Five Decisions I Would Make Differently
Posted: February 23, 2013
The Friendly City Files
If I could go back in time, here are things I would change:
1. Education. I went to James Madison University. I majored in communication arts, mostly because I had no clue what I wanted to be when I grew up.
If I had it to do over again, I would:
A) Wait a year to start college. But not for backpacking across Europe. I would work instead. I would learn a little about the real world since college is anything but, and figure out some of the things I didn’t want to do.
B) Spend the first two years at Blue Ridge Community College.
A student who gets a two-year degree, with at least a 3.4 GPA, is guaranteed admission to the University of Virginia. When I applied, UVA didn’t want me. Under the current system, they would have been forced to want me. And, in community college, I would have saved money on all the classes I didn’t pay attention to anyway.
C) Get a degree in a “profession.” My communication arts degree qualified me for, well, not much. The same is true for lots of other degrees; unless you plan to teach, to the majority of employers, an English degree is a generic degree.
If you’re thinking business, get a finance degree rather than a business degree — you can always be an accountant or analyst. Or get a nursing degree instead of a biology degree. A degree that confers a specific skill creates a solid backup plan.
2. First job.
I graduated college and immediately took an entry-level job at R.R. Donnelley. I worked in labor and management positions, but after 17 years, all I “knew” was manufacturing.
If I had it to do over again, I would get a job outside my chosen field for a year or two. Say you earn an engineering degree; instead of being in a hurry to land a job calculating structural loads, work for a construction company for a year or so.
Or, if you get a finance degree, work in retail. Think of yourself as a conglomerate that chooses to integrate horizontally. The skills you bring from your “outside” experience will make you better at what you choose to do and will differentiate you from your peers.
You have 40 years to calculate structural loads. There’s no rush.
Until I left, I was convinced I would spend my entire career at RRD. Why work anywhere else? Big company, good pay, good benefits, good opportunities. Only when I had left did I realize there were lots of other great places to work.
If I had it to do over again, I would create a series of 10-year plans. My goal would be to “milk” the RRD experience for everything it was worth while I prepared myself for my second 10-year career. Around year five, I would decide what I wanted to do next and start getting the education, experience and skills required to make the transition.
If after 10 years the grass isn’t greener, I would still have choices — choices I get to make rather than choices that are basically made for me.
Think of your working life as a four- or five-act play and write your own script.
The thought of starting my own business was ... shoot, I never even thought about starting a business until I actually did.
If I had it to do over again, I would start a small side business within the first couple years of graduating college. (Or, if I hadn’t gone to college, within the first couple years of starting my first job.)
Start any business, preferably in a field somewhat removed from your industry or profession. Entrepreneurial skills benefit every career, and who knows — your small business could turn into a full-time venture.
5. Personal achievement.
For years, I focused solely on working and raising a family. No regrets there ... but I do look back and wish I had used some of my spare time more wisely. (Don’t say it: No matter how busy we are, we all have a little spare time.)
I don’t speak a second language, can’t play piano, never hiked the Appalachian Trail ... the list is endless.
If I had it to do over again, I would set meaningful personal goals and pursue them as actively as I pursue career and business goals.
I regret hours I wasted on TV ... or web surfing ... or simply being lazy ... that I could have spent learning something new or achieving a cool goal.
Say you’ve always wanted to write a book; think how far along you would be if you had gotten started last year. Say you’ve always wanted to play an instrument; think how good you’d be if you had gotten started a few years ago.
Starting something new is painful, but the regret of never having started is a lot more painful.
Jeff Haden lives in Harrisonburg and is a bestselling ghostwriter and columnist for Inc. Magazine. He can be reached at www.blackbirdinc.com.