The Week of Why: Why do I have to start at the bottom?

by Randy Murray on March 29, 2010

This week we’ll be answering some big questions. Here’s the list in advance:

  • Why do I have to start at the bottom?
  • Why do I have to practice?
  • Why do businesses need to blog and tweet?
  • Why do I need to read stuff other than blogs and business books?
  • Why do I need a strategic plan?

For today: Why do I have to start at the bottom?

This is a particularly difficult idea, especially for young people, but as many of us shift and change careers we might be faced with this question more than once in life. Let’s take a close look. When you start in a new endeavor, why do you need to start at the bottom?

You’re fresh out of school; you’re bursting with energy and ideas. You might be interested in a field that’s brand new. So why aren’t people giving you a chance? Why aren’t they hiring you and paying you the big bucks? Or you’ve been working in one field for years and now you’re trying something new. Why do you suddenly have to start over?

I get asked this question a lot, especially by people who want to enter a creative field like writing, or from people who want to work as freelancers.

And here’s how I answer them:

  1. You may be too smart for your own good.
  2. You’re not as smart or as good as you think you are.

One of the things I regret most in my career is that from the start I was thrust into jobs and tasks too soon, long before I really knew what I was doing. It was like learning to swim by being thrown off the end of the dock. I learned a lot of interesting things, but I also made a lot of mistakes and had to reinvent the wheel more than once. I remember one exciting day while I was working at Bell Labs and someone sold a third party piece of software to a customer and quickly discovered that I was the only person in the company who knew anything about it – and I had just been messing about with it for lack of anything better to do. The next thing I knew, I was on a plane to LA and thinking about how to structure a week-long class on the product. I muddled through and didn’t do too badly, but I would have been much better off if I’d spent some time learning to run a product training classroom and been tutored by someone who had experience. I still feel sorry for those poor people in that class. I know how to do it now and would never put an inexperienced person in that position, even if they knew the product. Why? Because it’s not just about knowing the product: it’s about knowing how to train adults. Without both product knowledge AND experience in training you can’t give those students the best training experience.

But being smart, creative, and energetic may put you on the front line too soon. Frankly, many of the people around you may have none of those characteristics and that may thrust you into the forefront. Or you may feel it should. But you still need experience. And to get it, you may have to work long and hard in a low paying/no paying position.

And I’m telling you that it’s worth it. Working with an individual or team who’s been on the job for years will reveal things you wouldn’t be able to learn any other way. They’ll know what works, what doesn’t, and have deep insights into their customers, processes, and motivations. You may feel that your fresh knowledge invalidates all of that, but that’s rarely the case.

And it doesn’t matter how old you are or how much experience you have in one field. As you enter a new line of work, the best thing you can do is find yourself a mentor, a tutor. Find someone who can help you learn and learn quickly. I’m almost fifty years old and I have had several mentors and tutors.

Which brings us to one more thing that it’s difficult for the young to learn: you can always be better.

No matter how good you are, continue seeking out those who can make you better, stronger, and add to your experience. Over the years I’ve hired a lot of people. One of the things I looked for was how they were pursuing more training and education and where they were working on their skills. If I was hiring a new programmer and two candidates were equally skilled, I’d pick the one who was taking a cooking class or showing any sign of continuing to pursue new skills.

But it takes time to develop skills. We’ll talk tomorrow about why you need to practice and why it takes time to develop skills and talent.

I’m interested in hearing about your experience. How did you develop your skills and talents? Did you start off on your own or did you have help? Did you work your way up from the mailroom or did you start at the executive suite? What did you learn as an apprentice? Please share your stories in the comments below.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 natevw March 29, 2010 at 11:10 pm

Thanks Randy, this was helpful food for thought. When I started a Mac software company, I hoped in the back of my mind that within a year or two I’d be one of those fellows who spend half their time flying around to speak at tech conferences and buying the latest shiny toys.

This turned out not to be the case, and your post highlights one of the many blessings of my business sitting alone in infancy while I learn important life lessons.


2 Randy Murray March 30, 2010 at 7:26 am

Been there, pal. It can be frustrating, but there’s a lot of value in succeeding slowly. I’ve also seen instant success lead to instant failure – too many to count.

Good luck to you!



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