50 is a magic age in your career. This is when, if you keep your mouth shut at meetings, everyone thinks you’re as wise and contemplative. If you talk, everyone listens like six year olds at the front of the class. If you kick your colleague over a puddle and tread over his spine to keep your shoes dry, they give you a safety consideration award. And here’s how our senior workers got there:
1. Learning to Ask
Alex Chung is 52 and already retired. A materials engineer, he could have retired in his 40’s if he wanted, but “achievements are addictive.” He credits his success to one simple trick: Learning to ask.
“A lot of Singaporeans cannot open their mouths,” Alex says, “If you ask them to find out something, they like to look at studies, books, the Internet – anything that does not require talking to another human being. And it’s not just employees, it’s University and Poly students also.
When I was in my 20’s, I started up several businesses that failed. They failed for the simple reason that when I started them, I didn’t bother to ask other people who were already in that line. It was only when I learned to ask, that I realised DIY research is not the way to go.
In your own business, or in work projects, there will always be people who have done what you are trying to do. These people can tell you whether it is worth doing, where the problems will lie, and whether you frankly have the resources to succeed. And they can tell you in 15 minutes what will take you days to research.
So if there’s something I’m grateful for, it’s that at one point I learned to open my mouth and ask. It’s so simple yet so powerful.”
2. Not Staying in a Job Just for Comfort
Ikrimah (not his real name) is 51, and heads a department in a financial firm. He started work at 19, as a kitchen helper. He believes a willingness to move on is the source of his success:
“For the first years of my working life, I was working in a kitchen. I was happy, everyone felt like family – but had I stayed I would still be there now. I knew I had to move on, because apart from comfort there was nothing else there.
Later the same thing happened in other jobs; a kind of inertia sets in, where you have a routine and know everybody. But I was careful to never let that become a shackle. I always kept moving forward.
How far you get in life corresponds to two things: How many difficult conversations you’re willing to have, and how many sad goodbyes you’re willing to say.
Quitting a comfortable job means leaving behind colleagues that you love. Or a work culture that you feel at home in. But when you have a driving passion, leaving such pleasant things behind is the most basic price to pay for your goals.
To me, if you’re serious about wanting to succeed, it’s a price worth paying.”
3. Learning to Manage Others
Benson Phua is “58 years young“, and formerly worked in an accounting firm. In the past decade he’s worked as a tax agent, and will be retiring soon. He believes that soft skills, in particular people skills, are lacking in Singapore.
“If you cannot manage other people, you cannot be promoted. Very straightfoward,” Benson says, “You go and ask anyone in charge of any department, they will tell you the same thing:
20% of their job will be their actual job. The other 80% is chasing people, motivating people, settling arguments – things that don’t involve their hard skills at all.
When I was still in my 30’s, my boss promoted me. Two days into my new position, I went to him and asked for my old job back.
I couldn’t handle it. I didn’t know what makes other people tick. I didn’t know how to mediate disputes or confront lazy workers. And in those days, we didn’t get management training – it was sink or swim.
Lucky for me, my boss really liked me. He became my mentor. Over time I learned from him how to manage people. And if I hadn’t been willing to learn from him, to deal with people, I think I would still be doing my old job till I’m 70.”
4. Starting New Businesses (Even if They Fail)
Albert Koh was originally from Australia. He became a permanent resident a long time ago, and he still works as a procurement officer. He knows something you’ll be grateful for:
“While you’re young, try and start your own business,” Alfred insists, “And not just for the possibility of striking it rich. Almost everything that makes me good at my job, I learned from the many abortive businesses I tried to start.
There have been three businesses I’ve tried. One was an agency that sold cable television services for big companies. Another was catering, which I ran with my wife. And then I tried to run a bicycle rental shop, around East Coast beach.
All of them I eventually shut down, for various reasons. But I don’t consider them failures. In the process of trying to run those businesses, I learned so many skills that have paid off at work: How to negotiate, how to spot the small details that will become big problems, how to tell if someone is a bullsh***er or a great person to work with.
I think former entrepreneurs make the best employees, whatever HR people say.
They’re the ones who have the most initiative, the most versatile skill sets, and a range of contacts that other employees don’t come with. Between job candidates, I will always pick the one who’s had some experience running his own show.”
What are you grateful for having done in your career? Comment and let us know!
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