Career Kismet And Following Good Advice

Nov 22, 2019

BY STEPHEN HAGE – DATA SCIENTIST

I’ve been working at Elicit for a little more than six months and from the minute I received an offer letter in March, I looked forward to seeing what all the fuss was about with Mind Meld (essentially our corporate retreat on steroids). When Mind Meld 12 in Santa Fe finally arrived, it blew away those heightened expectations. We somehow crammed a semester’s worth of material on business, data, models, algorithmic bias, and creative processes into four days of presentations. On top of that, many people made the metamorphosis from co-worker to friend.

But one thing stood out more than the rest. The sessions were all over. Party Party Super Party had not yet begun. Thursday night, as dessert was being brought to our tables, I made the fateful decision to swap seats and talk to some people with whom I hadn’t yet connected. That brought me to the seat adjacent to our CMO, Brooke, and her husband, Jim.

Whenever I sit with smart people, I like to ask a question, close my mouth, and open my ears. I listened to some of Jim’s philosophy and heard about a very accomplished career. What really shone through was that—education, title, and experience notwithstanding—this was a humble guy. Humble enough, in fact, to reciprocate and listen to my not-yet-as-accomplished story.

I told him that, as a senior at Indiana University, my dream job was to work at McKinsey, which happened to be a previous stop in his career. The reason for that was simple: in one of my classes I remember a guest lecturer coming in and talking about consulting as a career path. It had everything I wanted as a twenty-two-year-old. Travel. Interesting work. Creativity. Strategy. Making a difference. Good pay. It took me thirteen years, but I finally landed a dream job at an amazing consultancy. One of the things I’ve told myself (and recruiters) repeatedly throughout my various stops was the advice that guest lecturer told us. “Stay as broad as possible, as long as possible.” 

Jim stopped me there. “Say that line again.”  

“Stay as broad as possible, as long as possible,” I repeated. 

I could see the gears in his head turning. As he was processing, he inquired: “And that was Indiana University? Kelley School of Business, right? About 2006?” 

That was all exactly correct. Before I could wonder how he knew that, he blurted out, “That was me!” 

Thirteen years prior, this stranger from Southern California happened to be in Bloomington, Indiana, in the same lecture hall as me. He had given advice to a large group of students, never knowing whether he’d made a difference. Yet, as it turned out, I had dutifully followed that advice in every career move I’ve made, which led me to Elicit. Which led me to Mind Meld. Which put me in Santa Fe. Which put me at the same restaurant and the same table as this guy who unwittingly had helped shape my career.

The English language has several idioms to try to communicate what I felt in that moment. “It’s a small world” came to mind for obvious reasons. “Six degrees of separation” might explain why I shouldn’t have been surprised. “What are the odds?” appeals to my analytical sensibilities, where the answer is a near-zero probability. Yet none of these quite capture what I felt in that moment.

Now that I’ve had time to reflect on that event, I’d call it “Career Kismet.” It was a validation of this guiding principle I had invariably followed no matter what else in life changed. Going from a job in logistics to sales, from sales to marketing, from marketing to analytics, and from analytics to data science, all was my attempt to stay broad in my career. I want to be the best there ever was, and developing a broad skillset seemed to be a long-term path toward that goal. That chance moment at dinner felt like a cosmic-level coming together of all these different circumstances just so I would know I’ve made the right decisions.

Little moments like this can be life-changers, so I’d like to walk through some of the implications for me, trusting that perhaps it will help someone else the way Jim’s advice helped me.

WHEN YOU GET GOOD ADVICE, FOLLOW IT

The career guidance Jim doled out that day in 2006 obviously wasn’t the first I’d ever heard. What made Jim’s remarks different is that he tied together different concepts that were previously unrelated in my mind. Things clicked, and I took the lesson to heart.

BUILD YOUR OWN GRAND MASTER PLAN

Any recommendation you choose to follow ought to fit into a larger scheme (or else adjust the scheme). Not everybody is interested in being well-rounded. Some people are wired to be excellent mathematicians but poor writers. Jim’s advice would probably hurt such a person. I pride myself on intellectual versatility and, though I have definite weaknesses, I am capable in a variety of fields. To “stay as broad as possible as long as possible” concisely summarized the kind of success I wanted to be. This created a simple framework which helped eliminate many careers which may have appealed to me, but would have been less helpful long-term. Specifically, I opted for a Master of Science instead of an MBA because of my undergrad in business. Without a plan that can endure regardless of circumstances, it’s far too easy to chase shiny objects at the cost of possible greatness.

PEOPLE ARE AN INTEGRAL PART OF THAT PLAN

When I was twenty-two, I thought I knew everything, and didn’t need anyone to help. A couple years later the recession hit. I needed help. Lesson learned. The wisest people I know tend to be the humblest, the quickest to listen, and slowest to speak. This is true because those people know life changes fast. Best-practices from even ten years ago are already out of style. The smart, hard-working, clever people who adapt and help each other are the ones that endure. Allow the good people around you to help shape who you become.

ACKNOWLEDGE THE PEOPLE WHO HELPED YOU

Of course, if I had told Jim all the same information without mentioning the guy whose advice I cherished, we never would have realized this cosmic coincidence. Everybody knows that all high achievers were helped by others, but we still ought to give credit where credit is due. After all, wouldn’t you enjoy a shout-out if you were on the other side of the equation? Which leads me to one final point. 

BE THAT PERSON TO SOMEBODY ELSE

I know, life gets busy, yadda yadda yadda. Somehow, in the midst of a budding young career, Jim found time to speak to a group of students. He gave his best advice. For free. I occasionally get asked by students a year behind me at Northwestern how I got this data science job. I tell them that it wasn’t easy, but I had help along the way. As a result, I should be willing to help them. Perhaps a decade from now I’ll be sitting at dinner with a stranger, only to realize he was one of those kids who “made it” in part due to advice I give today.