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Best Advice: To Launch a Career, Just Say YES, Then Do Your Homework

The best way to jumpstart a career is to say “yes” to every opportunity that comes along, whether it seems like it’s way over your head or not worth doing. Then once you’ve said yes, no matter what the task is, do all the homework you possibly can to ensure you do a good job.

It seems one of the challenges facing young people entering work today is the paradox of choice — no obvious path and infinite possibilities. I know too many Ivy league college graduates who found themselves paralyzed by their own potential — preferring to say “no” to both grunt work and daunting challenges, while waiting for the Goldilocks “just right” fit. What I learned, while taking the best advice I ever received, is I at least, could only find out what I wanted to do, by doing it.

My first job out of college was working as a reporter at Fortune Magazine for then Editor-at-Large, now Managing Editor, Andy Serwer. As the youngest reporter on Fortune’s staff, I was assigned to apprentice to Andy, to conduct interviews and do all range of research for him, while writing articles of my own. Andy was a font of knowledge and an inspiration, as he juggled a bi-monthly column in the magazine, cover stories, a daily e-newsletter (predating the idea of a ‘blog’) and regular TV appearances on CNN.

Andy, busy with his high-powered juggle, started to throw projects my way, asking me to write his Street Life e-newsletter, and then appear on TV to talk about stories I’d written and others in the magazine. At 21, fresh out of school, I was anxious to forestall that moment in my career where I would find myself out of my depth.

Andy’s advice was simple: Just say YES, take on the challenge, no matter how big. If I was anxious about being able to pull it off, just treat it like an important assignment in college — do enough research to make myself feel like a mini-expert, ready to write a term paper. Andy’s message: just do the work. Nothing was rocket science: Not the column about that day’s stock market movements to be written in an hour, not the TV appearances, not the deep dive into SEC documents.

And as for those tasks that seem menial or boring, the advice is the same. Say “yes” and do your homework. And no matter how boring the task seems, it’s worth digging deep and doing your homework, because you never know what you might learn and how it might help you later.

He was totally right. Saying “yes” to doing TV appearances was terrifying. And I made plenty of mistakes. But pretty soon, I fell in love with it. And all the dry, “boring” homework of my duller assignments provided me a foundation in the breakneck world of financial reporting —how to calculate the value of a private company, how to read SEC Form 4s, and so on.

So say YES, no matter what the ask, and put in the elbow grease.

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