What I learned... (plus new comments section)
First note is that we’ve opened up a comment section on the blog, as I’d like you all to engage and participate more on the website itself. This will be a first small step and we’ll look at adding other mechanisms down the road. The comments section will be moderated (by me), so please be kind, considerate, on topic with regards to your posts and a bit patient as I won’t always be able to moderate them immediately.
Now that I’ve shared with you my own background, I’m going to jump right in to the lessons I’ve learned over the years in developing my career. None of this is necessarily unique to the water space and, believe me, even after almost 20 years after doing my first internship, I’m still learning things all the time. I can’t believe I just wrote that I’ve been doing anything professionally for almost 20 years.
For me, the best piece of advice I ever received was from my German advisor during my first internship in Mendoza, Argentina. As I mentioned in the first part of my background blog, I was doing some investigative research into a proposed aqueduct for the city. I went, reluctantly, late one evening to one of the local government offices to see if I could get some information and maybe set up an interview, not thinking anything would come of the visit. But, when I arrived, I happened to walk into the start of a meeting on the proposed aqueduct with all the key players. Wow. They invited me to sit down and observe the meeting, which I was surprised that they allowed me to do, some strange 20-year old gringo student. It was just straight, dumb luck and was extremely valuable for the project. When I excitedly told my advisor about it the next morning, he just said to me, “You see? Those who move create their own luck”.
I haven’t questioned that ever since, because it’s true. If you put yourself out there, things happen. Serendipity occurs. Luck is created. Exposure creates opportunities where none were before. You have to go out there and not wait for things to come to you.
Find a mentor(s)
You can probably tell from my previous posts that I’m a big proponent of mentors. I’ve had them since high school and continue to lean on people for advice and guidance still today. There is always experience and knowledge out there that people are willing to share to help you along your way. Because I’ve had a great mentors, I try to be the same, because I know how much it’s helped me out over the years.
So, find a mentor. Find five. Different people can help you with different aspects of your life and work. Some are better at education advice, others with making hard decisions and yet others who see either the big picture or the small one. Some are good at process and others at the fine, technical details. People want to help (and also people like being asked advice :) ), so, again, don’t hesitate to reach out.
Build relationships, build community
When I attempted to create the failed Young Professionals’ Association on Transboundary Waters back more than a decade ago, I did so for one primary reason: these were the people I thought I would be working with the for the next 30+ years. While not entirely true, as people drop off and move on to other things, a good chunk of those people I was discussing that with I still interact with a few times a year. Some a lot more. But, it’s not only about work and water. It’s about life, family and everything else. Colleagues have become more than just that over the years and many I consider close friends, people who I have visited and vacationed with.
Not everyone likes to mix work in this way, and that’s 100% okay, but it has worked for me and leads me to do things like this website and other convening activities. People ask me all the time whether I would consider leaving water to work in another field. I’m not against the idea at all, but why I do like to work with water is that I thoroughly enjoy the people I work with, the community I’ve built. The end result is that work doesn’t seem so much like work anymore.
“Work smarter, not harder”
This was a nugget from my firefighting days. When you’re digging line in hot weather next to a raging fire, you want to expend the least amount of energy in the most effective way possible. This is no different from any other kind of work. I believe in working hard all the time, but it’s important to work hard efficiently and not to work harder only to be inefficient at the task. It takes time to understand what best way that is for you. And, if you’re supervising people, to understand what that is for them. The other little nugget from firefighting that is not so much advice as something to understand and internalize: “The only constant is change”. Learn to adapt!
There will always be another great job
This took me a while to learn, but you probably see potential dream jobs and think that you can’t miss out on them. That another great one will never come around again. But, it’s okay, because there will always be another one. Life is cyclical. There will always be more jobs to apply to (I will do my best to ensure that) and don’t get too down if one doesn’t work out. Something else will pop up. And, your life changes over time as do what you want/like and what your goals are, so a dream job two years ago might not be the same now. So, just be patient.
Work-life balance is crucial
If you want to save the world, and help other people, you have to take care of yourself too and that means maintaining a good work-life balance. There is always work. There is always a lot of important work. And that will be the case forever. But, burnout is not the way to get things done. You do have to sprint sometimes, but water work is a marathon. So, enjoy the ride. Especially, because water work, if you choose it to be, can allow you to travel anywhere.
Don't be afraid to talk to anyone
I don't care if they are a minister, the director of a program, someone well-known in the water community or whoever, don't be nervous or afraid to talk to anyone. They are just people. Yes, some may ignore you or treat you like you're small, but who cares? The far majority of people will engage with you. I know it can be uncomfortable, as I was there at one point as well, but once you realize most people are pretty down to earth and will chat with you, you get used to trying to speak to anyone.
No matter how good you are, no matter how smart you are or educated you are, try to be humble. I won’t elaborate too heavily on this one, but to state it simply, just personally (and for many people), my conversations with you will last much longer if you show confidence without having to brag (or humblebrag!).
Learn another language
This is probably clear from my last post, but this can create opportunities and options for you like it did for me. Two finalists for an international job where everything else is equal. One speaks French and the other doesn’t. It’s a no-brainer. It’s all about adding to your competitive advantage. And, not just that. Life is just easier at work if you can speak other languages, because in international jobs, you are interacting with people all the time who are not of your own culture. It goes a long way in building relationships with other people.
So, for a first crack at the comments, what is the best career advice that you’ve ever received or what have you learned?