Take all the tired career advice you’ve heard and throw it away. Here’s how to get ahead at work by forging your own career path.
I worked at seven companies before starting my own business. It taught me what I truly wanted — and didn’t want — for my own venture. I now run a tech PR agency and help other entrepreneurs build their brands.
But I didn’t get here by being generic, and I didn’t follow typical career advice from parents, teachers, and mentors.
You might think you know how to get ahead at work— especially if you’re following that standard advice — but what works for everyone else’s career might not work for you. You have to be willing to abandon the path ahead of you to find the one that’s right for you.
I carved my own path, and these are the seven unconventional tips that helped me. (Click here to tweet these tips.)
1. Leverage your natural talents
Some people love math, while others loathe it. Loathing it might make you a poor candidate to go into accounting. This might seem obvious, but it’s true throughout your career: focus on what you enjoy and what you’re good at.
I loved PR, but I realized early on that I hated the corporate aspect of it — despite having worked for big brands. Rather than force myself to work in industries I didn’t enjoy, I decided to cater to mostly consumer-facing tech companies. I’d loved technology since I was a kid playing around with floppy disks and AOL chat rooms, but I hadn’t had a chance to flex my PR skills in the tech realm — and I jumped on the chance once I could create it for myself.
Every person has to leave his comfort zone at one time or another to be successful. It’s much easier to do that when you’re comfortable in your own skin and confident in your expertise and talents.
2. Think small
It’s natural to want a job at a leading enterprise after college. Working for the big guy offers a sense of importance, success, and job security.
But working for an emerging company is the best way to start.
As a low-level corporate employee, you’ll be stuck doing trivial tasks. Life at a high-growth business, like a startup or a locally focused company, is more exciting; you’ll get to do many different tasks and gain experience in various career tracks.
Job security at a startup can be shaky, but you’re more likely to grow. If you love opportunities for developing your skills like I do, you’d rather work at a fast-paced small business than in the mind-numbing world of corporate America.
3. Don’t be afraid to follow
Don’t think that winning a managerial role is the ultimate career goal. Not everyone’s cut out for management.
Managing people is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It’s important to learn early on whether you’re capable of the many nuances of inspiring, motivating, and leading people. If you think management is in your future, determine whether it’s something you’ll enjoy and excel at.
4. Preserve your reputation
Image is extremely important, and I don’t just say this because I work in PR. Regardless of your field, potential employers, clients, and vendors will scrutinize you.
Realize that your online activities are far from private, and ensure that you’re presenting a professional image. This applies to all of your social media accounts and any online forums you participate in. After all, you don’t want to be the next Justine Sacco.
5. Don’t be afraid to lie about your salary
Salary inflation is common among job applicants. It paid off when I interviewed for my third job. I made $45,000 a year at my second job, but I wanted to make a lot more, so I asked for $70,000. If I’d been upfront about my salary history, I would have given the company the green light to lowball me. Instead, I ended up receiving $68,000.
This is one instance where it’s socially acceptable (and even expected) to not share the truth. Don’t worry — you won’t go to prison.
6. Move where you want to live
A great job means nothing if you hate the city it’s in. My move to San Francisco had nothing to do with technology — I just wanted to be in the city. Once I’d settled in, I found a PR job in auto shows.
When I moved to San Francisco from Switzerland, I didn’t have a single job offer. As soon as I got off the plane, however, one of the 300 places I had applied to called me. The woman I spoke with knew the dean of my college, who gave me a great recommendation. I took a 90-minute bus ride to the interview the next day, and I landed the job. It was an internship with an hour-and-a-half commute, but I was incredibly excited to be doing what I loved in a city I loved.
Save enough money to move without a job. Once you’re comfortable, you can search for a position that will complement your lifestyle and fulfill you. You can interview at a moment’s notice and have a local address on your résumé. Be realistic about where you fit in the marketplace — an internship may be just the thing you need to get your foot in the door, and your savings will keep you afloat as you transition into better-paying positions.
When you’re content with your surroundings, you’ll do better work.
7. Don’t blindly stay at a job
Every job counts. Where you work in your 20s could very well define the rest of your career. It’s easy to get stuck in a dead-end job while waiting for something better, but it’s important to cut ties when you’ve had enough.
Maybe your boss is suffocating you, you’re part of an incompetent team, or your company’s values don’t match your own. Once you see the warning signs, don’t be afraid to jump ship.
If you linger, you’ll have wasted valuable time you could’ve devoted to getting your career back on track. Plus, staying with the same company for too long means you’ll earn less in the long run.
The career advice you’ll get from your social circle is often generic and dated. Ignore it, and focus on the most important aspect of your career: you. By relocating where you’re most comfortable, honing your skills at a small company, and managing your reputation, you can build the foundation for a great career. It will just be a matter of time before you’re living the dream.
Elliot Tomaeno (@elliotPR) is founder of ASTRSK, a New York PR firm that works with emerging and established technology companies. Since launch in 2012, ASTRSK has helped launch more than 150 startups and tech products and has been a part of seven exits.