3 TIPS TO BUILDING A BETTER CAREER EARLY: How I grew from a struggling college student to a thriving business and community leader

My wife, LeAnne, and I first met in college–more specifically in the basement of a church. Neither of us knew how that lowly beginning would lead us to the incredible highs we’ve experienced.

We started married life like most do–student loans, little to no income, driving clunkers, and renting. It took us nearly seven years to get debt free, earning above average incomes, and having a broader impact in the community.

So what made the difference for us along the way? How did we get where we are? What critical mistakes did we avoid along the way? Spoiler alert, we made plenty of the mistakes.

Here’s what I’ve observed looking back over the past 15 years. These are the things in which I would have encouraged my younger self:

1. KEEP EXPENSES LOW EARLY AND FOR AS LONG AS YOU CAN

Not spending money is hard. We want an easier, better standard of living, and money is the shortest route to convenience and quality. As hard as it is to cut your spending, it’s doubly difficult to earn more income.

Income is the hose filling the bucket. Expenses are the holes at the bottom where the water runs out. If you can’t get a handle on your expenses, you’ll just be on the hamster wheel trying to earn more, until you eventually wear down and burn out. You’ll be exhausted along the way, and you’ll miss so much life trying to keep up. When you limit your spending to absolute necessities, you buy yourself some freedom.

For us, we had friend early on who referred us to Dave Ramsey’s book Total Money Makeover. It was a game changer. It helped us get our spending in check and plan for the future.

Whether you get on the Ramsey train, or use another similar resource like Clason’s The Richest Man in Babylon, learning and practicing basic financial best-practices will set you apart and help you build towards a better, more flexible future.

2. MEET PEOPLE, BUILD RELATIONSHIPS, AND CREATE A PERSONAL NETWORK

That guy in your group project, that account rep you talked to, so-and-so’s mom that works at that company; all of these people will very likely have a role in your career. They may end up being client, a coworker who could refer you to an open position in their company, or your future boss. Your best bet is to consider them all as valuable and important to your journey.

If you slack on the project, act rude on the phone call, or develop a bad reputation as a human, you may be burning a very important bridge for your career later on.

Most hiring managers start by exploring their immediate networks: who they know, who their people know, and so-on. In fact you’re statistically much more likely to land a job through a relationship as opposed to a blind application. HBR reports that 48% of candidates are found through employee referrals.

If you want to set yourself up well for success, meet the people you’re around; get to know them and let them know you. Get contact details and send an occasional message asking a question, encouraging the person, or setting up a time to grab coffee or lunch. Investing time and energy in relationships will pay big dividends.

If you’re really in the dark about how to grow in this area, consider starting with some of the all-time greats like Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People or Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

3. LEARN SKILLS THAT HAVE A HIGH MARKET VALUE

“Underwater basket weaving.” “Philosophy and Star Trek.” These are two actual courses you could take in college. What’s the market value someone would pay you for that expertise? Nothing. At least for most of us. Call me when you’ve built up that luxury, hand-crafted basket product line or cashed in on your philosophy lecture series.

Find out what the current economy values, or better yet what tomorrow’s economy is predicted to value, and learn that skill set.

I started my career as an audio engineer running sound for live events. Once I discovered that working in smokey clubs until 3am wasn’t the life I wanted, I went back to the drawing board. I pursued a personal calling of mine to one day plant a church, so I earned a degree in Christian Ministry. If you’re not familiar, most churches are planted by bi-vocational pastors who work a normal job while serving the church to get it off the ground.

Through a friend of mine, I got plugged into the world of computers and began teaching myself I.T. It turned out that working with computers pays pretty well, and I found myself climbing the ladder as I continued to learn more, receiving promotions, and earning higher salary. Eventually, I made it all the way to an executive position as the I.T. Director of a local credit union.

I took risks and wasn’t afraid of learning a new skill set–one that was more highly valued in the marketplace. Going back to my point above, all my opportunities along the way came through personal relationships I had built along the way–every single one.

WHAT ABOUT YOU?

What tips would you offer others to help their career?

Is there any advice you wish you had heard earlier on?

Leave me comment below.

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