Looking back over my career to date, I can identify at least three clear influences that forever altered my career path. In retrospect, it’s interesting to see how different the context was for each: parental advice, a passage in a book, and a persistent boss. Despite the contrasts, all three share one thing in common — reinforcing the importance of knowing what it is you ultimately want to accomplish, and being open to allowing outside forces to help clarify, reinforce and facilitate the path to making it happen.
1. You can do anything you set your mind to
As a child, I can’t recall a day that went by without my dad telling me I could do anything I set my mind to. He said it so often, I stopped hearing it. Along with lines like “eat your vegetables,” I just assumed it was one of those bromides that parents repeated endlessly to their kids. It wasn’t until decades later that I fully appreciated the importance of those words and the impact they had on me.
Today, the question I’m asked most often by students and interns is how best to achieve their career goals. As simple as it sounds, the short version of my response is that you have to know what it is you ultimately want to accomplish (optimizing for both passion and skill, and not one at the exclusion of the other). As soon as you do, you’ll begin manifesting it in both explicit and implicit ways.
Without question, this first principle has been the most consistent driver of my own career path over the last 20 years. (For a more comprehensive summary of this advice, you can check out the final Q&A exchange included in this “Corner Office” interview.)
2. Everything that can be converted from an atom to a bit, will be
In August, 1994, I signed up for an Aol account. I’ll never forget my first “a-ha!” moment online which occurred soon thereafter. It came through witnessing the power of collective intelligence on a Motley Fool message board. There, a community of engineers, logistics experts, and individual investors from all over the country had joined together to reverse engineer the cost basis to manufacture what would eventually emerge as a hit computer peripheral product. I remember thinking to myself, “This is going to change everything.”
About a month later, I was reading “Being Digital” by Nicolas Negroponte after seeing a rave review in Wired Magazine (for historical context, it was the print version). In the opening chapter of his book, Negroponte posited that by virtue of the ensuing digital revolution, everything that could be converted from an atom to a bit would be. Having just started as an analyst in the Corporate Development group at Warner Bros, it didn’t take much to realize this coming transition would have material implications on the studio and the entertainment industry in general.
In light of those experiences, when the opportunity arose to write the first online business plan for Warner Bros, I quickly volunteered; this despite the fact that at the time, most if not all of the investment focus was on CD-ROM. The first draft of that online plan was completed in December, 1994. It would ultimately be approved several months later and thus began my nearly two-decades-long career in digital media.
3. Do you want to push paper around or do you want to build products that change people’s lives?
I started at Yahoo in May, 2001, as co-head of the Corporate Development team. By virtue of the breadth of the role and the company’s operations, and Yahoo’s influential position within the digital ecosystem, the job provided me a front row seat to a period of extraordinary transformation within the consumer web industry.
Roughly a year after I started, Dan Rosensweig joined as Yahoo’s new COO. In addition to being an experienced web operator, Dan is one of the most effective sales people I know. I learned this firsthand after he tried recruiting me to an operating role on his team literally every time I saw him over the first year of his tenure. Though I’d politely decline each time — telling him I was happy having the opportunity to work directly with the CEO, founder, and other executives in a strategic capacity — he never stopped persisting.
Then, almost a year to the day he started, Dan said, “Jeff, you’ve always told me that your lifelong ambition is ultimately to reform the education system in the U.S. Let me ask you something: Do you think you are going to be better prepared to make that a reality by pushing paper around, working on strategy, and doing deals; or by moving in to operations and building teams, inspiring people, and developing great products that change people’s lives?”
Suffice it to say, I accepted on the spot