hour work week is about 100 old and only within our culture. In fact, if you go back just 100 years, the work week was around 60 hours here in the US. Just ditch the whole 40-hour work week paradigm. I used to hear a radio personality say that a 40-hour work week is for losers. I think that is too strong but in my opinion, humans are designed to work a lot more than 40 hours a week. That is not to say that all your work has to be done at your full time job. For example, my dad used to work 40 hours a week (to the minute) at his job and then would come home to work on our farm.

I am reminded of what I did when I was in the process of leaving Delta to work full time in my own business. I got up 2-3 hours early every day and worked a few hours extra every night. If I had not made that sacrifice, those businesses would have never happened.

If you want to slog through a unfulfilling career, go ahead and work 40-hour work weeks. But if you want more than that, stop looking at the clock, turn off the TV and focus on getting things done that need to be done.

7) Stop keeping score with your salary.

We all have heard that some people cannot be motivated with money. That is only half true. In reality, once an employee is making enough to cover their basic expenses, money is no longer a longterm motivator at all.

If you don’t believe me, evaluate yourself when you get your next raise. You will be happy for a few days or maybe a month but before long, you will have exactly the same attitude you did before your raise. A salary is just a number. There is no measurable increase in fulfillment and contentment that happens when you earn a little more.

Here is a little exercise for you: below are salaries I made in my first five years of employment. See if you can put them in the right chronological order. (By the way, I am listing these specific salaries only because they are from so long ago and have no relevance to my current career at all.)

$29,000
$33,500
$38,000
$45,000
$50,000
$100,000
$70,000
$25,000

I hope you did not spend much time on that because the truth is those salaries are already in the right order. I started at $29,000, established myself as a very good employee and over four years, my salary grew to $50,000. Then I got bored and dissatisfied and jumped when another company offered to double my salary to $100,000.

I lasted in that $100,000 job less than six months before quitting due to frustration and misery. That was the point at which we moved to Atlanta and I started working for Delta at $70,000. Two years later, still completely miserable and unmotivated, I walked away to my little business which at that point was making $25,000/year.

Now some of you are probably thinking I am crazy but I am not really different from you. The work we do is bigger than the money. A great salary will not make up for a working in the wrong job. (There are many studies to back me up on that.) The reason I allowed my salary to drop from $100,000 to $25,000 a year over two years was that I knew that I was in the wrong job.

So stop worrying so much about money and start looking for the right job. It is that simple.

8) Treat people well.

Trust me when I say I have learned this the hard way. Never burn bridges and treat your bosses, employees and vendors well. Besides being the godly thing to do, you will be shocked many times throughout life to discover how small the world actually is.

I suppose I could talk in a lot more detail about all of concepts but this post is already way longer than normal and I will let it go for now. For you young people just starting careers, I know that the business environment is bad–probably worse than the one I graduated into. But on the other hand, great opportunities are still there. I promise that is the case. Go get them.