20 Career Tips To Me From 20 Years Ago

On July 1, 1996, exactly twenty years ago to the day, I entered an office for the first time ever in a full-time job and began my career in the corporate sector. On that day as I contemplated what my boss would be like, what work I would be given, and indeed, what was for lunch, I don’t think I would have imagined the journey that lay ahead of me. After twenty years, ten bosses, five moves, four kilos, and a journey that has spanned experiences across many different businesses and countries, I am back where it all began – Mumbai. Did I ever imagine I’d be working in the corporate sector for twenty years? To be honest, perhaps not, but back then a time horizon of a couple of years was long term thinking. As I think back to that twenty-two-year-old me sitting in the reception, waiting to collect my visitor ID badge, if I had the chance, what would I say to myself? Here’s an attempt.

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Dear me,

Congratulations on the first day of this new phase of your life. I’m that wiser, better looking dude (those extra four kilos went into all the right places) you will one day become. Till you become me, you have in stock many memos and presentations which make you curse Microsoft Office, many meetings where you doodle poetry and your share of good times and bad times. Let me not spoil it by telling you all that is in store, so if you’re expecting me to tell you exactly what lies ahead, you’re in for a disappointment.  However, here are some tips on what I wished I had done or perhaps done earlier, and what you can still do.

1. Congratulations on getting your dream job. Enjoy the moment and the feeling of freedom that comes with starting your career. Just keep in the back of your mind that one day you’ll realize that true freedom comes with being able to walk away from something you once coveted, instead of sticking to it at any cost.

2. You’re a writer sitting in a cubicle for a living, not a cubicle dweller who dreams of being a writer. Perhaps much later than I should have, I realized that our identity does not come from the designation we have at our jobs but what inspires us, what makes us feel alive. Today I am a husband, a father, a writer – and those identities don’t take away from my day job, but in fact help me bring my full, authentic self to it, and do better at it.

3. You will never have ‘enough’ money. A few months from now, you’ll make a ridiculous spreadsheet and pretend you have it all figured out and when you’ll retire after you have ‘enough’ money. It’ll all be a waste of time. If money is what you chase, the goalpost will keep shifting. I figured that one out pretty early- you may as well get started on day one of your career.

4. If you find yourself thinking long meetings where people debate endlessly are a waste of time, you’re right. Twenty years on, I still find them a waste of time. So don’t feel guilty about doodling. In fact, use these meetings to get working on that novel (see point 2).

5. You learn as much, if not more, from the ‘bad’ bosses as the ‘good’ ones. You’ll have bosses whom you adore and those whom you wish you could somehow make disappear. Bitch about them, but remember, you have a lot to learn from them, even if all you learn is what you will not do when you are in their shoes. Speaking of shoes, put yourself in their shoes once in a while, and you may realize that they are not quite the trolls you imagine them to be, just people trying to do their job the best they can, perhaps very differently from how you’d want them to.

6. One day you will be a troll of a boss to someone (see point 5). 

7. The honeymoon period will end, and you will find yourself questioning many things in your company and team. Certainly don’t go with the flow because it’s the easy thing to do – I know you’re not that kind of guy. By all means raise your hand when you see something that’s broken, but remember one day you will have nobody to blame for things that are broken but yourself. So raise your hand not just to point out things that don’t work but to help fix them. There is no entity called the ‘company’- it is made up of lots of individuals like you and every one can make a difference. Get into that habit earlier than I did.

8. Office coffee will always suck. Deal with it.

Google office, Hyderabad
Google office, Hyderabad

9. There will be such a thing as a social network, which believe it or not, will give you thousands of ‘friends’, but believe me, your closest friends will be those two or three you meet now and hang out with. Do a better job of staying in touch with them than I did.

10. Lots of opportunities will come your way. Don’t start by asking the designation and salary as I did when I was your age. Ask about the culture and the people you’ll work with. That is what will really matter.

11. Don’t work too late. The ROI of those hours sucks. It took me a couple of years to figure that out. With this I gift you at least a hundred hours of free time.

12. Thank me for the gift (see point 11) by using it to get involved. I took way too long to get involved in the community around me, and honestly, still can do much more. Volunteer for something, help people out. The world is a big place – much bigger than your job and friends, full of people who aren’t as lucky as you are.

13. There will always be someone ‘better’ than you; someone who will be promoted faster, be smarter, richer, better looking or just plain luckier. Get over it. Ultimately, the race is to be the best ‘you’ possible.

14. Drinking juice will do nothing to cure your hangover. Drink and party (what else are the misspent twenties for?) but for a more permanent hangover cure, see point 15.

15. One day, you will stop drinking and start running 10K a day. Do it before I did, and you may not put on 28 kilos and then work at losing 24 of them.

16. Don’t worry about people telling you you’re wasting your time playing Doom and Command & Conquer. A few years later, gamification will be cool and part of business. So keep blowing up stuff.

17. You have not left your parents. One day they will leave you, permanently. Sure, independence is great, but remember Ma & Baba won’t be there forever. Take the time to be with them, and you may not have some of the regrets I did.

18. One day, a voice will tell you that a woman you just met is ‘the one’. Listen to it (who knows, maybe that voice is me reaching out to you once more). Don’t be your usual lazy self, and pursue her, even if you think you are making a fool of yourself. It’ll all end well- trust me.

19. Don’t be so tough on Baba. One day, you will be a father yourself and every time you screw up, you’ll empathize with him and realize that being a good father is a bloody hard thing to do.

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image: Titan watches

20. It’ll all be ok. You’ll screw up, you’ll be hurt, you’ll have bad days but you know what, nobody owes you a happy life. You need to find things and people that make you happy. I write this letter to you surrounded by an amazing family you will one day call your own, back from work at a place where I genuinely like and care about the people in my team, and fresh from the release of a couple of books you’ll one day love writing. Is everything perfect in my life? Not by a long shot. Has nothing gone wrong along the way? Of course it has. But on balance, I think I’ve made more of a positive difference to those around me than not, and that’s what you’ll discover ultimately matters.

Good luck with the next twenty years.

[About the author: Mainak Dhar is a corporate veteran who’s worked at P&G and is currently the director at General Mills. He’s an IIM A alumnus and is a bestselling author and writer.]

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