I started my first job 20 years ago.
The world was very different then: Facebook and Gmail didn’t exist; mobile phones weren’t yet ubiquitous and everyone knew what a beeper was; and September 11th had just happened and the NYC people know and accept today was not the NYC of my childhood and first two weeks of college. The first two weeks of my freshman year of college was the NYC of my childhood and then came September 11th. NYC was forever different afterwards, and it was during this time of great disruption that I started my first professional job.
My first job was stuffing envelopes. And just to prove that where you start isn’t necessarily the determinant of where you go; at that same job, a year later I was on my first business trip at the age of 19 to run a non-profit conference; two years after that I ran my first remote team; and now 20 years later, I’m the CFO of an ambitious, hopefully disruptive, startup that will significantly accelerate the adoption of EVs in the US.
So 37,000+ hours from Day 1, I’d like to share some observations which I hope prove useful to at least one person out there who is on the same great career journey.
1. Decide, even when the decision is to do nothing. There are so many things in life that happen to us; it literally starts from the day we’re born! We didn’t choose that, it happened to us and now here we are. And we spend a lot of our young life still living that way and for the most part, many of us go along with it. But, as soon as you can, start deciding. Where do you want to work? Where do you want to live? What type of work do you want to do? In the moment, these decisions can be hard, but choose for yourself, and in hindsight, you’ll be glad to have trained that muscle.
2. “How” sometimes matters more than “what”. I’ve had a series of phone calls recently with fellow founders, startup execs, and mentors, and we keep asking ourselves: what matters more? The outcome or how we got there? How much does the process actually impact the outcome? Here’s a thought: maybe what matters more is how it feels than what happens because so much of what happens is outside of our control. No one can predict the future (hey, COVID anyone?!), but when you do things honestly, transparently, and with true collaboration, it develops into real trust, respect, and resilience between people and teams – those things lead to swift and coherent reaction to external events. The failure to actually practice these values, and not just discuss them, means it will all eventually crumble, sooner or later.
3. People first. Always. People do the work, whether it’s someone on the assembly line or a developer writing the code. People buy products and services. Why? Because it solves something for them.
Step back and ground yourself in this fact. If you’re thinking about the individual person on the other side of the table from you, the person who works for you, the person who is buying your product, and figure out what value you can bring to them, I believe it creates better, more equitable, more long-term valuable outcomes.
4. Know your why. We all have a limited number of hours in the day and a limited time here on this planet; we mostly know the former and never know the latter. Why are you doing this specific job and not another? Why are you living in this specific place and not another? I just mentioned people first above: you matter in that, too, perhaps most of all. Why this for you? When we talk about decisions, knowing your why is a really good way to help you make those decisions. I believe it’s fundamental to success and happiness.
5. Keep moving forward. “Some days you’re the bug. Some days you’re the windshield.” No matter what, either peel yourself off or wipe it off, and keep it moving.
I’ve had losses and things I would change: maybe I should have gone to law school or business school. Maybe I should have stayed at a job another year; maybe I should have left at the end of the first week. Maybe I should have said X and not Y.
Maybe I was unfairly treated, disrespected, and marginalized for the color of my skin or my gender. Maybe I was right; maybe I was wrong; maybe [fill in the blank] — but, you cannot change the past. While revenge fantasies make for good movies and spiky after-work kvetching and drink sessions, they don’t move your ball forward.
Why waste your precious time, mental space, and energy on rehashing and delving into an immutable past when in front of you is a constantly renewing and ever-possible future? Embrace the moments in front of you. Embrace the opportunity to create things and bring fresh ideas to life. Learn the lessons that can be learned from past experiences, but lighten your load and just step into your future.
From now into the next
At the end of 2020, I started working on a project with Sunil Paul and Martin Lagod: how could we accelerate the adoption of EVs? That project turned into a company, Spring Free EV, which we launched together in 2021. As the CFO of this new startup, I describe my job as making sure the trains run on time every day, while we also keep adding more trains, more routes, and laying more track every day, too.
I’m always busy but I love it because I know my why: how can I do my part to use the skills, talents, and gifts I’ve been given, and all of my finance experience from the last 17 years to help everyday people live the lives they want to live? How do I help this industry create the world that I want to live in, a world that makes accessible the infrastructure, assets, and services to help people live a good life?
That remains a constantly renewable, ever-possible why. Or at least for another 20 years, I’d bet.