Advice to young higher ed professionals: 'Take risks.'

'You will only take pride in having lived up to your own expectations,' Sternberg writes

In an essay for the Chronicle of Higher Education, prominent psychologist Robert Sternberg takes stock of his career and offers advice to those just starting theirs.

Sternberg, 65, says he is now an official "oldster." After 40 years as an academic and stints as the head of the American Psychological Association and the Federation of Associations in Behavior and Brain Sciences, Sternberg shares simple advice for people hoping to have satisfying careers without losing sight of what is important.

  • Prioritize your family. At the start of his career, Sternberg says he was "more concerned about getting than about giving, and giving to my family always seemed as if it could wait another day." That, he says, was a mistake. Don't forget "[y]ou need your family now, and you'll need them more later," he writes.

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  • Don't let your health slip. Sternberg says people often feel like they can get away with having unhealthy habits in their 20s and 30s. "But they will show, probably starting in your 40s," he cautions. While health is always uncertain, "you can help nudge things in the right direction with a lifetime of eating smart and exercising regularly," he writes.
  • Save early and save often. Unfortunately, "many people reach an age at which they might want to retire but can't," Sternberg writes. "So start saving early, and save as much as you can."
  • Don't stay in the wrong job. People stuck in jobs that are a bad fit during their 20s and 30s convince themselves that "things will work out," Sternberg writes. However, "[i]f you care about excellence and the people around you take pride in their mediocrity, chances are that will not change." Instead, "if you don't fit, start looking before you're told to start looking," he advises.

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  • Avoid jerks. During your career you can "waste a lot of time trying to figure out how to deal" with "jerks," Sternberg says. Instead, he writes, the best thing you can do is to stay away from them" because "[y]ou've got better things to do."
  • Don't forget to have fun. Most people want to work in a "place where [they] can enjoy [their] work and make a decent living doing it," Sternberg writes. If your job is not enjoyable, make a change. "[I]f you can't make your work fun, consider the possibility that you are in the wrong job."

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  • Be yourself. "Looking back, I find it hard to believe how much pressure I experienced to be someone I'm not," Sternberg reflects. Being true to yourself also means having integrity, he argues. People should pursue professional opportunities that embrace their values, because "[w]hen you look back from age 65, you will only take pride in having lived up to your own expectations."
  • Don't base your self-esteem on other people's opinions. Ultimately, "[i]f your self-esteem depends on other people's evaluations of how good you are, you're very likely going to spend a lot of time feeling badly about yourself," Sternberg says. While it is important to "listen to critics," the best way to define value is "from inside yourself," he writes.
  • Have a hobby. Sternberg says people need creative outlets outside of their professional life. "It's easy to lose perspective and let your career consume more and more of your personal life... Having a hobby or traveling will help you avoid burnout and stay motivated," Sternberg says.
  • Help others. "At the end of your career, you are likely to take the most pride in how you helped others, not in what you did to advance yourself," Sternberg says. Prioritizing helping others will pay professional and personal dividends. People like to help people who are helpful, he observes.

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  • Take risks. When you take stock of your career, your biggest regrets are likely to be "opportunities you passed up," Sternberg notes. Failure is OK because "you'll be a wiser and better person for those failures, rather than someone who got stuck in a small world and was afraid to leave it" (Sternberg, Chronicle of Higher Education, 5/26 [subscription required]).

What advice would you give new professionals in higher ed? Tweet us at @eab_daily and let us know.

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