How to follow your passion toward a brilliant, meaningful career

A panel of experts share timeless (and timely) tips for finding your way in a chaotic professional landscape.

f you could go back in time, is there any career guidance you’d share with your 18-year-old self?

On Wednesday, Feb. 3, Ragan Communications co-facilitated a webinar produced by Braven to explore some hard-won advice that students and employees alike would be wise to heed. Braven—a nonprofit dedicated to empowering underrepresented young people with “the skills, confidence, experiences and networks necessary to transition from college to strong first jobs”—assembled a distinguished panel of comms and DE&I experts to share prime cuts of professional development advice.

The panel comprised:

Each panelist discussed the twists and turns of their career journey. Veira, for instance, shared that she had “no idea what she wanted to do” after college. Armed with a sociology degree and a desire to not return home to Cleveland, she eventually landed a job in Washington, D.C., after initially pursuing an unpaid internship.

Zamora had a similar experience of not knowing which direction to go after school, though she followed her passion by finding work at the nonprofit she volunteered for. That role led to another at an insurance company, where she piloted an ad hoc DE&I program. Now, she leads DE&I at a big manufacturing company.

“Know your ‘why’ and what you’re passionate about,” Zamora says, “It takes a lot of networking and advocating for yourself, but there’s no better voice and champion than the voice of self.”

Passion—and persistence—can certainly make up for lack of experience. Though the panelists agreed that it’s crucial to gather a diversity of experiences, jobs and skills. How else can you figure out where your strengths and passions lie?

One skill that merits extra attention is networking. As Fariha pointed out, it’s wise to “reach out to managing directors and VPs of companies you admire.” She continued: “Be persistent. Mentor junior staff and give back what you received.”

Thompson also dropped some wonderful bits of wisdom in the webinar. Not least of which is that you must be willing to raise your hand.

As an intern at The Museum of Public Relations, Thompson asked to sit in on a big meeting to see what was being discussed. His boss agreed, so he sat in the corner taking notes. He got an invite to a subsequent meeting, in which he started offering ideas and chiming in with feedback.

By the third meeting, attendees were actively asking for his suggestions and opinions.

On the last day of his internship, he politely ushered everyone into the conference room where he unveiled a PowerPoint with strategies for how the museum could expand its community, which ran the risk of spectacularly backfiring, but led to a powerful recommendation letter and a full-time role.

“Don’t wait for someone to tell you to do something,” Thompson shared. “Take initiative and take a chance. Make yourself useful.”

Timeless career wisdom

Zamora shared with the group a common frustration that many students and young professionals struggle with: family pressure. “I got caught up in a certain path because I thought it was what my parents wanted me to do,” she said, noting that she initially pursued a pre-med route. Ultimately, being a doctor wasn’t for her. Making that break wasn’t easy, but now she’s doing something she’s truly passionate about. That’s what really matters.

Fariha shared similar sentiments—she considered practicing law—though she eventually wended her way into marketing and then communication. She laments not knowing more about the comms industry earlier on in life. Of course, being a “communication pro” isn’t typically something kids dream of becoming, so it pays to examine multiple industries to see what’s out there.

“I wish I had a mentor who provided more guidance and insights into opportunities and possibilities,” Fariha said.

Veira agrees. “Be observant and collect people,” she says, with an exhortation to soak up wisdom from smart people around you. Also, as you gain experience, consider: Is this something you want to spend your life doing? Would you even want your boss’ job?

If not, maybe try something different.

In the meantime, Veira says to sharpen meaningful competencies. Think about the skills and tools companies are looking for—and join networking organizations such as PRSA and Color Comm to meet people who can assist you in your journey. “Be bold about connecting with people,” Veira says.

Thompson agreed, averring that you have to put yourself out there. That means polishing up that LinkedIn profile and boldly sending messages.

What’s the worst that could happen? They say “no”? They refuse your “request to connect”? (Pro tip: If someone gives you a hard time on LinkedIn, they’re probably not worth your time.)

Don’t be daunted, Thompson says. People typically love talking about themselves and their careers. And people are usually delighted to help students.

On that note, Thompson suggests not inflating your online resume or trying to “sound bigger than you are. Just be yourself, be transparent, and actively seek guidance from people you look up to. Specifically, message them to ask how they got to where they are or if they’d be willing to share any advice.

“Seek advice and honest feedback about your strengths and weaknesses. Ask: ‘What do I need to know to set myself up for success? What trends are shaping the industry I want to join?’” Thompson says.

And when you’ve arrived, don’t forget to help others find their way. As Zamora put it: “Everyone’s going through something. Stay positive and confident. We need to inspire and equip the next generation.”

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