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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Getting Ahead

The Best Thing You Can Do for Your Career (That Has Nothing to Do With Your Job)

I spend a great deal of my time fielding questions from people about their careers. Specifically, people ask how to get noticed, how to get support for an entrepreneurial project in their large organization, how to get fast-tracked to management, how to get a job, promotion, or board position—you get the picture.

Most people would say that the answer to these questions is to ensure you are doing all the right things, talking to the right people and mixing in the right circles while reading the right publications and, at times, engaging in social media.

And I agree—to an extent.

It is vital to be informed and diligent. But what’s my best piece of advice to many people who are doing “all the right things” relating to their career ambitions? It doesn’t always need to be all about the career ladder you’re currently on. In fact, my advice is it may be far more valuable to get a side gig.

This can be any number of things. Good at accounting? Support a startup that can’t afford a bookkeeper with a product or service that resonates. Speak languages? Volunteer to help children or adults learning English in a local school or college. Have green fingers? Help a local urban park plant a garden. There are hundreds of organizations and individuals desperate for your help, and it is easy to find something that interests you.

I know—you’re busy. But whether you’re in a new job, studying at school or college, working as a junior in the job of your dreams, or running a large enterprise, thinking about other people’s challenges or something other than yourself will do you and your career wonders. It provides perspective, it adds skills you otherwise might not develop, and it allows you to communicate and resonate with people on a far more human level. The old adage of “all work and no play makes Jack the dull lad” rings true if most of our time is spent on work.

Yes, career focus is unequivocally important, but you are about more than just grades, academic accomplishments, and qualifications. In fact, I have always hired as much (if not more) based on a conversation as I do on someone’s resume and work experience. I will always remember my final round interview at N M Rothschild, the investment bank I eventually chose to join as a graduate. Non-executive director Lord Guthrie, the former head of the British Army, asked me about the part-time job at McDonald’s I maintained while studying at college instead of my qualifications or previous internship in a bank. Why? It demonstrated my drive and work ethic—which was what he was most interested in. For all those asking me how to stand out: That little side gig was one way I stood out in a crowded basket of undergrads desperate for a job.

More recently, in September 2014, I visited Zambia as Building Young Futures’ first business mentor. A partnership between UNICEF and Barclays, it seeks to provide financial, enterprise, and employability skills to young people in communities where opportunities are limited. This combination of an international NGO and a corporate powerhouse allows me to take my passion for entrepreneurialism and participate in some small way in changing the world for the better.

Now, I can assure you I don’t have free time to pop to Africa for field trips. I made time. And as a result, it has made me a better, more informed person on youth unemployment and, more broadly, how to assist young people seeking a better future through access to opportunity. More than one billion adolescents stand at the crossroads between childhood and adulthood, 200 million of whom are in Africa, where they are almost three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. And I saw that first hand.

That’s done many things: It’s motivated me to get more involved, it’s emphasized the importance of committed people, entrepreneurs, INGOs, and corporates working together, and it reminds me why I continue to build EnterpriseJungle, the business I co-founded. I saw how teaching basic business skills can truly change the destiny of people in isolated, challenging areas of the world.

My side gig also facilitates a powerful voice at many tables, from media to business to government. I may be building my business and be part of a cutting-edge team in big data and tech, but I also now have the opportunity to start a conversation with people on how to unlock these young people’s potential and how business can help solve problems.

Think about defining conversations you have had with people who have truly inspired you, or when you have inspired someone yourself. It is unlikely you were talking about the latest post in your trade magazine or the next industry conference you’ll be attending with colleagues next spring.

More likely, it was an unexpected interaction with someone about something else they are doing that resonated with you. Explore what’s out there to nourish your mind and soul—because I assure you that will feed a better, richer professional life too.

Photo of woman working courtesy of Shutterstock.

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