Kristy Derkson: Five career lessons from two decades in communications

No matter where you are in your career you never stop seeking career advice. But at a certain point in your career others start seeking career advice from you.

Careers have been on my mind lately. I recently delivered the graduation address at a high school here in Toronto. I offered a retrospective of my own career as a prospective look at these graduates’ careers-to-come. I thought I would share five of the lessons I’ve learned on this journey—lessons that apply as much to anyone, at any point in their journey, as they do to a young high school graduate staring at their future with trepidation and wonder. Because like a young grad you may be excited for what’s next; you may be scared; or you may have no idea what’s to come. Those are all good things! Here are five insights I’ve learned along the way.

First: You don’t always have to have a plan.

I didn’t. I had no idea what my career was going to be when I graduated from high school. I knew I was going to university. I knew I was going to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Geography. But at the end of high school that’s all I knew.

There’s so much pressure these days to have your whole life mapped out. To know exactly where you’re going and what you’re doing next. But it’s ok to work towards your future but live in your moment. Life goes by so fast: Savour it.

Don’t be afraid to take chances—you never know where they might lead.

A chance I took led me to my career. After our last year of university my friends and I decided to stay in Victoria, BC to enjoy one final blast of a summer.

We needed work but wanted fun, flexible jobs. For me this meant a job at a temp agency where I thought I could accept and decline assignments when I wanted. But my first placement with the BC Government led to a full-time job. If you know anything about politics, you know it is neither “fun” nor “flexible”.

I didn’t expect much to come of it. But I fell in love with communications through that job. And I’ve taken that love all the way to the top of my industry.

My point is this: the thing that isn’t part of your plan might just lead to a better plan. So, try different jobs. Go travelling. Move across the country. Adulting and careers can wait. Seriously: I didn’t start my real career until I was 27 and it all worked out pretty well.

And that leads to my third lesson…

Find what you love to do and what you’re good at doing.

That intersection is where your perfect job is.

Growing up, I excelled in science at school. But the truth is I loved to write and tell stories and interact with people. Today, much of my communications work focuses on healthcare and science learning. For me, that’s the perfect intersection of skills and passion.

I think Steve Jobs said it best in a 2005 commencement speech:

“I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle.”

Not settling is my next lesson.

And what do I mean by “not settling?” It means that sometimes you might have to take a step back to take two steps forward. There have been a couple of times in my life where I’ve taken steps back. First when I made the decision to return to school to pursue my career in communications. I left a high paid, full-time job at the BC Government to do this. When I completed my PR program and entered the work force the job I took at a communications agency paid less than what I was making working in government. But ultimately it paid off. I learned from some of the best teachers in the industry and it was the first step in what has been a long, successful career.

Ten years later I was well into my career when I decided to switch gears from focusing on consumer PR to trying health care PR. Again, it set me back. Many of my consumer colleagues were promoted ahead of me. It was frustrating. But being a well-rounded communications professional who understands and can work in any sector is what opened the door to my current job. It empowered me to learn and work with a wider swath of professionals and a more diverse array of perspectives and skills.

And that’s my final lesson: Learn from all the different teachers you encounter on your life journey.

The good ones, of course but the bad ones as well. In my experience you often learn more from the bad teachers than the good ones. They teach you all the things you don’t want to be and do. And all those lessons, good and bad, will make you a little wiser and a little more ready for whatever comes next in your beautiful journey. Enjoy it!