Simple Keys to Success

… I thought I’d share with you tonight a couple of stories from my life and my experiences that get to the core of the advice I normally give young professionals who ask to meet with me as they are launching their careers.

These conversations usually occur over coffee after receiving an email request to meet which, by the way, is something that Des Moines business people love to do and the city takes great pride in being known for, so don’t hesitate to ask someone who interests you to coffee to pick their brain. … They will say yes when you ask.

One of the first things that comes up is some form of the question “What is the secret to your success?” or “What do I need to do to become successful?” And the answer I always give is – WORK HARD and NEVER STOP LEARNING.

Now, this is usually a disappointing answer. It’s not necessarily what they want to hear and it’s not what you want to hear right now. I mean, you just invested a lot of time and money in working hard and doing a whole lot of learning to get your degree. You’re supposed to be DONE with all of that, right? You – and they – want the super-secret, insider’s answer that will make it easy from here.

But the reality is that your degree GETS you the job, but hard work and continuing to learn is what gets you ahead and gets you the promotions.

I’ve seen that played out throughout my years in business, but let me tell you a story about how I first learned it. The story involves my dad, who was my first living, breathing example of this and the person who created that understanding and determination in me.

I come from a big family; I am the youngest of 11 children. And with 11 kids and a name like Larkin, everyone who met us always assumed that we were Irish Catholic, to which my mother would just smile and reply, “No, just fertile Protestants.”

Being on the tail end of a family that large meant my parents were the same age as most of my friends’ grandparents. They had experienced The Great Depression and it had shaped everything about them and the values in the home where I was raised.

My dad only had an 8th grade education before he left home to join the CCC, which was the Civilian Conservation Corps – one of FDR’s New Deal programs where young people were sent around the country doing public works projects – and he sent that money back to support his parents and family in Kansas.

He ended up with a lifetime career on the railroad – starting on a road crew and working his way up to foreman to union rep to Amtrak engineer. But while other railroaders would relax while they were home, Dad developed a side business of remodeling homes and then got into new home construction. And while he and his fellow railroaders were laid-over out of town, others would go to the bar to hang out, but Dad would read. He devoured politics and business news, and he used that knowledge to become a successful investor in the stock market.

He went from being so poor he couldn’t afford the cemetery plot to bury my oldest sister when she died at a young age and had to work off the debt by shoveling snow for the City of Red Oak — to ending life as a millionaire.

Times are different now, but his lesson stuck with me and that lesson is still true:

Read voraciously. Stay up on what’s happening in the world and what’s happening in your industry. Attend conferences. Ask questions. Keep your eyes open and consciously observe others around you, especially leaders. You’ll find traits you want to emulate and you’ll sure find other traits you don’t.

And along the way, keep your ears open for little nuggets that resonate with you.

For example, one I picked up from a boss early in my career was “Honesty is a wonderful business strategy.” It was a simple statement – said casually in an offhand manner in a brief, hallway conversation – but it stuck in my mind and it’s guided me over the years in both my professional and personal life.

I find some of those nuggets even in the movies. Remember that scene in “A League of Their Own” when Tom Hanks’ coach character is talking to Geena Davis’ ball player character when she was packing up to quit because it just got too hard? And he said, “Of course it’s hard. If it were easy, anyone could do it. It’s the hard that makes it great.”

Your career will be like that. Getting ahead will require hard work, but that’s what will make it great.

Something else that often comes up in these discussions is that people starting out on their career often assume that I charted my career path with each step carefully and strategically chosen. And while I did know I wanted to be a publisher – I was editor of my high school newspaper and a Watergate era, Woodward & Bernstein wannabe journalism student – the path was anything but linear.

The climb was more on a lattice than a ladder.

I was offered a job as publisher with Gannett early in my career but the timing wasn’t right. I had just become a single parent with two boys aged 4 and 6, and the job would have required moving them away from their father. I let that opportunity go and ended up going through various lattice moves and climbs before becoming a publisher later.

And as I talk to others looking back over our careers, we usually laugh and agree that it’s such an interesting combination of things that happen in your career path both by design and by default.

Remember that a career is a marathon, not a sprint.

Keep your eye on the prize and know where you want to go, but pace yourself enough that you can be open to new ideas and different paths to get you there, and have fun trying stuff along the way.

Toward the end of the conversation, a question usually pops up about advice on how to achieve work-life balance, which is a great way to end a coffee….and a commencement speech.

For indeed, a full life also includes carving out time for your passions and making a difference on the things you feel are most important. Getting involved in activities and investing time on issues that matter to you will bring you a satisfaction that complements the satisfaction from a rewarding career.

That balance – of doing a good job and doing good things – makes you feel your time on this earth is meaningful.

My passions are and always have been animal welfare and women’s rights. Let me tell you a story about why I continue to carve out time to work on those two issues even when job demands are high.

When I was working for Meredith, I flew to Kansas City and then had to get on a small plane to go on to Wichita for a meeting. On the way to Wichita, the flight attendant leaned over me (I was in the first row, a perk of flying a lot with Meredith) to confirm that, indeed, that engine was on fire with smoke billowing. The pilot made the announcement that we were going to have to try to make it back to the KC airport to make an emergency landing and we all had to assume the crash position with our head between our knees to brace for landing.

We landed safely amidst the fire trucks and safety crews on the runway, but it was a great experience to put things into perspective about what’s important.

During that time from knowing about the plane’s damage to landing, I was at peace that, if we didn’t make it, I’d made time for family, friends and the causes that were important to me in addition to having a rewarding and fulfilling career.

I wish that for all of you.

While most of you are too young to know it now, your parents and your grandparents attending with you today can attest, it’s as the saying goes:

“Life is like a roll of toilet paper; it goes a lot faster the closer you get to the end.”

So… get out there. Work hard. Read. Commit yourself to continuous learning. Keep your eyes and ears open to pick up those nuggets of wisdom that will fill your own treasure chest to guide you through your career and your life. Try stuff. Commit to time with family and important causes.

Because Greater Des Moines needs you, Iowa needs you, the world needs you… TOMORROW.

But for tonight – just have fun and celebrate YOU. For you have now accomplished something BIG, something only two out of five of the people working in this country have accomplished.

So, soak up the accolades from your family and friends with you tonight and relish this moment. You truly deserve it.

Congratulations, class of 2017.

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