Don’t Fall Off the Ladder

LinkedIn has been positioning itself as a forum for career discussion, including, most recently, their series called If I Were 22, on what advice you would give to your 22-year-old self. The flinging of advice to the unknown crowds can be tricky, though.

Photo by jacq.mag on Flickr

Photo by jacq.mag on Flickr

The series is viewed as a kind of virtual commencement speech. While some of the articles are a decent read, most are formulaic variations on “work isn’t everything,” “find your passion,” “take risks,” and “don’t be arrogant.” Honestly, we’ve heard all of these before. They’re as old as The Golden Rule.

Life, as most people realize, has its ups and downs. What fewer seem to understand, however, is that advice is not a “one size fits all” solution–especially regarding careers–and one person’s “up” can be another person’s “down.” With the way the economy changes and the job market changes, things that may look like good advice on the surface may be difficult to implement in practice. Or may be irrelevant to your path entirely. (Note that the posts on LinkedIn are all from people who, it’s safe to say, are phenomenally successful.)

So for this exercise to be of value, it needs to have a whiff of some universal truths but not be cliché.

That said, I would like to take a stab at my own advice to my young self, and perhaps to anyone else living in the “real” world. Feel free to add your own to the comments.

1. Get your hands out of your pockets: I think one of the hardest transitions people face in their young lives is the change from having things done for them to doing things for others. My first real job was with a roofing company. I was just 18. One cold morning, I was on a jobsite, standing with my hands in my pockets. “Get your hands out of your pockets and help out,” the head roofer told me. I protested that my hands were cold. He said too bad, get busy, you’ll be fine.

He was right, my hands are fine to this day. Don’t worry about cold or dirty hands, if what you’re doing is constructive and helps others.

2. If you want something, you must speak up: Another difficult transition is from being told what to do to finding your own way. One of my early jobs was as a waiter in a restaurant in Hanover, N.H. I saw that the next step was working behind the bar, and after a few months a bartender position opened up. I was not offered the promotion–it was not even discussed with me. Later, I spoke with my manager about it. He said he had no idea I was even interested.

If you want something, you have to tell someone. They can’t read your mind. If you have something to say, say it. Nobody’s going to say it for you.

3. Don’t fall off the ladder: The roofing company took me to many different places and many new situations. One time, I was assigned to assist one of the roofers to fix a low spot in a flat, tar-and-gravel roof where water was pooling. This required that we build up the low spot, tar it over, and cover it with gravel. The sacks of gravel were heavy–about 80 pounds–and we had to get them onto the roof. I’m not a big guy, so I was maxed out just lifting the bag. Then I had to climb a ladder with it over my shoulder. About midway up I started to fall backwards. The roofer saw this and intervened, steadying the bag and the ladder. “Don’t be stupid,” he told me afterward. “The gravel doesn’t matter. If you’re about to fall off the ladder, just let it go.”

Keep your priorities balanced. Know what’s worth hanging on to and what you can let go.


These three things–get your hands busy, speak up for yourself, and keep things in balance–have been my touchstones for the past 20 years. I don’t always follow my own advice, I’ll admit. But when I feel myself in a jam, they help me find my way through.

What is your advice to your young self? Leave a comment.



  1. Michelle at The Green Study

    I always think those articles that talk about finding your passion miss the mark in not emphasizing that you have to do a lot of dispassionate work and make a lot of mistakes before finding one’s so-called passion. Resiliency is more important than nearly any other talent – how do you react to failure? How do you adapt after mistakes?

      • Michelle at The Green Study

        That’s a good question and one I’ve thought a lot about as a parent. It seems like children can be taught how to deal with failure, how to ask “what’s the next step” questions and how to frame loss or disappointment in such a way that doesn’t defeat them, but it seems personality-dependent as well.

Let me know what you think.

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