Career Advice

One of the most important pieces of advice I received when I was striking off on my own was to get a broad base of experience before I made any hard and fast decisions about my career. I was not one who knew from birth what I would do and in many ways I am continuing to discover the nature of what I am on earth to provide and I think that one piece of advice may just have well saved me a life of misery.

I’ve worked in both large companies (e.g. Smith Barney, Eastern Mountain Sports, etc.) and small entrepreneurial settings and both helped to inform my worldview and refine my ability to serve others. My own preference is for work in smaller companies, as the risks and rewards are more dramatic and the scope of responsibility generally starts and remains much broader than what you might experience in a large, structured corporation. That said, each has to discover what is right for him (or her).

What I have learned working in small businesses for most of my life is that schooling provides a foundation for developing skills in the workplace, but it does little in fact to actually prepare you for the incredible array of details you encounter when working in a young, small and growing business. One of the most interesting aspects of working in a small company is that each and every person has the opportunity to contribute in a meaningful and visible way to the corporate culture. You actually get to participate in building and delivering more than just a product or service, you get to create a living, breathing subculture in the community you live in. It’s a LOT of fun!

Big companies, conversely, tend to (there are I imagine exceptions – I just never found one) slot you in and you ratchet slowly (if all goes well) up the ladder. You may eventually be in a position which affords you the ability to shape the company, but such positions may only come in the final years of your career. Moreover, larger companies typically have more stakeholders and the larger the company, the savvier (read: more demanding) the stakeholders, so the pace of change tends to slow down in direct proportion to the size of the company.

The decision of large or small tends for most people to hang on two elements: financial concerns and risk tolerance. Regarding the financial concerns, big companies have access to more resources and consequently can often pay more and offer more benefits than their smaller counterparts. That said, growth opportunities don’t typically come as quickly and they don’t tend to be as significant in the larger companies as they do in the smaller, more nimble companies. I started and ran my first company at 15, then another at 17 and a third at 20. They were all small and I didn’t earn a ton, but man did I learn a lot. And I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything!

As for the level of risk tolerance, big companies tend to attract the more risk averse people, on the balance. Many people choose big companies because it is easier to hide in them and because of the notion that there is safety in numbers. Neither were pluses for me, but they may be for you. The risk/reward equation is significantly different in a small business setting and you have to be secure in yourself and confident yet humble in your vision to thrive in such an environment.

A final thought on this topic: be careful of competing internal motivations. People tend to cram themselves full of competing and even mutually incompatible notions of what they want in life. They want freedom without responsibility. They seek reward without risk. They claim one concern publicly but harbor another in their heart. If there is one thing you can do when starting out or when refining your present course, it is to be honest with yourself first and foremost about what you are hoping to give – not get! – from your career. Get that clear and you will be well on your way to a happy, fulfilling, rewarding and prosperous life!

6 thoughts on “Career Advice

  1. Coco

    Competing internal motivations is a major cause for stress and anxiety. Your parents want one thing, perhaps a teacher or councilor another. Then top it off with wanting to keep up with the joneses yet be free as a bird. It reminds me of those that revere a minimalist life style while owning one of everything. This is where discovering your purpose has to be the bedrock of your life’s plan. The rest of the plan and goals should support that purpose. I believe as you live a life on purpose some things are drawn to you that you couldn’t have dreamed up or planned for, to make it a reality. Great post for those beginning their career or planning what is now called, a retirement career.

  2. Chuck Reddick

    This is a valuable summary, and I have to agree with your summaries about the difference in working with a smaller company versus working for a large corporation. I too started off in my high school years working for a very small company, and it was a wonderful experience in so many ways, not the least of which I was recognized almost immediately for my contribution, and rewarded accordingly with both more responsibility and more income.

    Than after I was finished with school, I went to work for a major financial institution on the West Coast, and was with them for fifteen years. Interestingly enough, when I first started with them, they had a clear vision of serving their local community, which I and the other employees totally embraced. However, after about ten years with them, the founding fathers had all retired and lost their influence, and outside interests took over with a focus on profits. Everything changed after that, most especially the good feeling that employees had about what they were doing.

    That caused me to seek a different career, and I have been serving smaller companies since that time. Definitely there are advantages and disadvantages to both. I will say this: if you want an opportunity to really make a difference and stand out, than perhaps a smaller company would be best for you. If on the other hand you want so-called security than a larger company might be best.

    Interesting choices and I do encourage one to be deliberate about their choices so that as they look back they can be proud of where they have been and what they have been able to participate in.

  3. Zach

    Especially after schooling ends, everyone has a valuable opportunity to re-think their life as an adult. While we don’t always get to decide what we want to do specifically, I find that there is always choice in the broad spectrum of things, such as your example of small company vs. big company. There is always so much variety in life, from the biggest ideas to the smallest minutiae, we can always optimize how our natural skills interact with the world outside ourselves if we can keep a large vision.

  4. Carol

    You were lucky to have someone who encouraged you to get some experience before choosing a career. I remember feeling like a bowling ball when in college. I was encouraged in a path that had never been a thought to be sure I would have a good income. That was totally backwards and didn’t work. I now find myself in an interesting situation – I work at a small company of about 70 people that has the clout of several large companies behind it. For such a small group, we are highly effective at what we do and have a global influence in the field in which we work. One thing I’ve learned is that you may work in a position that has implications that go well beyond the job duties – how you interact with others especially those from different cultures, your level of maturity in handling circumstances that arise, and the encouragement of others to do their best. It has an influence on the quality of experience at the workplace and what the organization is able to accomplish. Giving is the answer and I’m glad that realization finally landed with me. You may never know how things are shaped as a result but doing your part is very satisfying. Small companies can have quite an influence and it is exciting when it begins to grow and expand.

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