I’ve made a ton of mistakes in my professional career. Some of them were painfully embarrassing and humiliating.
But several of the most powerful lessons I learned along the way helped frame the commencement address I delivered for Penn State University at the Great Valley School of Graduate Studies.
In that talk I share a personal story that set me back for years and hindered me in many ways. I also discuss an extraordinary incident that changed my life forever. From there, I presented my Top 10 tips for an incredibly rewarding life and career.
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Good evening graduates.
- I’m going to ask you three questions
- then tell you a powerful story that can change your life
- and finally – leave you with ten tips that will help you be a superstar in your professional field.
First, the questions:
Are you excited to graduate?
Now, how many of you landed the most awesome job of your dreams – making more money than you ever thought possible – and will soon be starting there? Be honest.
Last question: How many of you would like to have a career where
- you’re doing work you love
- are very well compensated
- and feel like you are continually growing?
Believe it or not, it’s not that hard. And I’ll give you a few tips how.
Most of this I’ve learned through a ton of mistakes I made along the way.
I started my professional life as a computer engineer designing mainframes for Unisys. I discovered that while I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of designing computers, I really loved the business side and figuring out how technology could be used to solve compelling problems.
And while I was running hardware and software engineering for Unisys, I was given a chance to create a new startup business. I built an open source software startup that hit the market at the perfect time and generated several hundred million dollars in just a couple years.
By that point I was bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, and I built a healthcare company, and then I began investing in startups – especially those that were focused on changing the world.
My career was very fortunate, but the path was nowhere near as smooth as I just described it.
In fact, it was incredibly rocky.
I used to be a very nervous, insecure person. And I worried a lot about what other people thought of me. When I was at Drexel (where I got my Electrical Engineering degree), some of my classes were pretty hard. But I never asked a question in any of those classes because my thinking went like this: if my question were a smart question, someone else would have asked it. Therefore, it must be a dumb question and I don’t want to ask it, otherwise I’ll look like an idiot.
So I didn’t ask any questions. And I was an idiot.
I lived my life like that for many years. Not asking questions, worrying what other people thought of me, and terrified of interviews because I was afraid of rejection.
My first real interview was absolutely horrific.
I interviewed for a very prestigious graduate school in NJ. I wanted to study quantum physics, and I had an interview with the associate dean of the department. I drove to the interview and got lost on the way. This was before the days of cell phones, and I didn’t have time to pull over and use a pay phone. I finally got there and was very nervous. I owned just one suit at the time, and I’m sure it was wrinkled and sweaty by the time I got there.
I rushed into the office and was probably about 15 or 20 minutes late. I was out of breath and the interviewer, a woman, told me to sit down. She launched right in to her first question, which was probably something like, “Why do you want to join this university?” And I started answering her question. But after about 10 seconds she put her hand up to stop me and said, “Anthony, I don’t mean to embarrass you, but are you aware that you have a dryer sheet sticking out the bottom of your pant leg?”
I looked down, and sure enough, I had a dryer sheet sticking out of my pant leg.
It was an incredibly embarrassing moment.
But the funny thing is that looking back on that experience so many years later, it seems like no big deal. So what – a dryer sheet.
But I was horrified.
Why? Because I was so worried what the other person thought and how that reflected on me.
That was the story of my life for several years.
Until this happened – which changed everything.
I was in Ocean City, MD for a weekend in the summer. I was walking down the beach late one afternoon, and the beach was pretty deserted. The lifeguards were already off duty, and no one was around. I was walking along the edge of the water when I heard someone screaming out for help.
In the distance I saw a kid – probably about 10 years old – swimming alone and being dragged out to sea by the undertow. I did what anyone else would do – I dove into the ocean and I swam out to him.
I grabbed the kid and tried swimming him back to the beach. It was very hard because the currents were pulling us further out. I remember the sea was pretty rough – I think maybe a storm was coming. At one point, I honestly thought we were both going to drown.
But, we made it back to the beach, and I collapsed on the sand pretty much totally wiped out. We were both safe and everything was fine.
But that’s not the part that changed my life.
After that incident, the local beach patrol heard about what happened and asked if they could meet with me. They wanted to see what could be done to improve their emergency response procedures.
And in this meeting, they were asking questions like:
- What were you thinking when you heard the kid screaming?
- Was it hard fighting the undertow getting the child back in?
- Would it have helped if there were life-preservers near by?
- What ideas did I have for improvement?
And a really strange thing happened during this interview. All my answers were coming straight from my heart. I wasn’t trying to win anyone’s approval. I didn’t really care what they were thinking. I was simply there to help them improve their emergency response procedures. And they were grateful to have me there speaking with them.
And I realized that up until that moment, I had had a totally different mindset my entire professional life.
Whenever I would go into a job interview or a sales call or a performance review meeting or anything else like that, my mindset went like this:
I am there to try and impress the other person. And if I do a good enough job, I will get what I’m looking for [the job, the sale, the good review, and so forth].
I had an epiphany.
What if I treated all those sorts of encounters the same was as the beach patrol interview.
Instead of thinking that the other person has what I need [the job, the sale, etc.] – I realized that it was the other way around. They need what I have, and I’m there to give them a few snippets into how my skills and experiences can help them be more remarkable.
This changed everything for me – and it helped me help other people.
Case in point: Let me tell you about a woman who wanted to land her dream job at Zynga – the social gaming company that Facebook bought.
This woman was a data analyst and was good at SQL. Before meeting with Zynga, she had failed every interview leading up to that because
- she went in with the mindset of “this company has what I need … the job”
- and she never made it obvious to the interviewers how her skills could help them.
I asked her this one question: “As a data analyst, have you ever uncovered any non-obvious conclusions that enabled your company to better connect with their customers?”
Her eyes lit up: “Oh my goodness. Lots of times!”
I said, “Great – when you meet with Zynga, I want you to do two things.
- Tell them about these conclusions you drew and how it helped your company;
- And, remember that you have what Zynga needs to be more successful – otherwise, they never would have invited you in for an interview.
Well, that’s exactly what she did. And guess what happened?
She landed the job of her dreams with Zynga. Making an incredible salary doing work she loved.
That one mindset shift and the practical tips I’m about to share enabled me to land every job I ever wanted, make more money than I ever dreamed possible, and accomplish things that could really make a difference in the world.
So, here are those 10 tips.
Tip # 1: Build your own Advisory Board. Advisory board members are people who have accomplished a certain amount of success – whether that be professionally or personally – and are willing to help others who are eager to follow in their footsteps.
These people are great for providing advice, making introductions or connections, and helping you grow you.
And I’ve found that the easiest way to get someone to be an advisor is simply to ask them. Invite them to a coffee meeting so you can learn from their successes.
Most people feel honored to lend their guidance and expertise to someone who is genuinely seeking it. And if they are too arrogant or snobbish to do that – then you don’t want them as an advisor anyway.
And never stop surrounding yourself with advisors. The people will change over time, but the ability to learn and grow never ends. And a personal advisory board is one of best ways to provide the impetus to continually grow.
Tip # 2: Find ways you can help others. Don’t just do your job. Go to other departments in your company and find out what challenges they have.
If you are an engineer, learn about what keeps the people in marketing and HR up at night.
You may not have the answers, but if you position yourself as a good listener, you will likely be able to identify other people who can bring solutions from outside the organization.
By continually seeking ways you can help others, great things will flow back to you – I guarantee it.
Tip # 3: Always be connecting. You don’t have to be an extrovert to network and connect. You don’t have to have an outgoing, engaging personality to build an awesome network. Here’s the only thing you need to do: ask people to talk about themselves.
Ask them what they love about their work. Ask them what worries them. It doesn’t matter.
It turns out that talking about ourselves lights up the same pleasure centers in the brain as do food and money.
But even more significant, we really like – and want to spend more time with – the person asking the questions. So be that person who gets other people talking and is a good listener. You’ll be amazed at what that does for your network, regardless of your personality type.
Tip # 4: Accept responsibility for your mistakes and failures. There will always be roadblocks and times you screw up. While it is far easier to blame other people and point the accusing finger elsewhere, that doesn’t help much in life. Here is the best way that I’ve found to handle it:
- Step 1: Acknowledge it. “I screwed up … and here’s how.”
- Step 2: Understand it. “Here is what I learned from that experience.”
- Step 3: Apply it. “Here is how I used that learning in another situation and things worked out really well.”
If you can honestly accept responsibility for your mistakes and apply those learning experiences, you will stand far above your peers.
Tip # 5: Always, always, always negotiate your salary. Whether it be when you’re starting a new job or getting promoted from one role into another. If you negotiate just your first job’s starting salary and never negotiated ever again in your professional career – just that first negotiation will lead to an increase of over $600,000 in your career. $600,000! Imagine if you negotiated each role.
And negotiating is far easier and far less anxiety-producing than most people think.
Tip # 6: Develop mechanisms to overcome the Impostor Syndrome. Fascinating research shows that the more skilled you really are, the less competent you think you are. Conversely, in what is known as the Dunning-Kruger effect, the less skilled you truly are, the more competent you believe you are.
You all are graduating from one of the finest institutions in the world. So I know you fall into the highly skilled category. So, the best ways to overcome Imposter Syndrome are:
- First, recognize that you are doing this to yourself. You can’t counteract the effects until you realize that you’re choosing this negative voice.
- Next, look objectively at the assertions. Is it really true that you don’t belong or is it more likely that you are sabotaging your thought processes?
- And finally, one tip that has worked wonders for me is this: maintain a positive reinforcement folder in your email. Anytime someone sends you an email telling you how much you helped them or how much your work made a difference, file that in your Positive Reinforcement folder. Then, anytime you are feeling down, take a look at what’s in that folder, and you will feel a million times better.
Tip # 7: Learn the victory pose. If you want to dramatically increase your confidence levels and lower your stress levels for anything – whether that be an interview, important speech, first date, etc. – doing two minutes of the victory pose will dramatically reduce the amount of cortisol in your blood (that’s the stress hormone) and increase testosterone (that’s the confidence hormone).
This research was conducted by Amy Cuddy at Harvard, and her TED talk on this topic is the 2nd most popular talk in the world.
So what is the victory pose? Simply this: put your arms over your head in the V formation, clench your fists, and put a big smile on your face. Hold that for a minute or two, and the changes in your physiology are dramatic. It really, truly works like magic.
Tip # 8 : Be true to yourself. In the words of Oscar Wilde, “Be yourself … everyone else is taken.” I read a terrific essay many years ago by a palliative care worker named Bronnie Ware, who worked with patients during the final phase of their lives.
Her essay was called Regrets of the Dying, and the #1 regret of all her dying patients was this:
“I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, and not the life others expected of me.”
So don’t let fear and insecurity hold you back from pursuing your passions.
Tip # 9 : Be kind. You will encounter many different types of people in your career.
- Some will be nice, others nasty.
- Some generous. Others stingy.
- Some helpful, others deceitful.
But keep this in mind – everyone you meet is struggling to do the best they can. Some people do that in socially appropriate ways, and in other people, not so much.
The ancient Greek philosopher Philo said it best: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
If you heed Philo’s words, you will not only better understand human nature, but your own path will be much smoother.
And finally, my last tip for helping you lead a spectacularly rewarding career is this: don’t ever have a dryer sheet sticking out of the bottom of your pant leg.
OK, I’m just kidding. We can’t end on that tip.
So, Tip # 10 is this: continually read great books. I don’t care whether it’s fiction or non-fiction, I’ve found that good books can make such a huge impact on professional careers and personal growth.
There are many, many books that have moved me in my life. Three that I’ll mention are Getting Things Done by David Allen, How to Win Friends & Influence People by Dale Carnegie, and Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor Frankl. Even after all these years, I’m still amazed at how much a great book can move, motivate, and inspire me to new heights.
So, to bring this commencement address to an end, please remember this:
Every one of you has game-changing skills that can make a difference — both for the companies you work for and the people in your lives.
Learning how to articulate, leverage, and apply those skills will change your life. I guarantee it.
Now, go out there and live your life boldly and without fear. Turn your dreams into reality and make your mark.
Congratulations graduates – you are about to change the world!