I’m a firm believer that real-world experience is as valuable, if not more valuable, that classroom experience.
That’s not to suggest that a traditional education is unnecessary; a proper foundation is essential. However, practical experience allows you to hone your trade with more substantive work. It reveals areas of interest (or disinterest). It provides a leg up; a solid education alongside solid experience sets you apart.
Most importantly, it allows you to forge connections that can fundamentally shape your career.
The best of these connections will be mentors. They come in many forms. Some older, some younger. Some bold, others mild. Some overt, some more subtle. Embrace them all. Mentors share their experience, their mistakes. They help you see things in a different light. They provide stability and reassurance.
Later in my career, a mentor taught me an unexpected lesson: he stepped aside.
The environment changes. We grow into new roles and assume new responsibilities. We inevitably encounter situations (opportunities) where we’re forced to step from the shadow of a mentor and take the lead.
It’s scary to take the reigns. It’s easy to make choices when you have reliable support. It’s easy to make decisions when you have someone to validate them. In these situations: observe, absorb, learn.
When the scaffolding of a mentor is removed, when we bear the full weight of responsibility, lean on what you have learned.
Below are a few of the “learnings” that helped me to find my own footing:
Make decisions. You don’t have to be right and you shouldn’t pretend to be so. That said, indecisiveness will inevitably lead to confusion, churn, and inefficiency within your team. Do what you think is right. If you’re unsure, discuss it with your team, your peers, or your boss. But make decisions and move forward.
Recognize that you have limitations. You don’t need to know your weaknesses. They will reveal themselves over time. Acknowledging that you will make mistakes, up front, can make them a whole lot easier to swallow when they do occur. The quicker you get over them, the quicker you can learn something from them. When you make mistakes, own them. Your team will respect the integrity and you’ll be a stronger leader for it.
Introspect. Most importantly, reflect. Reflect on your successes and failures. Both are rarely as monumental as you’d expect but they are valuable never-the-less. What worked? What didn’t? Why? What could be done better next time?
Find another mentor. There is always something new to learn and there are always new teachers to be found. Keep your eyes peeled for new avenues to grow. You never know when they’ll present themselves.