Although younger people may have more technical and social savvy today, previous generations can still teach young people valuable lessons, since many of them have attained great success in their careers despite humble beginnings. Looking back to the twentieth century, we see that the zeitgeist (head-space) was different, and it's true that 9/11 and the Great Recession changed the chess board, but some truths are universal and still hold true in our hyper-connected, instant-gratification society.
Education was the game-changer for people in the previous century. Although there are some fabulously wealthy people who did not complete their education, the truth is that they did start with some basic learning and furthermore, their numbers can be counted on one or two hands.
Another old-fashioned notion which still holds true is that a smile can get you anywhere. A highly respected South African academic and thought leader who passed away in 2008 - someone who counted statesmen and great artists as friends - once shared this important secret: “It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice”.
But the most valuable lesson we can learn from those who have lived through World War II is that a good start often means the difference between success and failure. These are the top tips that parents should share with their children to set them on a path to success in the world of work.
Many young people are in awe of rock-star business people like Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg, both billionaires who dropped out of college to start their own businesses. Reading about the success of Facebook, young students could easily be convinced that the best way to get ahead is to start a business early. There are even proponents of the idea that education doesn’t help, for example Robert Kiyosaki (founder of the dubious ‘Rich Dad’ empire) published a book in 1994 with Hal Zina Bennett, called “If You Want to Be Rich and Happy, Don't Go to School: Ensuring Lifetime Security for Yourself and Your Children“.
The truth is that these people are an extremely small minority, and the chances of someone making a success of a business with no real knowledge or experience are very slim. Robert Kiyosaki experienced bankruptcy more than once in his career and in fact Mark Zuckerberg benefited hugely from his time spent at Harvard, and the connections that he made there were crucial in his later success. After all, his first real customers were fellow students from Harvard.
The rate of failure for new businesses is very high. An article by Deborah Gage, published in the Wall Street Journal in September, 2012, showed that three out of four start-ups in the United States don’t return investors’ money. In other words, they fail. This means that only a quarter of start-ups in the United States are even surviving, and even fewer are as wildly successful as Facebook. In Canada, according to Industry Canada, only 85 percent of small businesses with one to 99 employees survive for three years, and only 70 percent survive for five years.
A report from Statistics Canada, entitled Failing Concerns: Business Bankruptcy in Canada, 1997 pointed out that most small businesses fail because of a lack of skills to manage the business. The weaknesses identified were in the areas of general management, financial management and marketing. Young people with starry-eyed dreams of instant success need to learn first how the finances and marketing of a business work, before they could build a company that has any chance of surviving.
Fortunately, there is a way to gain the required skills to start a successful business. A college diploma or university degree in business is a great starting point. Fact is, most good students gain placements or connections from their college or university teachers. Many universities and colleges have placement programs and make a concerted effort to find employment for a large number of students. For example, the University of Waterloo in Canada offers a co-op work program which benefits students and employers.
Once you nab that first job, whether it is an office job or retail, make a point of being professional but friendly to absolutely everyone. Don't have an attitude where you are only kind to people you deem important, since you may end up working on a project with that person. You don’t know the informal relationships when you’re new in a company, and everyone is a potential ally or even friend.
A number of years ago a friend of mine – let’s call him Frank – started a new job at a Technology company. He was keen to make a good impression and to get ahead, because he was hired at a job fair straight out of college. So he decided that he would network within the company and get to know the managers. But when the cheerful mail room clerk wanted to befriend him, he snubbed her, ignoring her when she greeted him in the mornings. A year later, he asked his manager for a promotion, but he was turned down.
Eventually he left the company in search for better advancement opportunities. Only after he had left did he learn that the mail room clerk, who was simply being friendly, was best friends with the CEO's daughter. In another case, a senior manager at a software company in Toronto completely ignored simple friendly greetings from “lowly developers” because she felt that she was not there to make friends. Needless to say, since it was a small company, she didn’t last long in that position.
First impressions are not always lasting, but it iss always good to work hard on everything you do; work like you want to keep your job. This creates a great impression with managers on every assignment, and helps you to win respect and trust.
French painter Henry Matisse said that one should “Derive happiness in oneself from a day’s good work, from illuminating the fog that surrounds us”. Young people starting out in a new job have a chance to find their passion and build a great start because there are few distractions at home and usually few big responsibilities outside of work.
Ideally, young people should use the first few years of their career to really build a strong foundation for their future. There's no substitute for old-fashioned hard work. Be eager to learn about all aspects of your employer's business and be keen to help out and prompt to complete assignments. Ask questions; this is completely expected in the beginning and shows you are willing to learn.
The security which comes from knowing that one has proven oneself and that one is valued in a new job is hard to beat. The way to build a good career is one day at a time, initiated by a good, solid start.
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