Over the decade, I’ve been blessed to work a variety of different jobs with a diverse group of people. I’ve gone from retail store manager to a publicly traded company, to a growing startup while acquiring my MBA somewhere in between. During that time, I’ve worked with some exceptionally talented, hardworking people who all had two characteristics in common: curiosity and tenacity. There are two phrases you’ll never hear them say during a conversation or meeting, “I don’t know” and some form of “that’s going to be too difficult” respectively. However, I firmly believe that ignorance and level of difficulty should never be adequate reasons for refusing to solve real business problems.
I recently read Raghav Haran’s Career Advice No One Tells You in which he asserts “having the right mentor is the real key… And you’ll avoid the mistakes that keep others stuck for years on end.” He couldn’t have been more correct. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received from a superior was, “remove the phrase I don’t know from your vocabulary.” This mentor wasn’t insisting that I know everything. In fact, he was adamant that I couldn’t, even though I thought I did at 20. Instead, he encouraged me to always use the phrase “let me look into that for you.” This small change in my expression of ignorance had a profound effect on my career moving forward. Not only was I expressing a desire to learn that which I did not know, but I was holding myself accountable for getting back to others with the information they desired because I had promised I would. I’ve worked with several exceptionally bright people and all of them amplify their natural intelligence by being the most curious person in the room. I’ve seen retail managers find their passion by mentoring teenage sales associates and MBA graduates learn how to code on the fly, and both become extremely successful in their fields because they had a passion to learn.
Being curious requires a certain level of tenacity to research problems even if the answer and data are not always clear. Due to the amount of data available in today’s business climate, it often takes an immense amount of hard, tedious work to get the results we want. The most successful people I’ve seen in my young career are those who know the hurdles ahead and regardless still tackle the task at hand. I don’t want to confuse the amount of resources (cost) of a project with amount of effort that goes into solving a problem; great business people consider ROI almost naturally. However, it is human nature to be confronted with a complex problem and naturally respond, “this is going to be difficult.” I encourage everyone to reject this natural notion.
I’m often reminded of a summer working with my electrician uncle in California when I’d follow him around the Bay Area for a few extra bucks. We spent an entire blistering summer day changing lightbulbs at a low-income apartment complex. When I asked why we were doing this instead of the more complicated (and to me, fun) jobs we’d been working on previously, his response stuck with me, “there are a lot of lightbulbs that need to be changed, and people who want to pay me to do it.” The very best of my peers and mentors always had the inclination to encourage myself and others to immerse themselves in the problem regardless of difficulty or level of enjoyment even from an early age.
Hard-work and curiosity often go hand-in-hand. It’s rare in today’s specialized economy that an individual possess all of the skills required to solve a problem. Yet, those who do solve the problem, or get the closest for their company, are those who are willing to learn a new skill, dust off an old one they haven’t used in years, or execute on the mundane. While my career post-grad school might be in its infancy, I’ve worked with an extremely diverse group of people with varying skill-sets. However, all of the most successful had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge and the work ethic to solve any problem before them.
Be curious. Be tenacious. Stay hungry.