Early Stage Career Boosters For People With MVP Potential

This post by Bing Gordon first appeared in Fast Company, 1/22/13

It isn’t just athletes who fail to live up to their early potential — if you are a “high draft choice” in life, you have a responsibility to focus your gifts.

One of my pleasures is watching and helping younger people develop from high potentials into young leaders. Former NHL hockey player and Wayne Gretzky’s one-time roommate Geoff Courtnall once told me that the formula for winning the Stanley Cup was an equal measure of veterans who deliver and emerging rookies who overachieve. I believe that most healthy organizations, like hockey teams, need the excitement and energy of youth.

In ice hockey, as in life, hall of fame careers usually start fast. Wayne Gretzky was the NHLMVP at age 19, and Bill Gates, the Gretzky of software, founded Microsoft at age 20. If you are a “high draft choice” in life, you have some responsibility to focus your gifts. It isn’t just athletes who fail to live up to their early potential.

I have always had regrets that I didn’t start working in business until I was 28. I always felt just a little behind the power curve.

After decades of hiring and promoting high school and college grads, I have seen that those who get the most opportunities also start fast. They overachieve in their first weeks. They ask the best questions, and always seem to have good ideas bubbling out of them. And, as one successful Hollywood producer once told an entry-level agent, “Work as hard as you can, and then work harder.”

On reflection, there are a few things I did well in my own 20s. I lived the “liberal arts life,” the most priceless education, wandering through several careers and geographies. But for a few twists of fate, I could just as easily have been a commercial fisherman in Australia as a video game VP of marketing. I would say, “Try stuff.” Figure out what you like doing every day, and then always achieve within the possibilities of stuff you love to do.

Be optimistic and energetic every day. It’s surprising how far this takes you. In the networked world, opportunities come to those who empower others.

But there are also a few things I wish I had done differently. The number one piece of advice I would share is to recruit a mentor. Find someone you admire who is at least one generation older, and has no direct authority over you. Lack of context and perspective can cost you months and years, with a bad career choice, an unwise relocation, short-term negotiating posture, and, generally speaking, sophomoric thinking. Jeff Brenzel, dean of admissions at Yale, has the best advice on how to recruit a mentor: “All professors desire acolytes; so carry their favorite book of theirs under your arm, and go introduce yourself with a question about their book.”

Find heroes, and study them closely. My business hero was the adman David Ogilvy, because he was a writer and researcher as well as business founder, and wrote books to pass along his knowledge. For many new Internet entrepreneurs, Jeff Bezos of Amazon is a great choice. Read all the shareholder letters from Amazon annual reports. Reid Hoffman wrote a cool book, The Start-Up of You. John Madden wrote books about football, a syllabus about coaching, and inspired a 25-year video game franchise. An achiever who explains can be your pole star.

Gain knowledge in two areas, not one. You will find that many innovations arise at the intersection of disciplines, like video games, genetics, electronic books, iPhones, and hip-hop. Be a lifelong learner, and never shut out feedback. And, while you’re at it, become conversant in the computer science of data structures, statistics, and user interface. They are manipulatives of your future.

Finally, write down your ideas and plans, then take them out and reflect on them several times yearly. Memory lies, and mis-remembering is a weak foundation for education. Intellectual laziness puts your life at risk.

And, if you are lucky, pay your luck forward to the next generation, and the next. Giving is the gift that keeps on giving.