Job titles are free.

“The Sunscreen song”, which is actually named “Everybody’s Free (to Wear Sunscreen)”, by Baz Luhrmann, has been a (potentially odd) source of wisdom for me since it came out in 1998, just a few years after I graduated from college. I listen to the song periodically, and try to share it with my kids who, at 9 and 13, don’t yet “get” it.

The words of the song aren’t those of the artist, and they aren’t Kurt Vonnegut’s either, regardless of what urban legend says. No, the words come from Mary Schmich’s 1997 Chicago Tribune column, “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young.” Much like Desiderata, the article attempted to gently deliver nuggets of wisdom about life to a younger generation – in this case as if Mary were delivering a graduation speech.

For years, I pondered how best to share my thoughts on surviving in the work world. While college prepares us for the world by chucking text at us page by page, it often can’t show us the deeper machinations of how the work world happens.

I present to you a collection of some of my thoughts about making the most of your career.


Ladies and gentlemen of the incoming workforce of 2014;
Job titles are free.

It’s true. You’ll bump into all sorts of people in your career, with lots of fancy, frilly titles. Chief of this. Executive of that. Founder of something you’ve never heard of.
Remember that titles cost nothing to hand out, and business cards are cheap to print.

Every time you go in for an interview, remember you’re interviewing the job just as much as the job is interviewing you. These are the people you’ll be working with as well as the job you’ll be working at.

Always ask, “Why did the last person in this position leave?”

Don’t settle.

Salary isn’t everything, but salary isn’t unimportant. Pats on the back won’t pay the electric bill. But if you’re only working somewhere because the pay is great, you’re cheating your colleagues, your employer, and yourself.

Typecasting isn’t just for actors. Don’t sit still. Always be working to improve yourself and your skills.

An employer who doesn’t value you improving your knowledge through training and doesn’t help you grow doesn’t value you. Don’t value them.

Age doesn’t equate to wisdom, and neither do words printed on a piece of paper in a frame on the wall. Wisdom almost exclusively arrives through experience, and experience results in both failures and successes. Humility comes from living through life’s failures, life’s successes, and learning over time that both can deliver valuable lessons.

“It seemed like a good idea at the time.” Whenever you run across the bad decisions of others who preceded you, shake your head, laugh, and repeat this to yourself. Make a plan and move forward. Don’t complain.

Consider yourself lucky if you ever work somewhere that an executive steps down because they, themselves (not the board) realize that someone else could do the job better than they could.

Murder your darlings. Suffer for your art. Take criticism as sunlight and water, and let it help you grow.


Surround yourself with people who make you wish you were smarter. Bolt from jobs where you’re always the smartest person in the room.

Value people who say “I don’t know” and ask “what do you need?”, guard yourself from people who keep secrets and never ask for help when things are going wrong.

Hiring the right people is hard. Hiring the wrong people is harder.

Firing someone, or laying someone off, is never fun.
Getting fired, or getting laid off, is never fun.

If your product or service isn’t selling, it’s probably not the marketing. It’s probably the product.

Perhaps you’ll find yourself at a startup. In such a situation, beware of strangers offering you sweat equity. Usually you’ll sweat, and they’ll get the equity.

There is no silver bullet.

You’ll probably find several stops along the way where “outsourcing” will be tossed out as the solution to a problem. With a perfect definition of the problem, a clear budget, and good management, it can be. Lacking any one of those three steps, you’ve got two problems instead.

Features, quality, or date. Choose any two.

In your career, you will likely have a spectrum of managers. Some will micromanage you, which is usually a result of their fear of failure and your failure to communicate with them enough to make them comfortable. Other managers will be so remote that you may fear failure, and feel like they aren’t communicating with you enough to make you comfortable. Communicate and collaborate, and it’ll all be fine.

When you find problems, point them out. If others around you tell you to keep it quiet, then they’re part of the problem too. If others above you tell you to keep it quiet, then you’ve got a real problem. Matches can become bonfires if you let them burn long enough.

If you make bad decisions, take the blame. If others make bad decisions, don’t feel the need to blame them.

Always be on the lookout for your next move. You may find yourself in a role that fits you from college to retirement. You may move to a new opportunity every few years. The main thing is to be cognizant that nothing is permanent, nothing is forever, and you should know what you would do the next day if your card-key stops working to unlock the door.

Do something you’re passionate about. If you’re not passionate about the thing you’re doing, you’re probably doing the wrong thing.

Meetings. Emails. Letters. Have a point, or there isn’t one.


Throughout your career, you will run into people whose primary skill is peacock language. They’ll tell you about themselves, strut around trying to look important, and talk in perfectly cromulent phrases. Smile to yourself, and remember that job titles are free.


An amendment: ˆTwo more sentiments I regret not adding to the above:

  • The unspoken word never needs to be taken back.
  • Burned bridges are hard to walk across when you need them.

I’m kind of surprised I forgot to put the first one one. It’s one of the earliest lessons I learned about work – through my father’s experiences, specifically around things that were said when leaving a job. Hint: If you think you might regret saying something to someone later, don’t. Just a good rule of thumb for life.







Comments are closed.