5 Secrets I Wish I Knew at the Start

I’m often asked what lessons I learned over my career that I wish I would have known when I started out. If I could take what I learned over my formal 33+ year career and was able to apply it when I started my journey there is no question I would have had an easier time. I would have been able to avoid some common pitfalls I encountered, I would have been more productive and a better leader. I would have been able to add more value to the organization than I did. In no particular order, I wish I knew these 5 things when I started out.

Education really doesn’t matter

A slight overstatement, perhaps, but I wish I knew then that there is too much fuss made about one’s academic pedigree and the belief that the MBA (or whatever) would guarantee success. So of course everyone who wanted to aspire to greatness rushed out to take as many courses as they could to get another piece of paper with the mistaken belief that the more you knew, the higher up the ladder you would go. I learned that it’s hogwash. Yes, you need a good (not great) academic background to even be in the game of advancing your career, but the thirst for more knowledge with the papyrus to prove it is an ineffective use of one’s time and resources. There are other things that matter more in terms of influencing whether one succeeds or not.

Non-compliance breeds success

This is a tough one, because schooling teaches us to comply; to follow the instructions we are given and if we do a real good job at following the rules we just may get rewarded with an “A”. I wish I knew then that compliance is not the formula for success; it makes you the same as everyone else; you are buried in the herd of people who all look alike and who are all aspiring to be the best copycats there are. If I had understood that the opposite is actually a better determinant of success — i.e. not conforming with best practices and the standard ways of doing things. You see the thing is, if you decide to be a conformist, you’ll likely never be noticed. Why would anyone spot you when you look like the person next to you in every way? It took me a while to figure this out, but once I did I always asked myself the question when confronted with a challenge: “How can I do this differently?” Not understanding this truism probably cost me at least 5 years if progression in the early part of my career.

Execution beats planning

From the first day on the job day we are told that we must produce the perfect plan; that the studies that we are asked to do are complete and accurate — a.k.a. perfect. Well guess what? I wish I knew then that no plan, strategy or study ever produces the results that are intended (they teach you the opposite at school). At best they produce variations on the theme because the underlying assumptions don’t pan out in the real world. The problem is that we end up spending a disproportionate amount of time getting the plan or study right rather than getting it just about right and trying it out in the real world of fickle customers and hungry competitors. I learned that trying an imperfect ANYTHING (and modifying it as you go) gets results. It led me to make more tries than my peers, make more mistakes than their conservative bent and beat them to the top.

Reacting beats anticipating

I wish I knew then that with unpredictability and uncertainty the new normal in world affairs, winning in the market was more about what one’s organization did in reaction to unexpected events that shocked them than it was on sticking to their original plan. That the real objective of trying to maximize the chances of success was to be as good as you can at anticipating future events, but be GREAT at reacting when the future doesn’t unfold as it should. We wasted time and suffered market position by having to rethink our plan when it suffered a blow due to the unexpected, instead of having a backup contingency waiting in the wings to perform in the moment things went south on us.

It’s what you DO not what you know

I wish I knew then to spend more of my time and energy on accomplishing things — actually getting things done — rather than in trying to improve the intellectual quality of my business plans and proposals. In retrospect, I wasted precious time and energy trying to fancy-up my proposals by more analysis using sophisticated tools to predict specific outcomes rather than on cutting short my up-front analysis and getting to implementation sooner. I learned that people succeed on the basis of what they produce not on the level of their academic competence.  Theories and principles are fine, but unless they are accompanied by passion, energy and perseverance nothing gets done and no one is rewarded. There is no reason people have to learn the hard way when others have already absorbed the pain and found out what works. I hope my 5 secrets will help you avoid common pitfalls that befall everyone in every career path. Related: How to Make Your Job Interview a Disaster