You don’t need to take risks to progress in your career. Land a job, stay there for enough time, and watch the raises and promotions gradually trickle in until you leave with a hefty 401K and a commemorative Timex. I like to call this the “gold watch approach.” As the saying (almost) goes, slow and steady wins the rat race.
There’s nothing wrong with this. But will it make you happy? When psychologist Abraham Maslow drew up his hierarchy of needs, it wasn’t food or heat that ranked most highly, but rather self-actualization. He believed that achieving your potential was as essential to the human condition as eating and hydration.
I’m inclined to agree with Maslow. When I cast my mind back to my Corporate America days, I remember a young man desperately eager to please, who would show up early and leave long after everyone else. I was a well-oiled cog in the machine, delivering value at every possible opportunity.
This never bothered me. Growing up, the idea of entrepreneurship felt distant and alien. I was perfectly content to be a team player — albeit the best one on the squad.
And then I went to college. I was lucky enough to have been blessed by two loving, supportive parents who wanted me to succeed. Before I ever set foot on campus, they sternly told me that I was there to learn, not earn. Under no circumstances was I to get a part-time job. They would take care of the bills.
Savings and sacrifice helped them pay for my degree, but things were undeniably tight, and the idea of asking them for $20 felt utterly unthinkable. I wanted to take some of the burdens off their shoulders, so I started looking for ways to earn money against their wishes. Some of my hustles proved more successful than others. I sold spring break travel packages. Joined a few multi-level marketing schemes.
Eventually, I found my niche. Compressing my class schedule into a single day allowed me to work the other six. I joined an international mutual fund while also running a promotions business with two friends. I even found time for extracurriculars, taking leadership roles in my fraternity, and spending time bar-hopping with friends.
Yes, I was busy. Unbelievably so. Every waking minute of every day was accounted for. But I was happy, feeling levels of satisfaction and accomplishment I didn’t think was possible. And I attribute the success of that time to a handful of habits I developed to help me cope:
Learn to set priorities. At the time, my work was more important to me than school. I understood that future employers would care more about the real-world experience than whether I landed on the Dean’s List. While I didn’t drop out, I set myself the attainable goal of maintaining a 3.2 GPA.
If you take an internship, work like your rent depends on it. Don’t slack off. Be a vociferous learner, asking questions and absorbing information at all times. Bring your boss coffee. Make their life more comfortable. If they ask you to help install their AC on the weekend, do it. It’s all about being an asset.
Take time to recharge. Naps aren’t just for toddlers at daycare. A few minutes of tactical shut-eye at regular intervals will help you become more focused and productive.
It may sound trite, but be kind, particularly to your friends and colleagues. People remember those who helped them just as vividly as they remember those who hurt them. Be available. Be helpful. Be honest. And watch the forces of karma pay you back in kind.
These habits helped me become the person I am today. They ultimately allowed me to transform from my college years as a coffee-slinging intern to my current position in business leadership.
Looking back, I didn’t know I was CEO material. At the time, I wasn’t. The experience, dedication, and pure hard-headed grit allowed me to reach where I am today. There’s no hidden secret—just a core set of values and a damn good work ethic. And there’s no reason why you can’t reach the same dizzying heights.
Take risks. Start small. Build something from scratch, even if it’s for your boss. Lead a project. Experiment with ideas. Take responsibility for yourself and those around you. Climb that mountain until you reach the summit: being a founder.
You’re one of us now. Welcome to the club. It’s on you to take the first step. The question is…will you?