21 year ago, when I took my first job, my sources of inspiration were my parents, my brothers, and my high school/college friends. My father who is 78 years old today still works harder than any of us and is the most diligent and sincere worker I know. My mother who is a homemaker keeps giving selflessly without ever expecting anything in return. My two elder brothers inspired me to have a growth mindset. Peers from my all-girls college were courageous and had big dreams to take on the world. I walked away to start my career inspired by my surroundings with some of these principles in mind: work hard, dream big, give selflessly, and I am grateful for the inspiration they provided me. For most folks, the people who have surrounded them while growing up shape their principles when starting their career.

But I wish I had known some things that are never really said or taught. You just have to learn through experience over the years.

So, here are just some simple lessons I wish I knew back then:

1) Save some time to step back

For the first few years of our careers, the one constructive feedback that keeps coming up during performance reviews is -“you are not strategic enough”. We wonder what does that even mean when we know that we have critical thinking capabilities. There is no clear answer and we rarely hear our managers say “You got to do X to be more strategic.” But the real culprit is our love for execution — we spend all our time executing project after project and striking off to-do lists.

So, it is important to give yourself a bit of time to step away from execution and question what you are trying to accomplish. Think of all the stakeholders involved, who you are solving for, and why it is important.  

Don’t blindly work long hours on completing projects assigned to you. Save some time for you to ask the right questions and see the bigger picture.

“The big picture doesn’t just come from distance, it also comes from time” — Simon Sinek

2) Proactively ask – “How am I doing?”

Verbally ask this to not just your manager but also your peers and yourself. It is so easy to forget this simple question not because we don’t want feedback but we get too busy executing the job at hand. It is crucial that you don’t ask for the sake of asking — truly care that you want to hear and act on their feedback. In fact, hunt down people who would genuinely criticize you — that would enable you to disrupt yourself. Don’t forget to express gratitude if someone takes the time to give feedback as that is the best gift one can get to accelerate their career. Generally one doesn’t proactively ask for feedback – not because they don’t want it but because one feels like it is somehow understood or has been communicated already.

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” — George Bernard Shaw

3) Curious? – Just ask the question

I remember sitting in meetings debating whether to ask a question or not and wondering if it is too dumb. Just then, someone else will ask the same question and I will lament why I was holding back. If you have put some thought – nothing wrong in asking because there may be others who might benefit from it too.

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing.” — Albert Einstein

4) Raise your hand to do more collaborative work

Even if you are really buried with loads of work, push yourself and volunteer for projects to expose yourself to work with different people (especially the ones that are cross-functional). Why? Because it is not the projects but the people who are core to your learning.

“Everyone you will ever meet knows something you don’t” — Bill Nye

5) Give context. Ask for context.

This is really important. Leaders should be setting context but sometimes they are too busy and one shouldn’t be shy to ask if is not provided. And every time you want to get your point across, state your intention by giving sufficient details and background. Share how it ties to the overall objectives. Don’t assume everyone is on the same page. They never are.

“Reality is not a function of the event as event, but of the relationship of that event to past, and future, events.” — Robert Penn Warren