Career Advice Part 5: The Best Career Advice You Will Ever Get

This is the final part of a 5 part career advice series. The others were:

1. Don’t Settle

2. Never Stop Learning

3. Lateral Moves

4. You Have to Ask

Throughout this series, I’ve tried to incorporate advice that I’ve received and used from a variety of sources including former managers and mentors, with a little best practice research sprinkled in. I hope you enjoyed the series.
I have to say I found dispensing with career advice to be a bit uncomfortable. It’s different when I’m advising as a mentor – someone is asking for my advice, so I have permission. In a blog, it’s going out to 1000s of readers, whether they want it or not. Plus, it can be misunderstood or taken out of context.

As an example, another blog picked up my post on “Don’t Settle”, and used the headline “Job Making You Miserable: Quit!”. Needless to say, that managed to tick off at least one reader of that blog…

“Really?? Quit? That’s really good advice…NOT! In this economy with so many unemployed, unfortunately people are having to take jobs they would never have before. BILLS HAVE TO BE PAID Mr McCarthy. “

Ouch. Just for clarification, I NEVER said “quit your job”.

Anyway, I’m sure it won’t be the last time I’ll be dishing out advice, but for now, I’m looking forward to getting back to leadership development. (-:

This final piece of advice comes from Marshall Goldsmith, one of the world’s leading executive coaches and experts in the field of leadership development. Regular readers of this blog know I reference Marshall quite a bit – I’ve probably learned more about leadership development from him than any other source.

Marshall uses this exercise in many of his programs. When I first heard it, it really hit home for me – it had a profound impact. Since then, I’ve been using a version of it in my own programs (giving full credit of course). No matter how many times I’ve used it, I still can’t help but get emotional. I’ll always have at least one participant come up to me afterwards or send me a note about how much of a wake-up call the exercise was for them.

So here it is, The Best Career Advice You Will Ever Get

(adapted from “The Best Coaching Advice You Will Ever Get”, By Marshall Goldsmith, originally published in Business Week)

Please take out a pen and paper before you read this, and give it a try. If you don’t have time, come back later when you have about 5 minutes to give it your full attention.

You are now about to receive the best career advice that you will ever get in this—or perhaps any other—lifetime! You are about to receive advice from a very wise old person. Listen very carefully to what this wise old person says.

First, take a deep breath. Take a deeper breath. Now, imagine that you are 95 years old and you are just about to die. Here comes your last breath. But before you take your last breath, you are being given a wonderful, beautiful gift: the ability to travel back in time and talk with the person who is reading this blog. The 95-year-old you has been given the chance to help the you of today to have a great career and, much more important, to have a great life.

The 95-year-old you knows what was really important and what wasn’t; what really mattered and what didn’t; what really counted and what didn’t count at all. What advice does the wise “old you” have for the you reading this blog? Take your time. Jot down the answers on two levels: personal advice and professional advice. And once you have written down these words, take them to heart.

In the world of performance appraisals, this may well be the one that matters most. At the end of life, if the old you thinks that you did the right thing, you probably did. If the old you thinks that you screwed up, you probably did. At the end of life, you don’t have to impress anyone else—just that person you see in the mirror.

A friend of Marshall’s actually had the opportunity to talk with old people who were facing death and to ask them what advice they would have had for themselves. Their answers were filled with wisdom. One recurring theme was to take the time to reflect on life and find happiness and meaning now. A frequent comment from old people runs along the lines of: “I got so wrapped up in looking at what I didn’t have that I missed what I did have. I had almost everything. I wish I had taken more time to appreciate it.”

The great Western disease of “I will be happy when…” is sweeping the world. You know the symptoms. You start thinking: I will be happy when I get that…BMW…that promotion…that status…that money. The only way to cure the disease is to find happiness and meaning now.

A second theme from old folks was friends and family. You may work for a wonderful company and believe that your contribution is very important. But when you are 95 and you look around your death bed, very few of your fellow employees will be waving goodbye! Your friends and family will probably be the only people who care.

Don’t get so lost in pleasing the people who don’t care that you neglect the people who do.

Another recurring theme was to follow your dreams. Older people who tried to achieve their dreams were happier with their lives. None of us will ever achieve all of our dreams. If we do, we will just make up new ones! If we go for it, we can at least say at the end, “I tried!” instead of, “Why didn’t I at least try?”

In conducting research for one of his books, his co-author and Marshall interviewed more than 200 high-potential leaders from around the world. A key question that we asked was: “If you stay in this company, why are you going to stay?”

The top three answers:

1. “I am finding meaning and happiness now. The work is exciting, and I love what I am doing.”

2. “I like the people here. They are my friends. This feels like a team—like a family. I might make more money if I left, but I don’t want to leave the people here.”

3. “I can follow my dreams. This organization is giving me the chance to grow and do what I really want to do in life.”

When his friend asked people who were on their death beds what really mattered in life, and when he asked young, high-potential leaders what really mattered at work, they heard about the same thing.

If you want to make a new beginning in life—look ahead to the end. Then decide what to do.

How about you? What did the old “you” tell the “you of today”? Please leave a comment with your real or humorous advice (oh oh, I may regret opening that door).