An Open Letter to My Students

This post is an updated version from May 2018.

At the end of every semester at New York University, I devote a portion of one class to careers. I focus on where students can take what they’ve learned in e-commerce or digital marketing and translate that into a job. But I don’t stop there.

I think back to when I was in college and the knowledge passed on to me by my professors. Most of them were focused on the subject we all registered for – nothing more, nothing less. Now, as a teacher myself, I’ve realized that there is more though.

To me, infusing lessons of leadership and career strategy comes along with taking one of my classes. It’s why I don’t mandate a textbook, but instead, offer up a list of 25 books that cost just as much and have had a profound impact on my own career. These books range from guiding and inspirational (“Man Searching for Meaning” or “The Alchemist”) to product and marketing focused (“The Conversion Code” or “Hooked”).

Being a specialist and knowing how to do one thing really well can only carry you so far, no matter what industry. And, truthfully, some people are fine with complacency, which is okay. But, if you’re not, developing leadership skills and knowing how to navigate the world outside of 11 West 42nd St. — or wherever you’re reading this — are important attributes to achieving something greater.

I don’t pretend to know all the answers — I never will. Yet, what I have learned I believe can help serve as some small guidance to those who want to excel in their careers. Want can only happen to those who recognize a desire to become better.

I expect this list will grow and change over time. There’s also no order to it so those at the top are no more important than those at the bottom.

The last time I wrote an open letter, it resonated with many people. I hope this one does the same.

  • Your first job should not be your last. Neither should your second or even your third. Change companies. Change roles.
  • Have the foresight to recognize when the industry you’re interested in is changing. Put in the time to become an expert to get ahead of the crowd. Pivot.
  • Don’t be limited by your 9-to-5. Use your outside working hours for what you’re passionate about. If the job you’re in today is not the job you want, find a way to get experience in your off-hours.
  • Learn how to write. You don’t have to make your writing public. But knowing how to craft well-written reports, emails and more is invaluable. (On an aside, this post alone has gotten me a number of job offers.)
  • Learn how to speak in public. Being able to captivate an audience, speak well, and use stories to elicit emotion is extremely powerful.
  • Time is valuable. In fact, it’s the most valuable asset you own.
  • Data is numbers, but it also represents people. Knowing how to measure and make decisions with data is powerful. Being able to tell stories with it is even more important.
  • Read. A lot. Doesn’t matter if it’s fiction or non-fiction; it all helps expand your mind.
  • Network. You never know when and if the person you meet today is going to be useful down the road. I’ve gotten jobs from connections I’ve made years prior.
  • Find ways to hack things. Use services like Zapier and IFTTT to add some automation to your life.
  • Become a teacher. I don’t mean standing in front of a classroom; it could be writing or mentoring. Find outlets to share your knowledge.
  • Get at least a general understanding of the roles you’re going to interface within your job. It will help you develop credibility.
  • Learn new skills. Spanish, meditation, whatever outside of work. It’s good for your brain.
  • Learn to code. The goal is not to become an engineer but to build a foundation of knowledge that will lead you to learn more and think about things differently/logically.
  • Find a mentor. Get someone, or even some people, on your phone you can call when you need advice.
  • Failure is a fact. It will happen.
  • Learn how to prioritize. Saying yes to one thing means saying no to something else.
  • Show appreciation. Thank you are two of the most powerful words in not just business, but life.
  • Listen more than you speak.
  • Develop leadership skills and prioritize becoming good at it. The first sign of good leadership is having a desire to become a good leader — not just saying it, but recognizing it and working at it.
  • Give your direct reports your full attention. I make it a priority to always respond to their questions and avoid skipping our weeklies. I never want to be a roadblock in their attempts to move a project forward.
  • You are your own brand.
  • When you’re going through a hard time, whether professionally or personally, look at the obstacle as a lesson. You’re going through the experience for a reason that might not be explainable at the time. But whatever it is, it will lead to something bigger.
  • Don’t burn bridges. Leave jobs respectfully – never check out. You never know when that company or people you work with may come back on your radar.
  • Take risks. Being safe is being complacent. When you take risks, you increase your odds of doing something amazing.
  • Make time for your family and friends.
  • Follow-up: a handwritten note, an email, a LinkedIn message, etc. A personal note goes a long way.
  • Marketing is completely about two things: psychology and emotion. You’re convincing someone to take action by making them feel a certain way.

This post was last updated on May 5, 2020

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