Career advice for men and women alike

I read in the Washington Post over the weekend that former Bush press secretary Dana Perino organized an event at which successful women in Washington offered career advice to aspiring young females – in 10-minute intervals so the stars-to-be could roam from booth to booth and soak up as much advice as possible.

The event was bipartisan, with the advice dispensers including, along with Perino, Dee Dee Myers, the former press secretary to President Clinton who’s now with Vanity Fair; Anita McBride, the former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush; CNN’s Candy Crowley; and NBC’s Kelly O’Donnell.

From the Post’s write-up, the advice seemed sensible enough: “Anticipate what your boss is looking for.” “Turn off the TV and read.” “Delegate.” “Never let your enemies know who they are.” And so on.

And yet, these pearls of wisdom seem limited in scope – more tactical than strategic, more detail than big picture.  Besides, it’s not just women who could use some advice from those with gray hair (figurative or otherwise).

So, in the spirit of the holidays, let me offer four big-picture principles for success for young men and women alike.  Because it’s essentially what I tell young people who seek my advice on occasion, perhaps this column will save some of them a trip to my office.  You’re welcome to visit, but you also can just read this:

Principle #1 – follow your passion: Nothing nourishes success more than enthusiasm. Decide what gets your juices flowing, what you think about when you wake up in the morning and when you go to bed at night.

Practicality has its place, of course, but it should not be the driving force behind your career path, particularly when you’re young and you don’t yet have the responsibilities that come with marriage and family.

So, for those of you who plan to attend law school because you think that a law degree would be useful, consider this: Three years, more than 1,000 days, is a long time if you have no particular passion for law. You would be well-advised to spend those three years following your passion rather than researching legal precedents.

Principle #2 – stick to it: Don’t expect success overnight. The job market is a competitive place even when the economy is healthy, and more so each day.

But here’s the good news. Success does not always come to the most talented, or those with the best connections. Success often comes to those who work the hardest. “Genius,” the inventor Thomas Edison said, “is one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

Don’t watch the clock. Instead, put in the necessary hours. Stay as long as it takes. Perseverance pays. As golfing great Ben Hogan said, “golf is a game of luck. The more I practice, the luckier I get.”

Principle #3 – keep your head down: And while you’re working hard, get it right. Avoid shortcuts. Pay attention to detail. Indeed, make it perfect.

Anyone can do an adequate job, and most people can do a good or even very good one. You need to stand out, to shine, to attract attention for the sheer special-ness of your work product. Almost isn’t good enough.

Principle #4 – keep your head up: Having said that, don’t get lost in your work. Look for opportunities to make personal connections and expand your universe. Meet someone for coffee before work or a drink after it.

The more you’re “out there,” the more you will hear about new horizons to seek, new ventures to explore. While talking to one person, you’ll meet someone else or bump into someone who you know but haven’t seen in awhile.

If you “stay in touch” solely by phone or e-mail, you will find success more elusive than if you add a face-to-face component to your networking. Woody Allen was right about one thing: “90 percent of life is just showing up.”

In sum, success might not be as easy as “shooting fish in a barrel.” But it’s not brain surgery either. It’s a combination of passion and doggedness, of doing your work as well as you can while leaving time to broaden your horizons.

But it all flows from the first principle – follow your passion. Passion will drive you to work hard, pursue excellence and seek even greater opportunities. Without passion, work will prove a chore, making success a harder goal to reach.