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Join a gang, spend time in a juvenile detention center, and drop out of high school. That type of track record should set the average guy up for a lifetime behind bars, not behind a desk in a corner office.
But Ryan Blair isn’t your average guy.
The 36-year-old CEO of the supplement marketing company ViSalus has channeled the by-products of a less-than-perfect past—strong survival instinct, a “nothing to lose” mind set—into a career that centers on taking risks and reaping big rewards when he gets things right.
If you’re curious about the steps Blair took to get from rock bottom to rolling in dough, stick with us. In his new book Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain: How I Went from Gang Member to Multimillionaire Entrepreneur, Blair offers up tips on how an entrepreneurial attitude can help you get ahead at work, whether you’re running the show or gunning for an entry-level position. We talked to Blair about guys’ most common career concerns, and walked away with this list of 10 things that twentysomethings can do to kick some serious ass at the office.
1. Remember: You don’t need to be an Ivy Leaguer or multi-degree juggler to get ahead
Don’t have a diploma from Harvard or an advanced degree hanging on your wall? Don’t let that stop you. Those pieces of paper aren’t a one-way ticket to making it big. “[A basic] education is generally a minimum to break the barrier of entry,” says Blair. “But, after that, work ethic and self-education are your greatest assets.”
Like many entrepreneurs, Blair doesn’t hold an MBA. But his curiosity and tenacity took the place of a business school education. When he was 18, Blair wanted to learn all he could about computers so he could be promoted from customer service rep to data center technician at a company named Logix. He read every computer science book and article he could get his hands on, took classes, and talked to experts in the field. He quickly became the data center’s lead technician, then manager, then supervisor. By age 20, Blair was named vice president at Logix, bumping his earnings up from $6 an hour to $100,000 a year in just two years. With this kind of success, he realized he could start a business of his own.
2. Find a strong mentor
Whether you’re just embarking on a career or making a big transition, it’s essential to connect with an established professional who can show you how it’s done—and help you avoid making critical mistakes.
“Search for mentors in your existing network,” advises Blair. “If that doesn’t work, find someone within your industry by reading books, articles, and interviews. Suggest a quick meeting over coffee, or 15 minutes of their time on the phone. Ask targeted questions to show you’ve done your homework.” For example, you wouldn’t ask Michael Jordan how to be a successful basketball player, you’d ask him to talk about a specific technique he used for acing slam-dunks from the free-throw line.
Once you have a mentor, don’t use him or her only for job leads. All successful people have systems of created behaviors, from the way they greet somebody new to the way they end a phone call. Observe your mentor’s behaviors, and use them to create your own system. Also remember that mentorship is a two-way street. Consider what value you’re going to add to your mentor’s life in exchange for his or her guidance.
3. Keep your emotions in check
We’ve all been there—that day when something at work makes us so miserable we fire off a feisty e-mail, only to regret the decision as soon as we hit “send.” Next time, take Blair’s advice: If you feel like you might respond emotionally to something, sleep on it, then revisit the situation the next day.
If you do decide to go to your boss about something that has you riled up, do it in person or over the phone, not via e-mail or text (neither of which allows you to control—or even know—the conditions in which a person reads your message, or how it comes across). “But before you do have that conversation,” says Blair, “make sure that what’s making you miserable isn’t self-induced. Use a friend as a sounding board about your problem before approaching a higher-up.”
4. Do more than you’re getting paid to do
You know the adage, “Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.” Well, if your goal is to advance within your company, the same logic applies to the level of effort you’re putting in at the office. “The best way to ask for a raise is to do more than you’re getting paid for,” says Blair. “Your work product should speak for itself. If you’re not getting the attention of management, you should put in writing the results of your work product and ask for a meeting to discuss what you need to do in order to get what you want out of your job.”
5. Don’t raise problems without offering solutions
When you take an issue to your supervisor, don’t show up without a list of potential ways to fix it. Blair’s process for arriving at a solution: Start by writing down the problem and every remedy you can think of to solve it. Then analyze each solution and eliminate those that don’t solve it fast enough or efficiently enough (e.g., it costs too much money), until you have a plan of action you’d be proud to show your boss. Then go talk.
6. Do something to stand out
“No news is bad news,” says Blair. “If you aren’t getting feedback—negative or positive—then you’re the first person on the layoff list. It’s important to stand out to your superiors. Get their attention so they can praise you when you do something great, or provide constructive criticism when you can do something better.”
7. Make smart sacrifices
Time is probably the most important—yet easiest—sacrifice to make, so put in the hours necessary during key parts of your career. “In my 20s, I sacrificed hanging out with friends and going to parties to focus on work; I worked a minimum of 80 hours a week,” says Blair. “Now that I’m in my 30s, I still work 80 hours a week—but I get to attend more parties.”
Still, even when you’re just starting out, don’t neglect to carve out some time for yourself every now and then. Otherwise you’ll find yourself resenting your job—which can put you on the surefire path to burnout.
8. Identify your driving force
Figuring out what you love to do, and what drives you, can propel you in the right career direction. “If you take stock of the motives behind your decisions, each subsequent move will be more deliberate, directed, and effective,” says Blair. So ask yourself: Are you in a job simply because someone you know helped you get the interview? Did you accept it just for the paycheck? Or does your work make you excited to get out of bed in the morning?
Keep in mind that your motivation shouldn’t be circumstantial, as in “I lost my job, so I need a new one.” If you do that, you’re letting your circumstances control you, which can lead you straight to the daily grind. Instead, pick a driving force—like working independently, expressing your creativity, excelling at a skill you enjoy, helping others, even becoming wealthy—that gives you the upper hand over those circumstances and motivates you to make changes in spite of them.
9. Hone your hidden talents
Think you have more to offer? Take stock of your “assets”—including your education and experience; your affiliations with reputable people or organizations; and your location (Silicon Valley, major U.S. city)—then identify which are fueling your success, and which you need to make more of.
10. Leverage your assets
If you’re not happy at work—whether it’s your employer’s fault or your own—there’s a good chance you have more strengths and talents you can tap into to improve the situation. “If you’re not putting everything you have on the floor, then you’ll have regrets,” says Blair. “Ultimately, knowing that you did the absolute best you possibly could is fulfillment in your career.”
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