simple (but not easy) advice


Over the past few months, I've had a number of people ask me basically how I managed to get to where I am now--doing work that's professionally and personally interesting and challenging. Since I never really had a master plan for professional advancement, it's been a challenge to try to reconstruct my process in a way that could be translated into advice for others.

Today I had coffee with a friend-of-a-friend, and I realized that all this thinking had resulted in a few specific pieces of advice. Seems worth sharing those via the blog.

The first, and most critical thing--at least for me--was to always look for and take jobs that were a little (or even a lot) beyond what I thought I could do. It often felt like I was bullshitting my way in the door, but once I got there I worked my ass off to do what I'd been hired to do. I learned RS-232 cable pinouts on the fly when I took a computer support job back in '87 and said "of course I can design and help install a computer network." I leveraged that networking experience into my job interview at RIT, where I told them confidently that of course I could teach introductory networking classes...and then spent most of my first year barely an hour ahead of my students. (Turns out teaching is less about knowing it all, and more about knowing how to connect other people up with what they need...although it's a helluva lot easier once you know the material well!) There are plenty of other examples. Really, every job I've ever had was something that I went into without all the knowledge I needed, and then had to push myself to grow into, quickly.

Doing that has a number of rewards associated with it. First, you learn a lot, quickly--because if you don't, you'll be out of a job even more quickly. Second, you get a great confidence boost when you pull it off despite your own doubts and fears. Third, that confidence boost shows in your interactions with others, and you get a reputation for being both fearless and dependable. Saying "yes" to the hard (and occasionally unpleasant) tasks makes people see you as the "go to girl" (or guy), which is a good reputation to have...and when interesting and enjoyable opportunities open up, you'll then be the first one they think of.

This really isn't unlike the advice I've seen given for any kind of sports or physical fitness activity--to push a little beyond what you think you can do, which will get you further than you expected every time.

The other important pice of advice is to take interpersonal networking very seriously. One of the biggest stress points in my relationship with my family is the amount of time I spend traveling to conferences. And the reason I keep doing it, despite that stress, is that so many of the best opportunities that have come my way in recent years have been a direct result of meeting and talking with someone at a conference. My job at MSR? A result of attending the first social computing symposium? My invitation to the symposium? A result of meeting Clay Shirky at Supernova (I think...or a similar conference). It's all connected. Carving out the time and money to attend conferences, and then taking full advantage of that attendance to meet and talk with people I respect, pays off handsomely over time.

So that's it. Simple--but not easy--advice. It's the best distillation I can come up with of how I got to this point in my career.


Thanks for this, Liz - very great advice that I think I needed to read :)

If you really want to take this concept to town, try reading "Yes Man" by Danny Wallace. He decided to say "yes" to EVERYTHING for a year. It is light humour, but actually changed my outlook on life, too. (

Ha! I took one of those introductory network classes from you that fist year... You sounded like you knew what you were talking about to me!

I did spend half the quarter thinking an "ATM network" was what kept the cash machines talking to each other, but that was my own darn fault. ;)

Totally my strategy also. I am a quick learner and love the thrill/challenge of steeping into the unknown. So far have not bitten off more then I can chew....

Frank...I actually hesitated about writing some of this post because I knew past students would see it! I wasn't completely without knowledge of the domain, but I was unprepared for the depth of knowledge I'd need in order to be able to teach it well. Steve Jacobs kept reminding me that I needed to start by mastering the Jedi Mind Tricks of teaching. :)

Now that I primarily teach in areas where I have some depth of knowledge, I find that teaching is far less stressful and more enjoyable. You can't teach extemporaneously when you don't know the material intimately. _can_ teach, and I learned so very much by having to get here the way that I did.

Hey Liz - it's another RIT faculty member - this post really resonates with my own experience. I totally enjoy your blog - there are hair-pulling times too, but it works in the long run for me.

I think that stretching and playing the edges are important, and agree that teaching is the best way to learn something.

However, you model more than stretching and learning and networking, but also honesty, openness and vulnerability. I don't know if you would want to include these qualities / strategies as explicit advice to others, but I know that your consistent display of these characteristics -- IRL and in your blog (not that there is a significant difference) -- have emboldened and empowered me ... probably for better and worse :-).

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This page contains a single entry by Liz Lawley published on June 25, 2006 11:10 AM.

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