What University Didn’t Teach You, But You Need to Learn
Success, however you define it, can seem so unreachable when you’re starting out in a career. It’s true that a fair amount of luck is sometimes involved, but it’s possible to set yourself up with the right skills and ideas to provide you a map for that pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
University can establish a good foundation, but traditional education systems are lagging behind these fast-changing times and your competition all have the same degree you do. To give yourself an edge and build success, you need to focus on three personal initiatives – get creative, learn how to sell and find a mentor.
The bad news is that you won’t learn these things at university, partly because universities have never taught skills like selling and also because universities have not caught up to the changing economy as it transforms from knowledge to ideas and from static to rapidly evolving.
As an example, when I finished my degree in the 80s it was straight off to a career in my field of study. I had my eyes somewhat open to other possibilities, but none of them seemed reachable, particularly those in the creative sphere.
I once had a role as an extra on the B-grade Nicole Kidman movie, Windrider. The experience got me pretty excited about doing something in film, so I approached the director for some advice. The director suggested I go and see the producer, who advised me in good faith that I seemed like a smart kid and should go get a degree and earn a decent living rather than consider anything to do films. So I did. That's how it was done back then.
Maybe I could have half starved myself and busted down the door to movie success in Hollywood, but the difference is that these days you can Google the shit out of it, take a few local classes and audition by emailing your showreel to any casting director worldwide. You don’t even need to catch a plane, let alone having to worry about feeding yourself and a roof over your head. Its just another cheap option and its all experience that counts to opening up new pathways.
These days you’re only a few clicks away from a whole bunch of new possibilities. For example, some of my younger friends are floating between study, start-ups, career moves, travel and even not for profit experiences in a way that wasn’t available a decade or two ago. I'll warn you now, exposure to new ideas like this is highly infectious.
One young mate has introduced me to the Bondi Surf Rescue team (pictured with me on my boat above) and now I lend them a hand for the annual Rottnest Channel Swim – a 19km swim race off the coast of Perth. This has introduced me to all sorts of ideas about making videos and documentaries and now I’m exploring what’s possible in the world of media. This new interest is putting me in front of a whole new community of people I’ve never accessed before.
The exciting thing is how the combination of these activities leads to new connections with people and ideas that can make things happen in an unpredictable way. The trick then becomes opening yourself up to this new world of opportunity.
Even the power of personal networks has been eroded due to social media. It’s now a lot easier to find and access people we need to know. Knowledge is important, but it’s not worth what it used to be.
Education systems haven’t evolved to accommodate this transformation, so there are still kids coming out of university concerned with how much they know. At the same time, you may have noticed that young people seem to be ruling the world with their mastery of technology, but it’s not actually their tech knowledge that has pushed them ahead. It’s the way they’re being exposed to different ideas and putting these ideas together in new ways that is giving them the edge over more senior people.
Young people often believe they are disadvantaged because their knowledge is inferior to their seniors, but they in fact have the edge because of their greater exposure to creating new ideas. This idea of creativity is not about art or random brainstormed thoughts, but about fully formed ideas backed up with data, research, critical analysis and a plan.
Becoming creative is a process that begins with a few key concepts – connecting, self-awareness, listening and empathy. You probably won’t learn this at university, and yet these skills are widely recognised as vital for creativity.
Some of the world’s top educators haven’t dropped the ball though – the most popular elective for students at the Stanford Graduate School of Business is Interpersonal Dynamics, otherwise known as the ‘touchy, feely’ course. Whilst the objective of the course is about creating more productive, professional relationships, the core skills are about self-awareness, listening and empathy. These elements also comprise the foundations of emotional intelligence, which has a strong link to good leadership.
To understand how mastering these skills can boost your creativity, imagine you’re working on creating a new product. The first thing you need to focus on is demand; you need to empathise by exploring the world from your customer’s perspective and then listen to customer feedback to guide further development. Part of the process also involves connecting with other colleagues to get a fresh perspective and new ideas, as well as having the self-awareness to determine when you’re flogging a dead horse.
It’s not just start ups that are embracing these concepts; they’re becoming critically important in traditional workplaces where employers are facilitating people from different areas to work together. Some progressive universities in the United States are now exploring new education models where students work on consulting jobs to learn how to work with others from different disciplines.
These elements are also critical in learning how to sell. Selling cops a bad rap because of its chequered history - even professional sales people don’t want to say they are selling. But the reality is, if you want to make an impact, then you need to master this skill in order to sell yourself and your ideas.
The advantages of being able to empathise, listen and be self-aware are obvious in being a good seller. Rather than trying to convince someone through various tricks to buy into what you’re selling, it’s far more effective to ask them what they want, listen carefully to identify their needs and adapt yourself and your ideas to provide a solution for them.
It takes training and practise to master these skills, so do some research online and work on opening up your point of view rather than coming to a fixed conclusion. The best training though is through mentoring.
The first project you need to work on is finding a mentor, and thankfully, the world is full of experts who would love to mentor you. You just need to have the right approach and a little courage. I’m constantly amazed at how much people are willing to help me and younger people who reach out to experts and receive a response far beyond their greatest expectations.
Mentoring is probably the most important place to start, because it’s about learning how to connect yourself with endless resources and possibilities.
My dad introduced me to David Goldstone in 2003. Once you’re a friend of David’s, he doesn’t let you go. I’m still getting a hard time if I don’t call in every week. David specialises in irritating the shit out of me and forcing the best out of me. I’m suspicious that he sees it as his own sustainable energy plan – mentoring keeps him going bright and strong.
Whilst I always enjoyed David asking me where I’d like to go in my career and how he could help get me there, his favourite phrases were: “Will the real Nick Poll please stand up?” and “Will you shut up and listen?”
I’m ashamed to say it took me a long time to really understand what he was on about. In hindsight, I think my biggest impediment was my perception of myself. Fortunately, David’s vision of me was much bigger than my own.
Since then, I’ve met with hundreds of people who have both helped me to see myself in new ways and helped me access resources I had not thought possible. Many of these opportunities have changed my life. Some people I mentor and some people mentor me. It works both ways.
There have only been one or two occasions, out of hundreds, where a mentoring request has not been possible. Most people are delighted to be a mentor. It’s through mentoring that I discovered the importance and techniques of selling and being creative. I wish I’d learnt these lessons at school.
A young engineer friend of mine enjoyed the benefits of mentoring after he graduated from university. He was very passionate about getting into well head engineering for drill holes in the oil and gas industry, but didn’t know how to find a way in. I suggested that he research an interesting technology development in the sector and contact the key experts at its forefront to ask for a chat about the industry and possible directions for him to work towards.
The concept of calling someone in this way scared the hell out of him, but he was well rewarded. He was able to get hold of a couple of very experienced guys who gave him really helpful advice for his honours thesis and helped him get a job.
The approach might seem unusual, but imagine if you were the senior manager in a company and someone contacted you with so much enthusiasm. This young hopeful would be a very logical candidate for internships and future work because this proactive approach demonstrates passion and the interest to learn.
When you make a new connection with someone in this way, you open up a new world of possibilities and take a step closer to achieving that success you previously thought out of reach. Good luck.
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About Nick Poll: With a 28-year career in mining, corporate development and entrepreneurship, Nick is an expert in business and mentoring, with a passion for helping people find their purpose and reach their full potential.