Career Advice: You Think You’re not Ready? Take the Chance Anyways!

Sometimes I think we only move forward and accept bigger responsibilities in our professional lives when we feel capable and confident, when we feel ready. I had a co-worker once who turned down a promotion because he felt he was not ready. How many of us never even bother submitting our job applications to a position we would like to apply for but based on the job description we don’t feel we won’t even be considered? How about not accepting a job assignment or an opportunity because we think we’re not capable and we are scared of failing? I still feel that way from time to time but looking back at my career, the greatest growth and greatest sense of accomplishments came when I decided to be bold and just accept the responsibility without thinking much of the consequences of failure. Let me give you three experiences that made a significant impact on my career.  These are three instances that while it may not have been the brightest move, by stepping up and taking on the challenge, I was able to use them to grow as a person and as a professional.

* I accepted a web development consulting project about late 1998 that required coding in a programming language, Active Server Pages (ASP), in spite of the fact that I had zero experience using the language.  I had met with the client on a Friday afternoon to discuss the project, a web site connected to an MS Access database back-end. I assured him that I could do it. What I did not tell him was that I still had to figure out how to do it. I had to learn how to use the programming language itself and learn software called Visual Interdev to do development. The project was due in two weeks and I had to show him a prototype by Wednesday of next week. When I left our meeting, I was nervous, knowing that I had no clue on how to do it. I wanted to go back and tell him I couldn’t do it after all but I decided to go straight to a bookstore and bought 4 beginning ASP books. I read all those four books from beginning to end during that weekend, barely sleeping at all. I did the sample tutorials and by the time Monday came around, miraculously, I was able to actually program well enough to be able to at least do the prototype to my client. During the next week until I delivered the project, I barely slept as I learned and coded every night until I was able to complete the project. This experience accelerated my learning path to learning this language and the concept of server-side web programming and database connectivity from the web.

* My friend and I accepted an MS Access database programming project for a local bank in the early 2000 even though I had not even programmed in MS Access as desktop application at all. The web development project I shared above was using MS Access as a database for a web front-end. This particular project was a desktop program using MS Access user interface like forms and buttons, etc. The program was to be used by HR to track training requirements based on employees’ role in the bank and completion of these trainings.  The project was $5,000 dollars which we would split 50/50 and so when we met with the bank’s representative, we were salivating at the amount of money, not realizing how much effort it would take and that that I had to learn how to use a language called Visual Basic for Applications (VBA) as well as how to design using MS Access user interface first before I could even start the project. I already knew a little bit of a variation of VBA called VBScript used in Active Server Pages but I had a lot to learn.  While my friend and I were together in this project, I had to do the entire database programming as his role was to train the bank employees. I barely slept for two whole month as I coded evenings from 8 pm to 3 am, even 5 am some days then had to wake up to go to my regular job at 7am. It was exciting time for sure but it was also very trying. We were able to complete the project after two months. After I was done with the project, I calculated my time and figured I spent an average of 6 hours a day coding in the evenings and then 20 hours during the weekend for 8 weeks which equaled to about 400 hours. So $2500/400 hours = $6.25/per hour. Given that as an independent contractor, I had to pay about 33% tax, in the end, I think got paid about $4/hour for my efforts. I certainly did not get paid a lot and  I learned my lesson in terms of how much to charge for consulting projects based on a formula of multiplying any efforts/cost by 3x whatever I think it would take me to complete a project. This project started my knowledge of how to develop desktop database applications using MS Access which I used for subsequent projects and figured out an estimation formula that seems to still work today.

* At the beginning of this year, I volunteered myself to do presentations on mobile web development and social media to the campus although I had fear of public speaking but I figured I had to get over my fear sometime in my life. I was never comfortable speaking in front of public although I had given speeches including at my high school graduation, and in college. I would get nervous and very stressed out. In part, it’s because early on as a child growing up, I was teased about my “fob (fresh off the boat)” Filipino accent since my family and I immigrated to the United States from the Philippines when I was 11, and so I developed a fear of public speaking. For my first social media presentation (pdf) to my student affairs colleagues, I knew I was not going to be comfortable speaking by myself so I asked two colleagues who I consider as great speakers to join me.  It was a great move since I was able to gain some confidence and practice. While I asked other colleagues to join me with my subsequent presentation to the general UCSB campus, it was more to represent a different aspect of my talk and provide case studies of how to implement social media and mobile web development. In preparing for my talks,  I spent countless of hours doing research on mobile web and social media and in the process, I was able to learn enough materials to be confident for my talks, actually enjoy them and more importantly, gained valuable insights like social media strategy for student affairs and the benefits of twitter.

With all the experiences I shared above, I learned the following:

  • Sometimes in life, when opportunities present themselves, just take it. You may never have that opportunity again. Given time and effort, it is doable. Hard, but doable, just commit to it.
  • The greater the challenge, the greater the potential for learning. I am sure I would have learned the skills I gained through my experience above some other ways, but those experiences definitely accelerated my learning path.
  • Think “What will I gain from this experience?” instead of “What if I fail?”
  • The benefits may not be immediately realized after the completing the challenge, but in due time, the benefits will come. While I may have only earned $4/hour for the bank project, I learned how to estimate better for future projects so I was more properly compensated. In addition, the skills I learned from that project (and other consulting projects) contributed to my promotions towards my current leadership position.
  • In taking on responsibilities beyond your comfort zone, you may find out something about yourself. While I do not consider myself a daredevil, someone who takes big risks, maybe I am after all. I may not fly out of planes anytime soon (I may for my 40th birthday) or ride a motorcycle (I think I’ve finally gotten my wife’s permission for me to have one) but taking on those projects without fully thinking about what they meant, maybe I am a risk-taker. There’s a thrill in taking on something knowing there’s a large chance of failing, and challenging myself to beat the challenge.

I would love to hear about your experience when you’ve taken on challenges greater than what you thought you’re capable of that took you to another level.

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