5 Lessons in Building a Successful Career

I have had the fortunate situation of nearly 25 years of continuous service with my company. This has spanned both Europe and the US. During this time I have worked for different organizations but my years of service have been grandfathered in through acquisitions or spin-out.

The down-side of all of these years of integrated service is that I have not interviewed or even prepared my resume in all of these years. Can you say rusty? Let’s hope the next two years allow me to cruise into Financial Independence and Early Retirement without having to remove any rust.

In terms of building my career over those years and also at the same time building wealth for my family, I learned a few things that are not spoken about too much in the typical leadership development tool-kits provided by corporate HR.

Each of these lessons helped me to build my career and by default, provide the foundation for a better life for my family.

Let’s dive right in.

1. Get Comfortable being Uncomfortable

Who said building a career is an easy ride? It’s not and never will be. The goal of any business is to grow and that growth in large part comes by continually growing the skill-set of the employees. It often requires you to develop that skill-set while doing your day-job. That may involve working longer hours, having doubts about the future prospects of your organization, having to make decisions that will adversely affect people you deeply care about or simply jumping into something new with a great deal of uncertainty. All of which may still come with a deadline and expectation of a superior work product.

The stress levels can build enormously when we tackle something very new or an additional workload. It is amazing how much we grow through this adversity, yet it never seems that way when we are actually going through it. The stomach muscles tighten, the brain races all over the map, we are on edge with family members, little things outside the work-place balloon out of proportion, we do that “fight or flight” response. And here is the kicker – it does not change each and every time we are asked to do more, or learn something new or present the work product of ourselves and/or our team to senior management.

I have presented countless times to executive management and I get the butterflies the same way I did the very first time doing it. That discomfort, albeit better managed now, has not changed in 25 years. A little bit of anxiety keep us on our toes and avoids the pitfalls of complacency. Don’t get me wrong, there is an optimal stress zone between “the drone zone” of boredom and under-stimulation and the “burnout zone” where overstress can become a real danger to your mental and physical well-being.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is a mind-set more than anything. Look for those little opportunities each day that take you outside of your comfort zone. Try something new and build upon each of them. There will likely be strong feelings of discomfort early on in the process but if you can get to grips with those feelings of discomfort, you will handle most things thrown at you and you will probably reap the rewards of increased responsibility, both financial and from a personal development perspective. A ship is safe in the harbor, but that’s not what ships are for.

2. When Opportunity Knocks, Open the Door and let it in

Somebody once said the following which in my experience is so true,

“If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you are not sure you can do it, say yes – you can learn how to do it later.”

We often try to over-analyze stuff in our lives. Any person working hard on building a career is smart and rational and likely a deep thinker. That is all good and should never be discounted. There are times though when it is wise to jump at an opportunity and see what comes later.

The following I think is a great example of an opportunity offered to me where I did not hesitate in “opening the door”. It was an offer to move within my company from the UK to the US back in the late nineties. My girlfriend (now wife) and I jumped at this opportunity immediately. As soon as I (we) said “Yes” within hours of the offer, my company started to help connect my girlfriend with head-hunters and finding her a job in biotech. Aside from being a very smart woman, that connection helped her land a job (from 5 distinct offers!), we made the big international move together, both our salaries increased significantly and we have never looked back.

At no point did we worry about the pros and cons of living in the US vs the UK, the challenges of Visas, Greencards and citizenship, the angst about leaving immediate family behind or the future prospect of perhaps raising a young family thousands of miles from loved ones. We worked it all out later by trying to be smart, rational and thinking through things – and despite some bumps along the way, it was the correct decision we made when presented with such a wonderful opportunity. We look back on it all with much pride. For sure, it helped us build our wealth but navigating the journey of building a new life in a new country taught us so much more.

Of course this was quite a significant opportunity. But they come in all shapes and sizes. An opportunity to lead a small initiative at work, maybe organizing a social event or planning a team-building meeting at an off-site location are good examples to jump at. Involvement in these things exposes you to working across peers and leaders in your area. Managing those interactions can reveal a lot about team dynamics and importantly yourself.

3. Seek out the Wisdom and Guidance of a Mentor

It is common in corporate America to be working for extended periods with a manager or team you may not “connect with” regularly. Managers can be so busy wrapped up doing their thing that they can’t make time to talk about your career development. In short, they are not being an effective manager. Those are difficult times yet there are solutions to the problem. Specifically, organizations which are open to people development typically embrace the concept of mentorship.

Mentorship (Wiki definition) is a relationship in which a more experienced or more knowledgeable person helps to guide a less experienced or less knowledgeable person. The mentor may be older or younger than the person being mentored, but she or he must have a certain area of expertise.

A critical piece of any relationship is finding a mentor who you can trust and confide in. No one wants to share important personal tidbits only to find them spread around the department! With that in place, I have found the ability to just talk through a work situation with a mentor is a powerful way to see problems through a different set of unbiased eyes or get a different perspective on an issue. Mentors may even be from outside your own functional area, yet still be technically or business savvy. A good mentor will listen attentively and ask open-ended questions yet never judge. They offer ideas you may never even considered – from tactics on how to approach the neglectful manager situation, ideas on career trajectory, handling work-life imbalance,  or managing the craziness of being a working parent.

Some organizations have formal mentorship programs and that is a great way to identify a good match. If your organization doesn’t have such a program, not to worry. Simply reaching out in your network of colleagues and identifying someone can work just as effectively – that relaxed coffee chat can turn into an occasional lunch which can evolve into a more organized plan to meet regularly. Building trust along the way and not feeling pressured to rush things along is also an important part of a mentoring relationship.

Having been invited to also act as a mentor, there is the additional win-win of actually learning from the mentee (the person being mentored). I can think of countless discussions over my career where I came away with a different perspective on work or life through listening to the challenges faced by a colleague. The benefit of being involved in an effective mentoring relationship goes way beyond your role as a mentor or mentee.

4. Workplace Change Comes Often and Fast – How You Respond to it will Make or Break You

“You can’t change what’s going on around you until you start changing what’s going on within you.”

If there is one thing that is true within corporate America is that the only constant is change itself. Whether it is companies re-inventing themselves, re-organizing, re-aligning or really messing up – change comes with all of the above.  I provide the following information based on an excellent short book by Richard McKnight. He describes different responses to workplace change. The responses by people to change are to act in one of three ways:

  • Victim
  • Survivor
  • Navigator

The Victim typically perceives their future to be in the hands of others, can get angry at authorities for letting them down. The Victim will seek others who see the world as they do and take solace from it. There is lack of self-awareness, they often react with much cynicism and misery. And misery, as the old saying goes, loves company. Not a good response.

The Survivor mode is a better reaction, but not without problems –that reaction can be either Pleaser mode or Warrior mode- each with problems of their own. The Pleaser is timid and accommodating. Yet that can make us diminish ourselves and invite others to minimize us too. The Warrior is guarded and abrasive. That abrasiveness can mean leaving a trail of blood behind you as you fight to survive. They do whatever they can to muscle others out of the way in their quest for survival.

The Navigator sees change as an adventure and welcomes the challenge. Through change, they see a new destination, they are confident and positive about the future, they can use tools in their toolbox to adjust course based on changing information. I have found myself saying to both myself and colleagues time and time again that change is invariably based on business realities, not to make us miserable. Or not to take it personal, let’s work with what we have got.

Over the years of my career, I have gone through all responses of Victim, Survivor and Navigator. Experience teaches me that adopting the Navigator mode as much as possible is the best way to handle change. But it takes practice to get it right and the constant change we all see in the workplace provides opportunity to do a lot of practice drills!

5. Don’t let Work get in the Way of Living

“If only I had spent more time at the office.”

I can guarantee you that as your career develops and you move into the latter stages of it, even early retirement, you will not be heard saying the above.

Working hard is an expectation, it can fuel our journey towards important lifestyle changes but when it becomes excessive, you only end up short-changing those people you care about – friends, family, partner or your children. Your relationships with those you love and your relationship with yourself will suffer. Nothing should get in the way of living, certainly not work. And as you uncouple from your work life and feel some pangs of guilt or anxiety, don’t worry about it today. After all, today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday.


I’d love to hear what you have to say on all of this. Please share your thoughts on these five lessons or any other things you learned as you built your own career. If there is any one topic in particular that struck a chord with you, please let me know. I’d be happy to do a follow-up post on any of them.


  1. Wow – what an awesome post! I relate to all of these because of my experiences working my way up from teacher, to teacher leader, to administrator and college professor. I also have a doctorate in Educational Leadership and we focused on all of these in our program! I guess I’ll pick the mentor piece to focus on. As a new administrator, I had a mentor from outside the district and it was incredibly helpful. I am not mentoring other teachers and administrators and it always helps for me to share that I was mentored too. As far as #4 goes, we used a book called “Leading in Culture of Change” by Michael Fullan. It was excellent!

    1. I always like to hear where people have good leadership development experiences through good books. The ones often offered by corporate HR I find are very wishy washy and don’t say what needs to be said.

      Glad you enjoyed the post.

  2. 31 years in one company here, and I agree 100% with your lessons. Learn to swim with the current, not against it. Look for opportunities to shine. Don’t let the turkeys get you down. Focus your interaction with positive people. Keep work in it’s relative position in your life. Be realistic. 2 years to go til FIRE for me. I’ve been successful in Corporate Life, but I’m ready for the next phase!

    1. thanks for swinging by and nicely put. And I totally hear you about readiness for a change. Let’s hope we both handle it with ease. I suspect it will be a tad different from navigating workplace change but still have its moments!!

  3. Love this article, comes at a good time in my career as I am about to face a crossroads. I have the opportunity to apply for a management position and while excited, I am also terrified. I think it is a great reminder to learn to get comfortable with being uncomfortable. This is an area I’m not so great at, but realizing that in order to succeed I have to get better at the discomfort. Thanks for a great read, will be sharing with co-workers!

    1. Thanks so much for the very kind words. The concept of getting outside your comfort zone slowly and surely can be handled by breaking it down into pieces. Do a little and do it often. Build on it each week and it will grow. Your discomfort will still be there in some ways but you will look back and wonder what you worried so much about.

  4. I love all of these points – nice reference to ships and the harbour, exactly! I love that saying.

    All of these are great lessons, particularly me being at the start of my career. I was extremely uncomfortable with public speaking when I first started, I’m not the best – but I’m a lot better now. You just have to put the hard yards in (such as further education) to really get you places, and that’s what I’m doing now.


    1. Yeah, ships are nev meant to stay in harbor and if they are maintained well (analogy with your education reference), they will sail even better and further. Best of luck with your pursuit of additional education. It will pay off.

  5. I couldn’t have said it any better myself, great post Mr. Pie. Based on my ten years of experience in corporate America, I can vouch for how true these five tips are, while I can also say how important it is for me to continue to embrace these five lessons. Number 2 resonates with me most right now considering some of the opportunities available to me currently, and your move from the UK to the US is a great real life example.

    Navigating a career involves countless tough decisions. While we can’t get the crystal ball out to help us with them, we can be thoughtful and follow our gut. Thanks for the great post, and very timely post for me to read!

    1. Hey GS,

      Glad timing was good for you. I think your point about continuing to embrace them is right on. It is never a check box mentality and you are good to go. Each needs constant work and practice. And we stil mess up at times with some of them.

      The gut reaction often is a great yardstick to layer on top of the other elements of a decision. I do think we over analyze at times and just managing how often we do that can be powerful.

  6. Those are some great points that are true whether it’s in corporate America or smaller not so corporate work environments.

    I agree with getting uncomfortable, and figuring it out when an opportunity shows up. I know I’m dealing with those things now. My company is doing a massive re-org of the whole structure and it’s going to drag out about 3 months. Instead of playing victim as many colleagues are, I took the opportunity and applied for a team lead position, haha!
    I figure I may not have a great shot at it, as there are a lot more applicants that have been here longer than me, but I know I’d be a good fit. Even if it’s uncomfortable and a steep learning curve on some processes I am not super familiar with, I tried to embrace it and make the most out of the situation.

    Currently I’m a mentor and that’s been good for me. I have a good informal mentor I’ve found here that has been great as well. Explaining the “why” to someone who hasn’t dealt with that situation before just stengthens my understanding of it. Also, teaching someone the topic I studied in grad school really has been a great refresh for me, and let me approach my project with a different perspective having gone back and read lots more papers to find good examples for my mentee/protege to read.

    Great post!

    1. That is awesome that you have taken the bull by the horns and applied for the team leader position. If you don’t ask, you don’t get is the old adage. I hope your org can see beyond the time in fhe job factor and consider desire, commitment and people skills such as emotional intelligence. In teams, these invariably come to the fore anyway.

      Your comments on brushing up on skills and refreshing understanding of topics is a great reminder of the win-win of mentoring.

  7. All great points – I have recently started a formal mentoring relationship with someone who has been in our industry for 15 years, soaking in that experience is so valuable. Totally agree on your first point, if you are comfortable its time for a change.

    One thing I have learned is to take responsibility instead of making excuses. No one respects the excuse maker, and owning your actions and decisions goes a long way and sets you apart from your peers.

    1. Absolutely. Owning actions and decisions whether they turn out to be right or wrong is always the best place to be. I have found the leaders who own up to mistakes invariably garner the greatest respect in an organization.

      Some folks just wish to be comfortable and as long as they are performing at a solid level, that can work – Up to a point. It is also possible to grow laterally in a position and look to broaden your skill base within the confines of a certain level.

  8. Completely agree with your analysis. Even though I have been ‘only’ 8 years in my current company, I can definitely relate to #1 and #5.
    Get comfortable being uncomfortable is definitely one of the key elements to stay in a company for a long time. Maybe related to this, I’d add “embrace change”.

    Another element that I think has been key for me so far, is to always try to add value.

    I’ve seen too many people protecting their information and refusing to collaborate. Or just forwarding emails without adding their recommendation. Or criticizing everything without proposing an alternative. I work in O&G and during the recent oil crash, the value creation attitude saved many people.

    1. Hey there, Thanks for checking out our blog.

      I bookended the post with those two topics under 1, 5 as I think they are the most important.

      I work in a research and development environment within pharma industry so collaboration is an expectation and necessary for any sort of innovation. Our industry has undergone much change over the last two decades and staying the course by trying to adhere to the lessons has helped me enormously.

  9. Good read. So much of this community’s focus is on side hustles and racing to the finish line of retirement, but there is something to be said about investing yourself in a career, even if it’s a relatively short one. I think you can always find some instrinsic value in doing work, so why not do your best while you have no choice but to keep on earning a paycheck. Of course, there are financial gains to be had as well, from working hard.

    1. I have honestly loved my job for most of my career. It has changed over the years which has made it fun, interesting and challenging.

      “There is no satisfactory substitute for excellence” , is a phrase I like. That requires hard work and time. Often not compatible with a super early retirement. I actually don’t think I could have enjoyed retiring before 45. I think….?

  10. Being willing to jump before you know what you’re doing helps so much! Incredible growth opportunities happen that way. Great piece.

    1. ZJ

      Thanks. Unless it is a broken parachute….!!
      Only joking. Sometimes the leap into the unknown is what is needed to make some progress.

  11. Fantastic tips, I really resonate with the if you’re presented with a fantastic opportunity, say yes. My dad had a choice to live in the United States as a result of a promotion he received. It was a completely new country and he didn’t speak the language but he said yes. I am so blessed that he said yes because I believe the United States is the place to be where if you want to be successful, you can be successful.

    Fantastic that you said yes and moved to the United States with significant pay raises! I bet you don’t regret making that decision for one second 🙂

    1. Thanks FS

      The move across the pond was the best thing we did. It was a little shaky in the early days just getting used to how things were done over here. A lot of initiative is expected here compared to the UK where many things are done for you so to speak. But once we settled in, we did not look back. This is home.

      Not sure how easy it would have been if we did not speak the language. Kudos to your dad for making that work!!

  12. Totally agree with your list, particularly #1 and #4! I’ve found I experience the most growth in response to being a little bit uncomfortable (and trying to fix the discomfort). Additionally, having that flexibility/internal locus of control in the face of change/chaos is SO key to surviving! I’m still in the process of building my career, but I’m definitely trying to keep things like these in mind as I do.

    1. Thanks for honing in on #1 and #4. These apply so much both in the work place and arguably more so outside the work place. Adapting to the discomfort can often work better than trying to fix it, depends on the specifics of the situation.

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