It’s all too easy, under the pressure and time constraints of our daily lives, to forget that we’ve all had help along the way. Sometimes help arrived in the form of seeing what not to do. Other times it it was embodied in great role models and examples of excellence. But on occasion, there was someone that we met or worked with that went out of their way to offer us advice, give us much-needed context, or maybe the encouragement to keep pushing forward.
Great advice is always something to be thankful for! In the spirit of being thankful, this month we asked the Chefs: What is the best career advice you’ve ever received? Why was it so significant?
Joe Esposito: The best career advice ever given to me: Move to New York. That was in 1980. It is an interesting question whether that advice would be as valuable today.
Kent Anderson: The best career advice I’ve ever received was not so much career advice but advice about conducting myself and my intellectual life. It came from an editor who was facing a decision early in his tenure, a decision that was pitched as, “We need a policy on this.” Pausing and considering, the editor realized that he was at an early inflection point for his tenure, and deliberated how to respond. His response has helped me in numerous occasions – “If we have a policy, then people will hold us to that policy, and will react if we change the policy. Instead, why don’t we just institute a practice for now, and see how it goes.”
This response I translated into advice in the following way – don’t take a doctrinaire stance based purely on impractical principles. The world is too conditional, and people with sharp knives lurk in wait for policies and their owners. Instead, behave sensibly, consistently, and practically, and let your actions speak louder than your words.
How you behave and what traits you exhibit matter more than empty words. To me, that’s not only great career advice, that’s great life advice.
Rick Anderson: I can’t remember who said it and I can’t remember the exact way it was phrased, but the essence of this advice was “You can tell a lot about a person’s character by the way he or she treats people who are not in a position to be of use to them.” This counsel has come in very handy in two ways. First and most importantly, it provides me with a check on my own behavior and thought patterns: do I treat people differently based on their potential usefulness to me? Ugh. I hope not, and because I don’t want to be that kind of person I tend to think about it quite a bit. Second, it provides me with a useful variable to consider when I’m interviewing potential hires. How do they respond when introduced to line staff in other areas of the library? How do they interact with my assistant? How do they treat the waiter when we go out to lunch?
Part of this issue is practical and even Machiavellian: you only have an imperfect knowledge of who may be useful to you, so you might as well be kind and considerate to everyone. To me, the deeper issue is moral: to me it seems right to be kind and considerate to everyone, and I want to be that kind of person. I also want to be around that kind of person.
Todd Carpenter: The best career advice I received was “participate” in the community. It wasn’t as much advice as a directive from Heather Joseph, who was my boss and mentor at the time. Around that time she was about to be elected as incoming President of SSP. She pointed me in the direction of the education Committee of SSP and encouraged (directed is maybe a better term) me to volunteer on the group, where I was to serve for the next four years. I had been involved in SSP, AAUP and a few other groups previously, but primarily at the level of only speaking at meetings or planning single conference sessions, but never to the same level as a member of the education committee. The SSP education committee develops sessions at the annual meeting and during fall seminar series and I was responsible for organizing several half and full day programs. Volunteering gave me several opportunities to engage, enhance my experience and build a network of colleagues. The organizational and programming skills developed executing those events grew my skill set that would serve me later in other roles. Serving the community in this way gave me a rationale to enhance my understanding of elements of the publishing industry that had been outside of my day-to-day responsibilities. Participating also gave me a reason to engage senior level colleagues at other organizations that I might not have had a reason to connect with. I’m still thankful for the advice, the directive and the space and time to participate. It’s something I still regularly encourage with others I meet and engage with, particularly those in early stages of their careers.
David Smith: Invest in plastics… Just kidding.
I’ve received a few good bits of advice over the years.
Two of them occurred in the space of a few days on a residential course, during my D.Phil research. The first was when the UK CEO of Proctor and Gamble gave me a pep-talk as I was lamenting my lack of motivation to get anything done at the bench. He observed that I was still dragging my sorry behind into the lab and so I must have some motivation… That was the moment I realized how important it is to take a step back and actively look at things from other perspectives, as often as possible, whether you are getting nowhere yourself, or working to get a group of colleagues to function as a whole, and not a collection of parts. The second was the Belbin self perception test which told me that actually I was a creative person, and so I’d better be doing a job that fitted that if I wanted to be happy.
Vitek Tracz once had a discussion with me about the best way to get to the roof of a building in the dark when the power is out… “Sometimes David, you just have to stumble around figuring it out as you go along, it’s often quicker that way”. I retorted that you might fall down the stairs. To which he replied, “yes, that can happen when you are venturing into the unknown”. That was my leaving interview, and it’s stuck with me…
But the best advice I’ve ever received came from my dad.
“To thine own self be true”
Stewart Wills: The best career advice I ever had? That’s easy: “Don’t feel that you always have to look like the smartest person in the room.” That advice—dispensed by someone who remains, to this day, one of the best mentors and colleagues I have ever had—was at bottom all about the need to listen and to learn from the expertise and wisdom of others.
And why was that important? Because it alerted me, at the time, to a lamentable pleasure in the sound of my own voice, and an unfortunate tendency to push for solutions based on my own brilliant ideas—thereby forgetting Pooh’s observation that sometimes “a Thing that seems very Thingish inside you is quite different when it gets out into the open and has other people looking at it.” So to the person who gave me that advice (and also, for the record, to A. A. Milne, for Pooh’s additional insight), I’m very grateful indeed.
Angela Cochran: My mother always encouraged me to seriously consider any opportunities that have come my way. She taught me that luck has nothing to do with it– you have to work at putting yourself in the right place at the right time. Sometimes you nail it and other times you miss the boat entirely. It is not within my nature to put myself in new and unfamiliar situations. I am way too practical and cautious for that. But my mother is much more of a free spirit and set a good example for taking chances. Not all of them worked out for her, and that was a good lesson for me as well.
I have a sign on the desk that says, “Fake it ’til you make it.” I like that phrase. If I don’t feel confident about answering a question or speaking on a topic but I have done the work and I know the answers, I have to fake it—the confidence that is. I do not need to be the smartest one in the room. I just need to make sure that I am confident in what I actually can contribute.
The last piece of advice that I refer back to all the time came from one of my college advisors when I was editor of my school newspaper. He was an old time journalist and always seemed to know the right thing to say. When I was getting upset about whatever college kids get upset about, he said “Angela, do you really want to get in a pissing match with a skunk?” There are times when people really just want to get under your skin. Earlier in my career, I would let them. Now that I am, ahem, older, I realize what a waste of time it is to argue with certain people. Win or lose, I am still going to come out of it smelling like a skunk.
Alice Meadows: I’ve been lucky enough to have a number of fantastic mentors and sponsors over the years, all of whom have provided me with excellent career and other advice. But I think the most significant (if not necessarily the best) piece of career advice I received was from a former manager who told me, in the nicest possible way, that it was unrealistic to expect a major promotion if I didn’t fully commit to my job. Which meant, among other things, working longer hours and traveling up to 25% of the time. That’s a tough thing to hear as a working mother who was already putting in her 40+ hours a week – especially one who grew up believing women really could have it all – but the fact is that most of us can’t. It made for a really difficult decision, not just for me but for my husband and family, one that I didn’t want – or feel I should have – to make. With hindsight I’m (mostly) grateful to my manager for pushing me to focus on what I had to do to get that promotion – it led to all sorts of other interesting jobs and opportunities. Most of all, though, I’m hugely thankful to have had my family’s support as my career has progressed.
Phill Jones: Not so long ago, I found myself rather suddenly on the job market. Having left academia relatively recently, I really wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. Should I try to go back to academia and do another postdoc despite my previous frustrations? Should I completely re-invent myself again and find a new path? I tried to figure out what to do to give myself the greatest chance of landing a stable job. I started talking to a variety of people who had chosen different career paths, one of the people I spoke to was John Corkery, who is now VP of North America for Semantico. He suggested that I take a longer view of my career, that I should think about the job that I wanted not now, but in 10 or 15 years time. He suggested I look for jobs where I could contribute, based on what I already know, but also give me the opportunity to learn the skills that I would need for that dream job down the line.
Since that conversation, I’ve tried to identify my transferable skills, such as they are, and look for opportunities to develop new ones. This doesn’t just apply to job hunting, when taking on new projects and responsibilities, I try to get out of my comfort zone as much as I can and never turn down and opportunity to work on something new. Publishing is a highly competitive and quickly evolving marketplace. I hope that by treating every project as a potential learning experience, I can keep up with that pace of change.
Michael Clarke: Someone I once worked for observed “You choose the path, but the path makes you.” By this he meant that you choose your career in life, but then the career molds you. If you spend 40+ hours a week working at something, that is going to change your base of knowledge — what you know about the world. If you are publisher, architect, software developer, musician, scientist, banker, lawyer, etc. your brain is filled with the specialized knowledge of that profession and your thinking is influenced accordingly. An architect may think in more spacial terms as compared to a software developer who might think more logically. Does your job require a lot of travel? Does it require moving to another city or country from time to time? Do you work closely with people from other cultures? Such things will all shape your view of the world. The people you work with further shape you as they are the people you learn from. For this reason I always seek out colleagues and clients that will challenge me and that I think I will learn the most from. There is much consideration given to selecting a career (and increasingly that is an ongoing process) but I think less to how the career you select in turn changes who you are. A further question is, would you make different career decisions if selecting for the effect of the path on you?
Ann Michael: Well having been the one that put this question to the rest of the chefs, I found it surprisingly difficult to answer. While there have been many wise and wonderful people that I’ve had the pleasure of working for and with over the years, two stand out. I won’t name them here (because one in particular would strangle me – and she could do it too!). They both have this way of helping me see how the world works without forcing me into their particular way of thinking. They are true mentors, people who view mentoring as a two-way active relationship. They aren’t trying to mold me into their image, but instead always seem to help me find the right path. They are true leaders.
But the best advice I’ve every gotten was from the example set by my father. My Dad has always been on a mission to learn. He got a computer when he was 70, decided the Internet was “safe” when he was 75, got DSL when he was 81 (“because dial up is too slow and at my age I don’t have any time to waste!”), got a cell phone at 84, and had to have a smartphone when he was 87. I can’t wait to see what he wants for his 90th birthday in May. Dad has taught me that there is no standing still. As long as you’re here, you might as well be learning something and trying new things.
What stands out in your life? Who has influenced you and in what way?
What is the best career advice you’ve ever received?