James Hickman, Head of Sales, Marketing & Solutions at Altron Karabina, shares hard-earned life lessons which he hopes will help young people get the most out of their careers.
This year I celebrate a special 21st. I'm not 21 years old; I am celebrating 21 years since I returned to South Africa from a stint in the UK. As I was processing this milestone, I encountered a Ted Talk that inspired a personal exercise: what would I tell my 26-year-old self if I could travel back in time?
The talk raises concerns about the current crop of 20-somethings, comparing them to generations before and basing observations on psychology and brain development. We've all seen it: newer beliefs such as "30 is the new 20", starting careers later, marrying later, setting up investments later - everything is pushed out in the name of eternal youth.
The crucial point of the Ted Talk was that our final major brain development occurs when we are approximately 26 years old. And so, if I look back to when I was 26 - where I was, what had I accomplished, what would I tell myself to set me up for success?
An unusual route
In doing so, perhaps my experience can help young people today get a head start on the life lessons I have learned along the way. And so, looking back to my experiences at 26, I remember returning from the UK and starting at Microsoft. Without any doubt, there was far more that I didn't know then. How did I get there?
I matriculated at 19 with a less than stellar standard grade pass; hence, university was not an option, and I started work as a waiter. Through that, I met someone who offered me a job selling computers. Within a few months, I was selling software and met a representative from the software vendor who offered me the opportunity to work for them in the UK.
It was an unusual route, but there I was, about to start two years abroad and to be honest, I was way out of my depth.
At 26 years old, I was back on these sunny shores, having learnt to sell in the UK market, which, for those who know, has an intense and highly competitive sales culture.
Despite this and having had success, I was 26 with very little real wisdom despite 7 years of diverse experience in the workplace. Compare that to a 30-year-old today who may have no career experience apart from study and travel. This 30-year-old would, in theory, be even more lost now than I was then.
Looking back, this is what I wish I had known and what I would tell my 26-year-old self.
Have confidence but don't be arrogant
In my earlier days, I battled to get this balance right. I wasn't naturally confident, especially being the youngest in most rooms by more than a decade. This type of unease can tax one's confidence, so to compensate, it is tempting to become arrogant. One sees it all the time. To compensate, a young person becomes arrogant, allowing their nerves to drive how they appear. Instead, spend time getting this right, and have the confidence to accept and admit that you don't know everything. No one expects this.
Don't make assumptions; ask questions
You will never sound stupid asking a question, but you may by passing comments without understanding the context. Sometime in my late 20s, I was in a meeting with a multinational customer who said he did not have the budget for a small R3500 line item. I snickered because, in my mind, it made no sense that a multinational couldn't afford something so small. The customer was shocked at my reaction. I realised very quickly that I was in the room being treated as a peer, and because of an ill-informed assumption, rather than asking questions and understanding context, I was a hair's breadth short of causing real damage to my reputation and the client relationship. Ask questions so you always understand the context because assumptions can take you very far off track.
Don't imitate others
Take time to understand what makes you unique and have the confidence to be yourself. When I started as a young salesman in my early 20s, the top salesperson was a stereotypical late-90s operator: loud and brash. He was a drinker who sealed deals on the golf course while being unafraid to use harsh language while driving fancy cars and living in flashy houses. In my attempts to mimic him, I found myself in challenging situations because I wasn't myself. You can learn from the best, but be true to yourself.
Understand the balance between planning, executing and measuring
One often sees someone present a well-thought-out plan and get a round of applause. The problem is that execution and measurement are often not up to par. I wish I had understood earlier in my career that presenting a great plan does little more than stroke your ego. Unless you buckle down into execution and measurement, don't bother planning. It's not easy to keep the three in balance. I probably went into my 30s before properly grasping this concept.
Never talk first
Many people want to talk first, get on the board and share their opinions. However, I learned later in my career that waiting and allowing other people to speak first has many benefits. It's an insurance policy against saying something silly, or worse, stupid. If you jump in too early without understanding all the facts and context, you may not add any real value to the discussion. By speaking too early, you limit your learning. There is immense value in listening to how other people perceive and solve problems. Then, when you do talk, there's an opportunity to add real value. Besides this, as you develop into a leader, letting others speak first allows them to resolve issues and learn.
Learn the art of confidence in vulnerability
Have the confidence to say you are uncomfortable or don't know something. You will learn much quicker. Many youngsters in the workplace view not knowing something as a weakness. This could not be further from the truth. If you are the youngest around a table, it stands to reason that those around you will have more experience. Rather than hide behind not knowing something, be confident enough to admit vulnerability - that's when people help.
Learn something new every day
I was fortunate to study in my 30s, and a love for learning was born. While people have suggested various books to me throughout my life, I don't enjoy reading as my dyslexia makes it challenging. On the other hand, YouTube has allowed me to spend time on a platform I do enjoy, exposing myself to a host of different topics. It is my passion to try to learn something new every day, and I wish I had started this when I was younger. By learning one thing every day, you can, in theory, learn 365 things in a year, which is 3560 things in a decade. Never stop learning - that's how you broaden your mind.
Get to know yourself early
Do a personality test and study results. Many people scoff at these, but they are valuable pointers. By doing this, you are pointed to potential blind spots, strengths and more. I looked at my results, and it was amazing - it was as if I were reading something I had written about myself, but with a deeper level of insight and understanding. Once you have this awareness, you have the opportunity to add layers of strengths to support your life and career. Very few 26-year-olds do this, which can save a fair deal of growing pains further down the road.
Take time to learn about people
Learn from an early age to show a genuine interest in people - what they do, where they come from, their cultures, their hobbies, and more. Besides enriching your own life, it goes a long way toward building genuine rapport, which is vital when the chips are down, and you need to lean on someone for help. I advise building stronger relationships quicker, especially in today's high-paced and largely online world.
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