11 Life Lessons Every Professional Should Know (Before It’s Too Late)

80,000 hours.

That’s how long you can expect to work over the course of your lifetime. I’m personally well on my way, approaching the 35,000-hour mark by now.

I’ve had a long and winding career path. First, in the accounting department of an airline. Then, at an investment bank. Finally, I spent about 14 years at Microsoft. Now, I’m an entrepreneur and career coach.

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot about how work can impact life, and vice versa. I’ve seen what helps me get ahead, and what holds me back. I’ve learned what to do, and what not to do.

If I could turn back time, there are plenty of things I would have done differently. Here are 11 things I wish I knew when I first started working (that you’re not too late to pick up!).

1. Be an Outstanding Communicator

Lots of people are smart. If you made it into a career you love, chances are you’re smart, too.

Being intelligent isn’t enough. Your ability to communicate is a massive factor in your career success. The top people in a company are rarely just the smartest—they also know how to present themselves well.

Learn how to communicate—through writing and performing. Find out how to introduce complex ideas and arguments, and don’t fear (but invite) feedback.

Not sure where to start? Join Toastmasters, or even better, volunteer a toast at the next wedding you attend (I did this twice last year!). Pitch an idea for a local Ignite or TED-style gathering (I’ve also done this). There are countless opportunities to practice and improve your communication skills.

2. Don’t Let Perfect Get in the Way of Great

There’s a phrase in business, “Go ugly early.” It’s directed at innovators trying to make products that can jump across the chasm that separates winners from losers. In the tech industry, an MVP (or minimum viable product) is often an initial stop in the quest for product/market/fit. An MVP is a way to get a product out the door, gather feedback, and perfect it over time.

Similarly, whatever you’re doing, strive to be great, but know that the first step is getting out there and making something happen, and, even if you fail, learning from the experience.

3. Get Strong

Not into working out? Confused about why I would include this in a list of work-related advice?

All the hours sitting in your office will take its toll on your body. Exercise is the antidote. Lifting heavy weights will force you to learn proper posture (or else you’ll injure yourself later on). Being active will keep your stress levels down.

Commit to getting strong and being healthy and witness the positive spillover effect at your job.

4. Learn How to Set Boundaries

There is an infinite amount of work to do. Learn to stop tasks and projects even if they aren’t complete so you can leave the office on time. Don’t check your email after hours or on weekends. Avoid multitasking (it’s a myth, anyway). Work hard when you need to and cultivate the discernment to know when to shut off.

Build this habit early in your career, and it can help you get more done in less time, save your relationships, and, honestly, just keep you sane.

5. Become an Early Riser

I don’t care if you think you’re a night owl. You can learn any habit, including the habit of being an early riser. I have yet to meet a productive and successful person who doesn’t get going early in the day.

Strive to join the 5 AM club, or at least the 6 or 7 AM club. You’ll be more productive and able to work in peace for at least a couple of hours without the demands of the world creeping in.

6. Save as Much as Possible Early in Your Career

Commit to saving a good portion of your income over time, at least 20% and up to 50% of your take-home pay.

Sound crazy? It’s not. I’ve done it for my entire career.

The reason to save a high percentage of your salary is the freedom it affords later in life. Save a ton and live a simple life. Saving a lot doesn’t mean you need to be boring—read the next item for more on that.

7. Spend Freely on Only a Few Things You Love

Decide on what makes you happy and spend freely on those things. Science has proven that spending money on experiences is better than spending money on things.

Yet, if you love certain things (like you can’t pull yourself away from fancy clothing), spend freely on them. Just be sure to save ruthlessly on everything else.

8. Use All Your Vacation Days

My former co-workers and I never used all of our time off. It seemed like a badge of courage—we loved the stigma of being seen as “hard workers.”

Turns out we were all wrong.

Taking vacation is important. People who take breaks end up doing better work, and those breaks are given to you.

It also demonstrates confidence—confident people don’t play games to prove how capable they are. And if you use your vacation to gather new experiences, you’ll come back to work with fresh perspectives.

9. Master a Hobby

I love to practice yoga and would often go to a yoga studio five to six days a week while I was working. After almost seven years of practice, I decided to take the leap and become a teacher.

I ended up teaching over 500 classes. I learned how to conduct workshops. I taught complete beginners and other master-level yoga teachers. I even played a supporting role in a yoga DVD!

It was a wonderful experience, and gave me a strong identity outside of my day job. I found new groups of friends. I discovered new ways to spend my free time, and even met my future wife through my studio.

My hobby also made me a better—a.k.a., happier and healthier—worker.

Find a hobby and cultivate it. You’ll become a more interesting person, and perform better at your job.

10. Build a Broad Network of Friends

Networking events and superficial business deals aren’t all that useful. What’s crucial is building up a strong network of authentic friendships and relationships.

It’s no surprise that the best jobs and careers come not through applications and shuffling around resumes, but through trust between humans and word-of-mouth referrals.

For example, while I worked at my last company for almost 14 years, I had five distinct jobs. Each position change happened because someone was willing to bet that I could do the job better than anyone else. In most cases, I wasn’t the most qualified person (based on my resume), and yet I got the position anyway.

Challenge yourself to forge new bonds. Instead of networking, aspire to connect to people.

11. Do What Makes You Happy

Is the meaning of life to be happy? I believe so.

The tricky thing is figuring out what will make you happy and how your career fits into the equation.

And remember that what makes you happy one year may not make you happy the next. It’s your right to change your mind and change your path. Your family and friends may not understand your decisions, but as long as you do, that’s all that matters in the grand scheme of things.

This article was originally published on Medium. It has been republished here with permission.

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