February 4, 2016

Don't let planning bog you down

There are a fortunate few who decided what they wanted to be sometime during their youth, worked hard and made that dream a reality. I know a couple doctors who fit that description. They knew they wanted to become doctors and the path to make that happen (study hard, get into medical school, intern, etc.) was clear.

Most lives, however, don’t follow such a linear and well-worn path. In fact, most people – whether in business for themselves or building a career – follow paths that they didn’t even know existed. For example, did you know that Airbnb.com started because its founders couldn’t afford rent? To earn extra money, they rented out an air mattress on the floor of their apartment in San Francisco. To generate additional revenue, they sold custom ‘Obama O’s’ and ‘Cap’n McCains’ cereal (during the 2008 election).

Personally, my life was going nowhere after high school (I barely got out of high school alive). I was throwing special events and DJing, but had no ambitions beyond living through the next couple months. My crutch was to continue going to school until I figured something out. The problem was I had no idea what I wanted to do, so I had no idea what I should take in school. I applied to a potpourri of programs – from film production to advertising. I was accepted to a couple programs. My only criteria for deciding which offer to accept? Proximity to my house. The offer that was closest to my house was a college program in marketing. To be honest, I didn’t even know what marketing was at the time.

I started attending the college marketing program and actually liked what I was doing. I started working hard and thrived. One of the courses during my program introduced some basic financial ratios (e.g. current ratio, quick ratio) and I was interested. What I found especially intriguing was that while most of my class was struggling to grasp these basic financial concepts, I absorbed the topic easily. This motivated me to learn more about finance.

I continued with my combination of marketing and finance education, pumping out a diploma, undergraduate degree, CFA designation and finally an MBA. Because I was interested in the subject matter I tried to learn as much as possible, often spending free time learning about financial history. While I was learning, I was also working. I started my career in a boutique (aka crappy) consulting firm, barely knowing what I was doing. I eventually moved into a client services role at a mutual fund company and worked my way up from there. 13 years later, I’m now a director for a product-marketing group in the mutual funds industry.

As you can see, I had no idea where I was going at the beginning. I didn’t have a master plan. Instead, my strategy was to make the most of what I was doing at the moment and build on that.

I think many people get caught up in the search for a perfect step-by-step plan to reach a predetermined end state. Because such a plan is so difficult to create (because most people don’t even know what the end state is supposed to look like) people get bogged down by planning and fail to take action. My recommendation is to get your plan to 50% and launch. You are but a tiny boat in a vast ocean and sometimes it’s best to paddle with the current. Be flexible and make the most of every wave. If you know your destination, great. If you don’t, just be the best paddler in the boat.

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