Listen to your Professors

Career advice from my UC Berkeley Venture Capital professor

During my Fall Semester at UC Berkeley, I decided to audit UGBA195T — Alternative Investments, taught by Rob Chandra. As a Senior Advisor at Bessemer Venture Partners, Rob is no short of an amazingly successful individual and investor. What I took away from the class was much more than deeper knowledge about asset classes such as hedge funds, venture capital, and private equity. Rob also incorporated many of his own life lessons, valuation techniques, and personal anecdotes into the curriculum, rendering the class as an overall extremely holistic learning experience.

For the last lecture of the semester, he concluded with 11 pieces of career advice he wanted to bestow upon his students. They were really great principles and pieces of guidance to be mindful of as a young professional, and just in time for many graduating seniors, such as myself, going into their first full-time job.

I thought I would share them:

  1. Work with good people. Rob told us there are several ways to identify good people. The first is that they have incredible followers. When there’s people who have been at the same group for 9-10 years, it signals a great leader and overall group dynamic. Another way to identify good people is that they act and lead with their values and will not ask you to ever compromise your own. Rob stressed the importance of making sure you work with good people, especially right out of college, because you become tainted by those you surround yourself. These will be people who you will most likely establish life-long relationships with, so choose well.
  2. The best opportunities are those that open more doors. If an opportunity does not seemingly lead to more opportunities later on, you should seriously reconsider the one at hand. Opportunities that limit your future prospects are especially dangerous for those who do not have a solid grasp on what they want to do with their lives career wise. Rob gave an example of the “supply chain” guy. If you continue to do projects on supply chain it will become progressively harder for you to pivot into a different path as your career begins to mature.
  3. Cultivate a reputation as a hardworking and reliable worker. As simple as it sounds, this is actually harder to put into practice if you do not have self-discipline and stringent work ethic. For college students, your first instinct as you enter your first job is to want to socialize and be accepted by your peers — as this is what we all did when we were freshman. Rob warned us that the 1st few years of your career are an especially important time to build your reputation and resist the temptation be “that guy/gal” who takes friday off to go on a Vegas trip or leaves work early for happy hour. He told us that in actuality, life is long. You’ll have time to do all those things once you’ve already established a good reputation for yourself, not when you’re just about to start your career. He stressed that if you’ve already cultivated a solid reputation, you’ll be let off the hook more easily for mistakes. However, making mistakes without a strong reputation to act as a buffer can be much more damaging and harder to recover from.
  4. Do the hardest things first. Often times we make a to-do list and do the most easiest and mundane tasks first by tricking ourselves into thinking that this is necessary to “ease” our way into doing the harder task eventually. The order should actually be reversed. Doing the hardest project first usually unlocks the most value. We also often times underestimate the amount of time it takes to do harder tasks, so by saving them for last, we actually heighten the likelihood that they won’t get done. So many people choose to do the easy tasks first. Taking on harder tasks will put you ahead of the game.
  5. Don’t confuse activity with progress. The conception that busyness=progress is a mental trap many fall into (I’m definitely guilty of this). One needs to continuously evaluate whether or not their busy work is actually adding value or inhibiting progress towards ones goals.
  6. There are three ways to make mistakes. People usually fall into one of these categories. 1) You make a mistake and don’t learn from it (the worst). 2) You make a mistake, learn from it, and never make it again (better). 3) You learn from the mistakes other people have made and don’t make it yourself (the best!). Of course we are all human and make mistakes, but Rob said that people who follow the 3rd category are usually the most successful in life and are incredible listeners. A way to learn from others’ mistakes is to read lots of autobiographies and learn from both the accomplishments and failures of those who you look up to. Furthermore, when you make a mistake, take responsibility and own up to it. When others make a mistake, forgive them. Do this because there will likely be a time when you will make a mistake and they will forgive you because they remember that you once did that for them.
  7. Recognize Decisions. Not all decisions are made equal. The sooner you are able to tier your decisions in terms of importance, the better of a decision-maker you will become. For example, you shouldn’t be allocating more mental energy towards the decision of choosing your clothes in the morning vs. taking the time to write your grad school applications. The first option holds almost no significance and barring towards anything. The latter option does. Simplify and automate the decisions that are unimportant and concentrate your mental energy towards those that matter.
  8. Pick your battles. I personally really liked this lesson a lot. Rob started off by saying that if you do the same things as everyone else you will end up like everyone else. To get ahead of the average you have to do something different. Once in a while, opportunities and risks might come along and cause us to put our jobs, financial security, and reputation on the line. They may come in the form of quitting your job to pursue that start-up, moving to India to build that NGO, investing 1/2 your life savings into that company everyone believes is destined to fail. These are the big battles that you have to be ready to take on and decide if they are worthy to pursue. You will have the most to lose, but also the most to gain if you were right. Think about every successful person you’ve ever admired and trace back their career timeline. There has always been a pivotal moment in which they had to take a risk of some form that was so socially unacceptable and unconventional to the norm. Think Mark Zuckerberg with Facebook, Bill Gates’ dream to have a computer in every American household, Sheryl Sandberg’s decision to leave a comfortable government job to take on a role with a little known start-up called Google. You get the picture.
  9. Seek to understand, before you seek to be understood. The more time you spend in trying to thoroughly understand a topic, the more people will trust you to make an informed and accurate opinion. The more likely they are to listen to you.
  10. Time is more precious than capital. Invest it very carefully. Just like one invests in the stock market and hopes for a high return on their investment, you should demand a high return on the time you choose to invest with people and in activities. Your time is your life, so be careful who or what you choose to give your life to. Surround yourself with people who push you forward and closer to your goals and dreams.
  11. Set high goals, go ahead. If there’s anytime to set high goals for yourself, this is the time to do it. It becomes increasingly harder when you are a 30-something year old with mortgages to pay and a family to take care of.