TIME Careers & Workplace

5 Tech Skills That Will Help Any Career

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Master these basic building blocks

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Almost every single job out there involves being online in some capacity. That means that, at some point in your career—this year or 30 years from now—you’ll likely have to access the back end of a company site, a blog, or an email marketing service.

Did that sentence scare you?

Don’t worry, it’s not as hard or as complicated as it sounds. Especially once you master a few of the basic building blocks. No, you won’t magically transform into Steve Jobs or Marissa Mayer overnight, but you can gain enough knowledge to talk credibly about website development and design. And that new knowledge might impress your current boss or a future hiring manager.

So, skip the Facebook stalking for a while and spend that time boosting your digital know-how instead. Here are five basics you can get started on right now.

1. Image Editing

Photos aren’t just for selfies and Instagram. They’re also an important tool for marketing, technical documents, and of course, a company’s online presence.

If you can do a little image editing with tools like Photoshop, you can:

  • Resize images for blog posts or websites
  • Crop images for social media headers or profiles
  • Create images for online marketing campaigns, emails, and digital newsletters

For quick and easy image editing, check out Pixlr, a photo editor you can use for free on the web or mobile devices. Or download a free 30-day trial of Photoshop and try the free tutorials on the site.

2. SEO

There’s no getting away from the fact that most people head to Google when they need information nowadays. You can help your company take advantage of that fact by understanding how SEO (search engine optimization) works and how it can improve your company’s business. If your company has any kind of online presence, SEO can only help it.

With a bit of SEO, you can:

  • Optimize images so they’re also searchable
  • Create links that best describe what’s on your site
  • Write content that gets you noticed by search engines

To start unraveling the secrets of SEO, check out Google’s free “Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide.”

3. HTML

HTML, or HyperText Markup Language, is what’s used to put content on websites or web-friendly emails. You probably won’t be able to build a whole site after studying HTML for a few hours, but you will be able to do surprisingly important tasks with only a handful of code.

For example, with HTML, you can:

  • Finally correct the typos on your company’s site
  • Put content in a CMS (content management system) like WordPress
  • Write marketing emails with a service like MailChimp or Campaign Monitor
  • Create links to track the performance of marketing campaigns

You can learn HTML basics and even create your own web page in the free Skillcrush 10-day Bootcamp. You’ll also learn interesting and useful tech terms along the way that’ll wow your colleagues when you start casually tossing them out.

4. CSS

CSS (a.k.a., Cascading Style Sheets) is like the yin to HTML’s yang: It’s the code that formats and styles HTML content. By changing just a little CSS, you can completely change how a web page or other digital content looks.

If you know CSS, you can:

  • Create an email newsletter that matches your company’s brand
  • Style blog posts so they’re easier to read
  • Customize a Tumblr or Squarespace theme
  • Change the appearance of entire web pages

Check out this quick explanation of CSS to take a look at some actual CSS code. Then, have some fun playing with CSS live in the CSSDesk online editor.

5. Website Inspectors

Once you know more about websites and digital content, you can go behind the scenes with a website inspector. This is a tool that lets you see all the code that web pages are built with and—get ready for this—even edit it if you like. (Don’t worry though. The changes you make will only show up on your computer, so you won’t bring the internet down with your tweaks.)

Using an inspector is a great way to understand more about HTML and CSS—and to see how changes look before you make them on a “real” site.

Two of the most popular inspectors are Mozilla’s Firebug and Google Chrome DevTools, both of which are free. And you can get going with both inspectors with just a couple clicks by installing the Firebug Lite extension for any browser or right-clicking on any web page in Chrome to bring up DevTools.

So, what are you waiting for? Pick the building block that looks the most interesting to you, and set aside time this month to learn the fundamentals. You might even realize that you’ve discovered a new passion and decide to get a foundation in tech to advance your career. Or not. Either way, learning new tech skills can only help your career.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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15 Words You Need to Eliminate From Your Vocabulary

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Start with 'things' and 'stuff'

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Newsprint is on life support, emojis are multiplying faster than hungry Gremlins, and 300 million people worldwide strive to make their point in 140 or fewer characters.

People don’t have the time or the attention span to read any more words than necessary. You want your readers to hear you out, understand your message, and perhaps be entertained, right? Here’s a list of words to eliminate to help you write more succinctly.

1. That

It’s superfluous most of the time. Open any document you’ve got drafted on your desktop, and find a sentence with that in it. Read it out loud. Now read it again without that. If the sentence works without it, delete it. Also? Don’t use that when you refer to people. “I have several friends that live in the neighborhood.” No. No, you don’t. You have friends who. Not friends that.

2. Went

I went to school. Or the store, or to church, or to a conference, to Vegas, wherever it is you’re inclined to go. Instead of went, consider drove, skated, walked, ran, flew. There are any number of ways to move from here to there. Pick one. Don’t be lazy and miss the chance to add to your story.

3. Honestly

People use honestly to add emphasis. The problem is, the minute you tell your reader this particular statement is honest, you’ve implied the rest of your words were not. #Awkward

4. Absolutely

Adding this word to most sentences is redundant. Something is either necessary, or it isn’t. Absolutely necessary doesn’t make it more necessary. If you recommend an essential course to your new employees, it’s essential. Coincidentally, the definition of essential is absolutely necessary. Chicken or egg, eh?

5. Very

Accurate adjectives don’t need qualifiers. If you need to qualify it? Replace it.

Very is intended to magnify a verb, an adjective, or another adverb. What it does is makes your statement less specific. If you’re very happy? Be ecstatic. If you’re very sad, perhaps you’re melancholy or depressed. Woebegone, even. Very sad is a lazy way of making your point. Another pitfall of using very as a modifier? It’s subjective. Very cold and very tall mean different things to different people. Be specific. She’s 6’3″ and it’s 13 degrees below freezing? These make your story better while also ensuring the reader understands the point you’re making.

6. Really

Unless you’re a Valley Girl, visiting from 1985, there’s no need to use really to modify an adjective. Or a verb. Or an adverb. Pick a different word to make your point. And never repeat really, or very for that matter. That’s really, really bad writing.
If you are visiting from 1985? Please bring the birth certificate for my Cabbage Patch Doll on your next visit. Thanks.

7. Amazing

The word means “causing great surprise or sudden wonder.” It’s synonymous with wonderful, incredible, startling, marvelous, astonishing, astounding, remarkable, miraculous, surprising, mind-blowing, and staggering. You get the point, right? It’s everywhere. It’s in corporate slogans. It dominated the Academy Awards acceptance speeches. It’s all over social media. It’s discussed in pre-game shows and post-game shows.

Newsflash: If everything is amazing, nothing is.

8. Always

Absolutes lock the writer into a position, sound conceited and close-minded, and often open the door to criticism regarding inaccuracies. Always is rarely true. Unless you’re giving written commands or instruction, find another word.

9. Never

See: Always.

10. Literally

Literally means literal. Actually happening as stated. Without exaggeration. More often than not, when the term is used, the writer means figuratively. Whatever is happening is being described metaphorically. No one actually “waits on pins and needles.” How uncomfortable would that be?

11. Just

It’s a filler word and it makes your sentence weaker, not stronger. Unless you’re using it as a synonym for equitable, fair, even-handed, or impartial, don’t use it at all.

12. Maybe

This makes you sound uninformed, unsure of the facts you’re presenting. Regardless of the topic, do the legwork, be sure, write an informed piece. The only thing you communicate when you include these words is uncertainty.

13. Stuff

This word is casual, generic even. It serves as a placeholder for something better. If the details of the stuff aren’t important enough to be included in the piece? Don’t reference it at all. If you tell your reader to take your course because they’ll learn a lot of stuff? They’re likely to tell you to stuff it.

14. Things

See: Stuff.

15. Irregardless

This doesn’t mean what you think it means, Jefe. It means regardless. It is literally (see what I did there?) defined as: regardless. Don’t use it. Save yourself the embarrassment.

Whether you’re ghostwriting for your CEO, updating a blog, selling a product, or finishing your master’s thesis, you need to keep your reader engaged. These 15 words are a great place to start trimming the fat from your prose. Bonus? You’ll sound smarter.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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3 Secrets That Will Enhance Your Cover Letter

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Pretend you are a stranger reading your cover letter

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You know that it’s beneficial to have a second set of eyes review your application materials. Someone who can tell you that your resume looks good—except for that part where you misspelled your own name (FYI, you can check that, too!). Or that your writing sample is impressive, but that it would be even better if you used the correct version of “their.”

But sometimes, no one is available. Maybe a contact said he would help but hasn’t replied since, and you don’t want to pester him. Or maybe you’re taking a chance in your letter and you’re afraid feedback from your stuck-in-the-mud roommate will make you lose your nerve and play it safe.

So what should you do? Write your very best letter, and then, before you hit send, try these three tips.

1. Pretend You’re a Stranger

You know why you’re perfect for this job. That’s great, but that context can prevent you from spotting what’s missing in your cover letter. In other words, you might know that you excel at building strong bonds with difficult clients or that you’re an ace public speaker, but if your cover letter uses bland language like “connect with stakeholders” and “has led multiple presentations,” the hiring manager will have no way to know the depth of your skills.

So, take the advice that you surely received from some English teacher at some point, and “Show, don’t tell.” If you led “record growth,” employ the same strategies you did on your resume to quantify your achievements. In lieu of saying I could “adapt to change,” I’ve written this: “I have routinely found myself in inaugural or transitioning roles, such as a first-time admin role that became a communications position, or taking a position once held by two people and rolling it into one.”

Ask yourself, if a stranger handed you your cover letter, what impression would it make? Would you think this person has achieved what you have achieved or could contribute what you know you can?

2. Make Yourself Take a Risk

You’ve probably seen some advice suggesting you step outside of the standard “My name is Sara and I’m applying for such-and-such position…” (If you haven’t, look here, here, and here). But even if you spice up the intro a bit, you might hold yourself back from getting too creative, because as Muse contributor Dave Meadows writes, “Spice is good, but who wants to eat a spoonful of paprika?”

Honestly, one of the best cover letters I ever wrote was also the riskiest. And how I got over my fear of writing something over the top is that I reminded myself that I didn’t have to submit it. I didn’t write it in one of those finicky, little, online application boxes. I didn’t write in the same document as my pristine, go-to letter. I saved it under a different name and gave myself an hour to write down stories I thought exemplified who I was as an applicant and why I was right for the open role. Another time, I applied for a freelance writing position by submitting my cover letter in the form of an article—and yes, I landed an interview.

So, make yourself take a risk. Fill a document with words you’d use to describe yourself or slightly wacky, attention-grabbing first lines and examples. Then compare each document, and see if pulling a line or two from your risky letter will make your go-to stronger and more memorable.

3. Get Old School

Step one: Run spell check. Do not skip this step!

Step two: Locate a printer. If you don’t have access to a printer, it’s time for a field trip. Because in order to truly edit a cover letter, you’ll have to proofread it, and the most effective way to do that is to get it off of your computer screen and out in front of you—on paper.

So, print your cover letter and then read it out loud. Don’t breeze through it. Go slow, maybe use different voices—a super impressive voice, or an “I can’t believe I’m doing this” voice, or whatever works. As an editor, I can tell you that you’ll be surprised how often this tactic will show you that you’re actually missing a “the” and that without that three-letter word, your big, powerful sentence doesn’t make sense.

Cover letters don’t exist simply to torture you. They’re there because hiring managers are hoping you can flesh out your resume and provide them with a bit more information about why you’re right for the job. So, don’t submit the very first thing you write just to get it over with. Take the time to check your letter over—because you (yes, you!) have what it takes to write an amazing cover letter.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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5 Common Resume Mistakes You Can Fix On Your Own

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It’s easiest to make a mistake on the verb tense

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We’ve all heard that recruiters toss out resumes for something as simple as a typo—which is why it’s always a good idea to have someone proofread it before you hit submit. However, it’s not realistic to get someone to review it after every little tweak. But, it also doesn’t change the reality that it gets really tricky to pick up on your own mistakes, especially after a few edits.

So, what can you do? Try to be as careful and thorough as possible, of course. (Here’s a guide for that.) But also be extra mindful of these five areas whenever you’re editing it yourself.

1. Mistakes in Words in All Caps

I can’t tell you how many resumes I’ve seen with “Massachusetts” misspelled—and I work with a pretty talented lot at MIT. But, once you put that word in all caps, it’s easy to not catch an errant “s” with the naked eye. Or with spell-check, since it conveniently doesn’t screen words in all caps.

Pro Tip: Spell-check is great, but you can’t always rely on it. Go through your resume and manuallycheck all the spelling in words that are in all caps.

2. Little Inconsistencies

If you want to stand out (in a good way), you’re going to have to pay attention to the details in order to keep the entire document consistent. That means getting into the nitty-gritty details and deciding whether or not you’re going to have periods at the end of your bullets or how you’re going to format employment dates. Yep, that means not switching back and forth between dates that feature months, just years, or seasons.

Pro Tip: Make up some rules for your resume and stick with them. Consistency will help create one that’s easier on the eyes.

3. Incorrect Contact Information

When proofreading, most people skip the name and contact info section and go straight to the content. You would think that’s not a big deal. Well, I, Lily Zhang, career counselor, have a confession to make. I’ve definitely sent out a few resumes with a typo in my email address before. Don’t let this be you!

Pro Tip: Mentally make a note to go edge to edge when you proofread your resume. Take nothing for granted.

4. The Wrong Verb Tense

It’s easiest to make a mistake on the verb tense of your bullets when you’re trying to update an out-of-date version with your most recent accomplishments. It’s common to forget to change older experiences to past tense or switch back and forth between simple present tense and present continuous tense. You might not notice the weird tenses, but a recruiter definitely will.

Pro Tip: Do a run through of your resume where you just check to see if you’re using the right tense for each bullet. Since it’s not a spelling error and not technically a grammar error, you’ll have to catch these discrepancies on your own.

5. Lack of Context

Probably the hardest thing about editing your own resume is that you will always know what you mean—even if you write some incredibly vague and incoherent sentences. Your goal, however, is to make sure recruiters and hiring managers who’ve never met you before or heard anything about your work history will understand what you’ve written.

Pro Tip: Attempt to look at each bullet as a stand-alone entity and see if your bullets make sense without any additional context. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s better than not trying.

Job searching can be a lonely process, and you have to rely on your own resilience for much of it, but every once in a while you’ll get the chance to get an extra pair of eyes on your resume. Take it. And until then, keep these five pointers in mind each time you need to tweak it a bit.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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3 Questions to Ask Yourself When Feeling Unsatisfied With Your Job

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People can craft and create fulfilling careers for themselves if they ask and answer the right questions

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Whenever you’re unsatisfied with your job, people advise you to figure out what you’re passionate about and then just turn that into a full-time gig.

Honestly, how tired are you of asking yourself, “What is my passion?” I’m pretty sick of it myself, and I’m a career counselor. (Am I even allowed to say that?) The question is so big that it’s completely paralyzing for most people. In fact, it’s too big, and it therefore doesn’t usually help.

But, if you are unsatisfied with your work or really have no idea what step to take next, what else is there to focus on besides this elusive passion? I’ve thought about this a lot and come up with three questions that I think are a little simpler to answer and (hopefully) a lot more helpful .

1. What Can I Do to Help Other People?

Sometimes it’s easier to think about what you can do for others than it is to focus on what you can do for yourself. There are probably a million things that you want to do, but likely fewer that you can do, and even fewer that you can do for the greater good.

If you speak with a career counselor, the conversation is eventually going to revolve around your skills. It’s surprisingly tricky to identify them, but it’s an important part of figuring out what all your options are. Considering this in the context of what you can do for others frequently helps with that.

2. What Does My Ideal Day Look Like?

Or, more specifically, your ideal workday (and no cheating and picking a vacation day in Bali). The word “career” conjures up a pretty specific image for most people. It usually involves an office, more than 40 hours a week, and uncomfortable clothes. To break away from this restrictive perception, let’s talk more generally about how you would like your schedule structured.

What would the perfect (work) day look like to you? Do you get to have tea on your porch in the morning? Walk to the office? Have flexible hours? Physically meet with people on your team? Go to the gym in between meetings? Have dinner with your family? Whatever it looks like, this is your new professional goal. For some (read: me), this is a more tangible goal than a lofty and vague position title.

3. What Do I Find Intolerable?

Knowing what you don’t want can almost be as helpful as knowing what you want. Maybe you’re the kind of person who really can’t name what you find enjoyable, but who knows when you’ve encountered something you don’t like. That’s completely fine! Go with your strengths and start figuring out what doesn’t work for you.

Of course, I don’t mean go through jobs one by one and decide whether you like them or not. You’ll never get through a tenth of the options—let alone all of them. Instead, focus on what your values are and what they are not. Here’s a walk-through on how. Certain positions will align more with your values, plus you’ll be able to use this information to craft your perfect day.

I’m not convinced people can really ever know what their one true passion is. (If you do, good for you. Try not to rub it in.) But, I’m sure that people can craft and create fulfilling careers for themselves if they ask and answer the right questions.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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5 Ways You Can Advance Your Career This Weekend

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A weekend may not be enough to master a skill, but it's enough to familiarize yourself with something

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Your favorite company just posted an opening for the position you’ve always wanted. You’re bursting with excitement as you read the job description—the position was basically created just for you! Except for the fact that there’s one requirement you don’t meet.

If this scenario sounds familiar, you’re certainly not alone. Missing certain “must-haves” in a position description is something every job seeker encounters. And, while there are plenty of strategies for applying to roles when you don’t meet the requirements, sometimes it might be more effective—and much more rewarding—to just make that “must-have” a part of your resume.

I know what you’re thinking: Learning a new skill takes forever. And, between all the meetings, assignments, and Netflix binge-watching, who has time to schedule in more commitments? But what I’m suggesting isn’t spending 20 hours a week attending one-on-one lessons.

No, I’m thinking of career-advancing classes and tutorials you can take this very weekend. While you’re unlikely to master something new over two days, it is possible to become familiar with a new skill and turn yourself into a (more) valuable job candidate.

1. Learn Graphic Design

Expertise in graphic design—whether it’s using Adobe Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, or another platform—is becoming a highly sought-after skill for many types of positions, from editorial roles to social media management gigs.

Thankfully, it’s not difficult to learn the basics of design on your own. Adobe Suite, the platform with the most-used design and photo-editing tools, offers a 30-day free trial for Photoshop, InDesign, and Illustrator. To get started, you can use any of Adobe’s detailed tutorials that highlight the essentials and explain the key techniques. And, if you’re willing to spend the money, Photoshop courses from online education platform Lynda are a favorite among the designer community.

2. Learn Public Speaking Skills

Just because public speaking doesn’t require technical expertise doesn’t mean it’s not as important as the more concrete skills on this list. Career expert Jo Miller quotes Deloitte partner Jennifer Knickerbocker, who says that “done well, public speaking is a way to quickly establish your credibility and communicate with a wide audience.” And she’s right. Whether you’re applying to jobs or working toward a promotion, how you speak greatly affects how people perceive you.

Concrete ways to improve your public speaking skills over a weekend? Knickerbocker recommends recording yourself speaking on random topics and watching the videotapes over and over. There’s no doubt that listening to your recorded voice is uncomfortable. But you’ll thank yourself the next time you step inside an interview room or give a presentation in front of your boss. You can get started with Coursera’s free “Introduction to Public Speaking” online class; it will help you with everything from crafting impromptu speeches to delivering persuasive talks.

3. Learn Basic Coding

This list would, of course, not be complete without including programming skills. Don’t let the discouraging myths about learning to code stop you from taking that first step. Although you most likely won’t be qualified to apply to entry-level software engineering positions after a weekend, you will be able to build a small business website, a Mad Libs game, and other real-life projects with tools like General Assembly’s Dash.

Besides Dash, Codecademy also offers free lessons to anyone hoping to learn programming languages ranging from HTML to CSS to Javascript to Python to PHP. Not only are the projects in these lessons short, but you’ll also feel pretty darn accomplished each time you successfully complete one. When the weekend ends, it’s possible that you’ll feel comfortable adding one—or more—programming languages into the “Skills” section of your resume.

4. Learn How to Become a Niche Publisher

Publishing in your area of expertise is a great skill to have, and it makes getting noticed by both recruiters and influential figures in your industry much easier. You can either publish on your personal website or blog, on LinkedIn Pulse, or on sites like Medium. For anyone whose personal website following is small, LinkedIn is probably the best choice because you already have an existing audience that will receive a notification for every post you make.

To decide what exactly to publish, career writer Adrian Hopkins suggests keeping an eye on business book lists on The New York Times and on The Wall Street Journal. When a book that’s relevant to your industry appears, read it and write a review. This is an effective way to engage with different authors’ arguments and will show people on your personal website or in your LinkedIn network that you’re serious about becoming a thought leader in this industry. The best part? You can definitely choose your area of expertise and write your initial post over a single weekend.

5. Learn How to Build a Website

Even if building websites isn’t part of the job you’re applying to, you’ve probably noticed that more and more companies are asking for a link to your personal website with your application materials. And that’s a good thing! Regardless of what industry you’re in, building a personal website is an effective way to showcase your existing skills. Use it to compile published work into a cohesive portfolio if you’re a writer, to create albums of your best pieces if you’re a designer or photographer, and to show off your programming expertise if you’re a engineer (assuming, of course, that you built the website from scratch).

For anyone without the knowledge of building websites from scratch, platforms like Squarespace provide gorgeous, minimalistic templates for you to customize. Sign up for The Muse’s free email-based class to learn the secrets of creating a dynamic website—you’ll have yours up and running by the end of the weekend.

Learning new skills take time. But, with so many resources available both online and offline, it’s very possible that, over a weekend, you can learn something that will make you a more well-rounded job seeker or employee. Besides, you’ll head into Sunday night feeling like you just had the most productive weekend ever.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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How Successful People Go From Good to Great in Anything They Do

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Make an 'accomplishment' folder to file positive feedback from others

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We’re in the second quarter of 2015, and for many people, this means that the year’s first batch of performance reviews are coming soon.

Ironically, the experience you want most from your review is often the hardest to prepare for: Positive feedback. Just like the grade school days of gold star and “A+” stickers, it’s so good to hear “You’re doing great! No issues! Keep it up!” on the job. But you absolutely cannot let your good work stop there.

My boss at MTV Networks had an approach to reviews that has been tattooed on my brain for the last nine years. He was one of those “40 Under 40” types who had performed well at every stage in his career, including having been one of the youngest-ever partners at a major consulting firm. One day, I asked him how he stayed motivated to get better and he said, “I want a win every quarter.”

I took that to mean that he wanted to look at his work every three months and make a strong case for the value he had contributed to his company. He must have been hearing “good job!” along his path, yet he committed himself to turning that “good” into “great.”

If it’s worked for him, it can work for all of us. Here are three easy steps you can take to make the most of positive feedback—at your review or anytime.

Document It

As you receive positive feedback from your managers, team members, and clients, be sure to keep track of it on an ongoing basis. Make a “brag” folder to file accolades in your inbox (more on that here). If you got the feedback in conversation, jot down what the person said and email it to yourself.

The benefit of documenting good feedback is that over time, you’ll start to notice what your specific strengths are. You can use them to make the case for raises and promotions, but more importantly you’ll see where to invest more energy to become great. For example, you may have a knack for writing. Push yourself to become a master by taking a course in copywriting, grant writing, or something else related to your field.

Connect It

When you’re filing your brags, keep an eye on how your company is performing overall so that you can align your performance to corporate progress. For example, if your company set goals around efficiency and accuracy, make sure you’re the one who’s consistently finishing your projects on time. It shows that you’re not just interested in doing good work, you’re interested in doing the right work—work that will impact the company’s bottom line.

Better yet, ask your manager about longer-term goals that may not have been shared with your whole team yet, then aim your performance at those metrics. Like hockey great Wayne Gretzky said, “skate to where the puck is going to be.”

Beat It

Once you get good feedback, ask yourself “WWJD”—or, what would (Michael) Jordan do? The best basketball player in history could have stopped after his first championship, or his first three. But he pushed himself and his team to six championships, the most wins in a season, and 10 individual scoring records. What would it take for you to do your tasks faster, better, or with bigger impact?

As a personal note: At Bureau Blank, my team is responsible for writing the project briefs that that we use to understand the challenges our clients face. When I first started writing them five years ago, it would take me up to two days to complete one and feel good about it. I was getting good responses from my team and my clients, yet I knew briefs shouldn’t always take that long to do. I challenged myself to find ways to make the writing process shorter. One improvement was to develop templates. Now, for me or any member of my team, a strong brief can get wrapped in about two hours.

In an era when companies’ needs are evolving so rapidly, it’s important to be your own motivator. If you use positive feedback to push yourself to peak performance, not only will you beat complacency, you’ll always be prepared to answer “What have you done for me lately?” and crush it.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. The article above was originally published on The Muse.

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This Is Why Successful People Get Ahead Faster Than the Rest of Us

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"Look forward and drive forward"

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Racecar drivers say that the trick to managing speed at 200 miles per hour is to drive for daylight. They don’t focus on the lines on the pavement or their competition—they are going too fast. Instead, they focus on the horizon. Their hands follow their eyes.

Creative business minds do much the same thing. They navigate around immediate obstacles by keeping their long-term mission in view. They drive for daylight.
“You’ve got to look forward and drive forward,” Kevin Plank says about his company Under Armour. “You’ve got to dictate the tempo.”

Like each of the 200 leading entrepreneurs I interviewed for The Creator’s Code: The Six Essential Skills of Extraordinary Entrepreneurs, Plank executes in the moment with a laser-like focus on what lies ahead. These entrepreneurial professionals don’t benchmark themselves against the competition or evaluate success based on industry norms.

This kind of forward focus is distinctive. Psychologists at the University of Chicago conducted a study that shows that people who are committed to a goal have two ways of thinking. “To-go” thinkers like the entrepreneurs I studied are motivated by what remains to be done. “To-date” thinkers focus on how far they’ve already come.

To frame it another way, let’s say you’re running a marathon and you’re at mile 18. Labored breathing and exhaustion kick in. But you’re determined to finish. How do you stay motivated? Are you thinking of the 18 miles you’ve completed, or are you thinking of the 8.2 to go?

Creators who turn small notions into big businesses fall into the latter category. They stay focused on the horizon, and the challenge ahead propels them forward.

Here’s how they do it—and how you can do it, too.

Scan the Edges

Like racecar drivers, creators also constantly scan the periphery. This allows them to detect new concepts as soon as they arise.

“Good entrepreneurs are always looking around the edges to see if there’s any signal out there that says an original assumption is aging, becoming obsolete, or losing its appeal,” says Gilman Louise, founder of the venture capital firm In-Q-Tel.

If senior executives in the car rental industry had been scanning the edges, they might have seen Robin Chase coming in 2001.

Chase saw that mobile technology could be used to challenge the conventional wisdom that you could only buy, lease, or rent a car. Why not share it? Sure, there was a negative connotation around sharing something as personal as a car. But we don’t consider hotels as bed sharing or gyms as treadmill sharing. Surely, then, the social obstacle could quickly fall away.

Her pay-as-you-go model took off. Avis purchased Chase’s company, Zipcar, in 2013 for $500 million.

Chase was an early pioneer of the sharing economy that today includes companies such as Airbnb, Uber, and Rent the Runway. Her ability to identify a fringe idea and take it mainstream is available to all of us.

Avoid Nostalgia

Racecar drivers can’t spend energy obsessing over their last race; likewise, my research revealed that creators avoid nostalgia. They don’t get caught up in “what could have been,” or “what might have happened.” They avoid what academics call counter-factual thinking. This means they quickly learn from mistakes, but they don’t fret over past failures or glorify past successes.

Don’t look back. Chipotle’s Steve Ells strives to make “the world’s best burrito” even better. He doesn’t allow managers to display awards for “Best Cheap Eats” or “Best Burrito” on the walls of Chipotle restaurants. “Yes, someone thought that we were best burrito, but that’s now irrelevant because we need to be better than that,” he said when we sat down at Chipotle’s New York City office. Those able to create and scale new ideas willingly abandon a legacy, even a powerful history that brought them to where they are today.

Focus on the Horizon

Elizabeth Holmes founded medical laboratory services company Theranos to fulfill her vision of beating disease by hastening its detection. The way we conduct blood tests has not fundamentally changed since the 1950s. A technician draws blood and then sends samples off to a lab; results arrive three to seven days later. By contrast, Holmes has designed a technology that uses DNA profiling and electronically sends physicians results within two to four hours.

This kind of speed can make a huge difference in the treatment of even relatively ordinary ailments. Imagine a patient waiting seven days after a blood test and then finding out she has anemia. She then undergoes another test and waits several more days to determine what kind of anemia it is. Returning to see the doctor a third time, she is told that the results show that she does not have anemia at all, but rather an iron deficiency. The problem is solved. But the entire process wasted a lot of time and money and caused needless suffering and worry.

Holmes cuts through all of these steps. It took Holmes 10 years of focused driving to advance her technology far enough to win a deal last year putting it into the giant Walgreens drugstore chain, and she still has her eyes fixed on the horizon. Think of the ramifications of extending Theranos’ speedy and readily available testing to the early detection and treatment of heart disease or cancer.

Focusing on a long-term mission makes it easier to navigate around immediate obstacles. For those who want to turn ideas into enterprises, don’t benchmark yourself against industry norms. To set the pace in a fast-moving global marketplace, focus always forward on shaping what comes next.

That’s how creators work. They seize the wheel, their eyes focused ahead, weaving around the potholes of naysayers and distractions. They have one objective: Success. And nothing gets in their way.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. This article was originally published on The Muse.

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24 LinkedIn Do’s and Don’ts Every Professional Should Know

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Clicking that 'congratulate' button will go a long way

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Back in the day, etiquette rules were fairly simple. Always send a thank-you card. Don’t put your elbows on the table. Hold the door open for other people.

However, social networks have made matters much more complicated, and Emily Post isn’t much help when it comes to online etiquette. That’s why we’ve compiled the ultimate list of LinkedIn dos and don’ts. (Thank-you card not required.)

Do: Connect With People Right Away

It might be considered desperate or creepy to friend someone on Facebook right after you’ve met that person, but LinkedIn has completely different rules. I’ll chat with someone for 10 minutes at a conference, leave to attend a session, and request to connect with him or her as I walk away. The longer you wait after the meeting, the less likely people are to remember you. So don’t feel weird—send that request.

Don’t: Try to Connect With Someone When You’re Not on His or Her Profile

Say you’re scrolling through LinkedIn’s list of “People You May Know.” Underneath each person’s headshot and title, you’ll see a blue box that says “Connect.” Don’t click it—you won’t get a chance to customize your invitation. Similarly, if you’re looking at search results, you’ll see a blue connect box to the right of each person’s info. Using that button won’t allow you to make your request unique. The only way you can change the connection request is if you click “Connect” when you’re on someone’s profile.

Do: Personalize Every Single Connection Request

If you take one thing away from this article, it should be customizing your requests.

Which would you rather get from a co-worker: “I’d like to connect with you on LinkedIn,” or “Hi, Sam! Congrats on getting second in the hackathon. Can’t wait to see what you come up with next.”

Most of the time, the person you’re requesting will accept whether you use the default message or not. But tailored messages make people feel special. It’s worth the extra effort.

Need help? Check out these 10 templates.

Don’t: Send Requests More Than Twice

After three weeks of my internship at a small media company, I’d finally gotten the chance to sit down with the CEO for an informational interview. We ended up talking for 90 minutes, not 20, and I walked away confident she’d remember me. Yet months and months went by—and she still hadn’t accepted my LinkedIn invitation.

While I was tempted to “remind” her by withdrawing my request and then sending a new one, I decided not to. Being pushy would only make her more likely to say no; besides, LinkedIn automatically reminds the person you’ve asked if he or she hasn’t yet answered your invitation.

Finally, last month, she became my connection. (I’m guessing she had a huge archive of unanswered requests she finally went through.) I’m relieved I didn’t badger her.

The takeaway: Be patient. Re-sending an invite will only lower your chances for success.

Do: Use LinkedIn as an Alternative to Informational Interviews

The informational interview is a wonderful resource—but as Muse writer Elliott Bell points out, it’s hard to convince strangers to set aside a portion of their lives to meet you at Starbucks.

If you’re approaching someone who you already know is really, really busy or unlikely to say yes, consider sending him or her a LinkedIn connection request instead.

Here’s what I’ve used:


Dear Influential Person,

Your work for X Company is unlike any content marketing I’ve seen before. If you had a spare moment, could you tell me what it’s like to build custom content for high-profile brands like Pepsi and CitiBank? Specifically, how do you maintain editorial integrity while accomplishing the client’s goals? I’m hoping to go into content marketing and would appreciate any takeaways you may have.

Thank you so much,

Aja Frost


About half of the time, I’ll receive a response, and sometimes, our online conversation will actually evolve into a real informational interview.

In any case, it’s ideal for getting insight from people who otherwise might not have time for you.

Don’t: Neglect to Look at Someone’s Contact Policy

Maybe you’ve hunted down your role model or someone who works at your dream company. AsMuse writer Lily Herman explains, “Before you click the ‘Message’ button and declare your admiration, make sure you check that person’s profile to see if there are any specific requests about messages.”

Some people prefer email over LinkedIn for inquiries, some people don’t want to hear from strangers at all, and some people (like career expert Larry Kim) will talk to or connect with virtually anyone!

Do: Connect With Recruiters

If you’re looking for a job, one of the first steps you should take is finding recruiters in your industry and connecting with them.

In your request, explain you’re actively seeking new opportunities and would love if he or she could pass along any relevant ones. You can also explain you’d be happy to call upon your network if the recruiter needs any candidates for other positions.

Don’t: Ignore Recruiters When You’re Not Looking for a Job

You could be completely satisfied with your job and have no expectations of leaving for the next 20 years. You still shouldn’t ignore recruiters—it’s impossible to know what will happen to your workplace, so you should cover your bases.

If a recruiter messages you to share a job opportunity, be very honest and say you’re not looking for a job. However, you should leave the door open for future contact. For example:


Dear Recruiter,

Thank you for reaching out! I am not looking for a job at this time, but I’ll be sure to update you if that changes. In the meantime, would you like me to connect you with a contact of mine who is open to a new role? He has similar qualifications and could be perfect for the job you described. Please let me know, and thank you again for your inquiry.

Aja


Do: Connect With People Who Work at Your Dream Company

You’ve heard that the best way to get noticed by a company is to come in via a referral, so absolutely use LinkedIn to help you get in front of people who work at your dream employers.

Say you wanted to work at the Muse. Type “The Muse” into LinkedIn, and then refine the search by choosing the option to only see people currently employed by the company.

If you’ve got a first degree connection, woo-hoo! Here’s how to ask for a referral.

Maybe you only have a second degree connection. Go ahead and contact your first degree contact (the mutual connection), and ask him or her for an introduction.

No shared connections? That’s OK. Here’s how to get around that problem using LinkedIn groups.

Don’t: Connect With the Hiring Manager

During your pre-interview research, you find the hiring manager’s profile and figure you’ll request her to show how interested you are. Or maybe she already interviewed you, and it went great—so you figure you’ll connect and send her a note thanking her for your meeting.

Don’t do it. As a hiring manager once told us:

“There is nothing inherently wrong with it. But it just feels like they are putting the cart before the horse. I feel uncomfortable because we don’t really have a reason to connect. If I loved a candidate, it wouldn’t stop me from hiring them, but if I was on the fence, it would sway me to go in another direction.”

Do: Turn Off Your Activity When You’re Updating Your Profile

When you’re giving your profile an overhaul, you don’t want to bombard your connections with dozens of updates. Go to your LinkedIn Privacy and Settings page (found by clicking on your photo in the top right-hand corner) and finding the option to “Turn on/off your activity broadcasts” underneath Privacy Controls.

After you make your changes, turn your activity broadcast back on so people can see when you get a new job, add new skills, or have a work anniversary.

Don’t: Post Too Much or Too Little

One of my connections is a “super user” when it comes to LinkedIn—and not in a good way. Every day, he posts two or three articles, advertises his personal site, and publishes on LinkedIn Pulse. If he did just one of those, it wouldn’t be a problem, but I got tired of having my newsfeed clogged up with his activity. I ended up blocking him. (To block people, go to their page, click the upside-down blue triangle to the right of their picture, and choose “Block or Report.”)

His case is rather unique; most people don’t post enough on LinkedIn. As a general rule, aim to post a couple of times per week, and no more than once per day. You’ll stay visible without annoying your network.

Do: Congratulate People (the Right Way) When They Update Their Positions

On the upper right side of your homepage, there’s a box where LinkedIn shows you all of your connections who have recently added new jobs, celebrated a work anniversary, or changed a photo.

It’s tempting to merely “like” the status or write a quick “Congrats!” but you won’t be doing yourself any favors in terms of networking.

To network meaningfully, you have to show some effort. Writing a thoughtful comment—rather than a bland, generic one—will not only strengthen the connection between you and the professional you’re addressing, but it will also make you look good to everyone who sees your comment in their newsfeed.

For example, when one of my contacts became a staff writer for a well-known magazine, I wrote, “I can’t wait to read your pieces! Your writing is always clear, concise, and engaging, and your choice of topics is always spot-on. The magazine’s editors are lucky to have you.”

The extra effort is minimal, while the effect on our professional relationships is big.

Don’t: Congratulate People When They’re Updating an Out-of-Date Profile

Now, you’re all excited to write great comments on all your connections’ statuses. However, be careful.

If someone is updating an out-of-date profile, you’ll look silly and inattentive for congratulating him or her for getting a job he or she has had for years.

Or say your contact got demoted or fired. He might change his title from “Corporate Analyst at X Company” to “Seeking new opportunities.” You probably don’t want to congratulate him on his misfortune.

Bottom line: Make sure you’re congratulating people on the right things.

Do: Give Endorsements When You Can

While I don’t believe endorsements are quid pro quo, I absolutely think you should endorse people with whom you’ve worked closely. I make a point of going to my co-workers’ and supervisors’ profiles periodically to check which skills they’ve added. For example, if I watched my boss give an amazing presentation, I’ll recommend her for “PowerPoint,” and “public speaking.” It’s a much more meaningful way to give endorsements than arbitrarily recommending a person for every skill he or she has listed. Think of how fun it would be to write a great report and then get an endorsement from your colleague for “trend analysis” and “research.”

Of course, you shouldn’t feel like you have to endorse anyone just because he or she endorsed you. In general, I only endorse people for skills I know they have—otherwise the entire system is pointless.

Don’t: Be Afraid to Ask for Endorsements

Maybe you’re trying to emphasize your social media skills on your LinkedIn profile, but only a couple people have endorsed you for “Twitter,” or “Facebook,” or “social networks.” Don’t be afraid to send your contacts a message asking them to endorse you for those key skills. When I did this, I picked around eight people I knew had seen me use my target skills, and messaged them:


Dear Contact,

Hope you’re doing well! I’m trying to flesh out my LinkedIn profile and would be so grateful if you could endorse me for storytelling and creative writing. Of course, if you’re too busy or feel uncomfortable with that, I completely understand.

Best,

Aja


Do: Be Generous With Giving Recommendations

By generous, we definitely don’t mean with the truth—we mean in how many you give. You may feel way too busy to respond to every single recommendation request you get. However, if you don’t have time to write someone a great one, there’s no shame in asking him or her to write it for you.

For example:


Dear Former Intern,

Thank you for the recommendation request—I’d be happy to write you a review! Would you mind sending over a “brag” list of your qualifications and achievements for my reference?
Thanks so much,

Aja


Don’t: Feel Obligated to Recommend Sub-Par Employees

However, you have no obligation to recommend people who don’t deserve it. Suppose you get a request from a woman who used to work with you who failed to pull her weight in group projects, showed up late, and left early. Everyone in the office was happy when she left for another job. Now she’s asking for a recommendation. Since she’s in your industry, you don’t want to burn any bridges, but you also don’t want to give her a review she hasn’t earned—which could harm your credibility.

You might be tempted to just ignore her request, but that’s a little passive-aggressive and unprofessional. (Don’t forget she’ll be able to see her pending request!) Instead, send a polite but honest message.

“Say something like, ‘Listen, I’m not the right person,’ or ‘I’m not the right fit for this, but good luck,’” recommends Jodyne Speyer, empowerment guru and author of Dump ’Em: How To Break Up With Anyone From Your Best Friend to Your Hairdresser in a great article about turning down a reference request. “Don’t give a laundry list of reasons why you can’t do it. Just get in and get out. Be prepared for the ‘why?’ but don’t allow for any room for them to fight you on it.”

Do: Send an Awesome Recommendation Request

I conducted a mini-experiment.

First, I asked five colleagues for recommendations using LinkedIn’s default: “I’m writing to ask if you would write a brief recommendation of my work…”

Then, I asked five similar colleagues for recommendations using customized messages, like Muse columnist Jenny Foss recommends:


Hi Jill, I hope everything’s going well in Texas! I’m writing to ask if you’d be willing to write a LinkedIn recommendation for me that highlights my crisis communications skills. Ideally, I’d love for you to outline the experience you had with me through the Def Con 5 initiative last year in Tulsa. I’m working hard to transition into a senior communications role, and most of the employers I’m considering put a strong focus on crisis communications.


After one week, only one person in the first group had recommended me—versus four people in the second.

When you’re requesting recommendations, be as specific as possible. The more details you share, the easier your connection’s job will be.

Don’t: Forget the “Remind” and “Withdraw” Buttons

Under your recommendations page, you can see your pending recommendation requests. There are two options: You can remind your connection you’ve asked for a request, or you can withdraw it.

I use the remind option if it’s been a couple weeks and the person I’ve asked is someone I’m fairly confident won’t resent a friendly nudge. LinkedIn lets you edit the original message; I’ll usually preserve the body but add to the top:

“Dear So-and-So, I know you’re busy, so let me know if I can help by writing a potential draft for you! Thank you again, Aja.”

There are some people it would be inappropriate to remind—usually because they have way more rank then me, or I only know them in a very professional sense. In those cases, I’ll withdraw my request after it goes unanswered for a couple months.

Do: Remove or Update Recommendations You Don’t Like

Maybe your boss does answers your request, but you can tell she wrote it in the five minutes between her conference call and another meeting. It’s lukewarm, completely generic, or even incorrect. A bad review isn’t better than no review at all, so take it off. To do this, un-check the small box next to the recommendation. LinkedIn will remove it from your profile until you choose to show it again.

Suppose your job responsibilities have significantly changed in the two years since your manager recommended you. Find his or her recommendation and hover your mouse over it. An option to “Ask for changes” will appear underneath. Send a message saying you’d love if he or she could update your recommendation to reflect your [insert achievements here] as well as your [insert new duties here].

Don’t: Forget to Thank People Who Have Recommended You

If someone has taken the time out of his or her day to recommend you (even if it’s copying and pasting your “sample” recommendation), he or she probably expects some recognition. You can send a LinkedIn message expressing gratitude for the kind words, give your own recommendation, or (my favorite option) hand-write a thank-you note.

Do: Respond to Recommendation Requests From People You Don’t Know Well

It’s always bizarre when near-strangers ask you to commend to their work. Again, you could ignore them, but why accrue the bad career karma? Instead, say:


Dear Person I Don’t Know,

I appreciate that you value my opinion enough to ask me for a recommendation request! Unfortunately, I have a policy of writing recommendations only for people with whom I’ve worked closely. If we ever get the chance to do so, I’d be more than happy to recommend you.

Please let me know if there’s anything else I can help with.

Warmly,

Aja


Don’t: Ask a Ton of People for Recommendations at Once

Foss, who’s a recruiter, says she looks at the dates of each recommendation on a candidate’s profile. If they’ve all come in at the same time, she assumes they’ve sent messages to half their LinkedIn network in a last-minute attempt to build credibility.

Instead of going from zero to 60, Foss recommends spacing out your requests so they look like they’re coming in organically. I usually stick to one request a month.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. This article was originally published on The Muse.

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3 Strategies for Answering “How Would Your Boss or Co-workers Describe You?”

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Paraphrase a recent positive performance review

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Saying nice things about yourself tends to be a lot harder than saying nice stuff about others. For most people, it can be really awkward to talk about their own accomplishments—which is why interviewing is so uncomfortable for many.

Thankfully, there is one question that can (kind of) bridge this gap. When an interviewer asks you, “How would your boss or colleagues describe you?” this is your chance to use the words of others to talk about your own positive traits. Here are a few ideas about how you can take advantage of this opportunity.

1. Quoting an Official Performance Review

The easiest way to answer this question is to paraphrase a recent positive performance review. Referencing specifically where you’re getting your information from makes it easier to describe yourself as “trustworthy, dedicated, and creative” without cringing. You’ll also want to give some big picture context about your role and responsibilities to fill in the gaps around your answer. Altogether, it’ll sound something like this:

Actually, in my most recent performance review in April, my direct supervisor described me as someone who takes initiative and doesn’t shy away from hard problems. My role involves a lot of on-site implementation, and when things go wrong, it’s usually up to me to fix it. Rather than punting the problem back to the team, I always try to do what I can first. I know she appreciates that about me.

2. Start With the Story and Share the Takeaways

Another way to do this is to start off with the story and conclude it with how your boss or co-workers would describe you. Since the question is pretty open-ended, this is a great opportunity for you to share something you really wanted to mention in the interview but haven’t had the chance to yet.

Or, it could be the other way around. There might be some trait or skill you know the hiring manager is looking for, and the opportunity to talk about it hasn’t come up yet. This is your chance.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I’m always the one people turn to for recommendations on how to handle a new event or program—the latest fundraiser that I just told you about would be one. I have a lot of institutional knowledge, which helps, but I think the reason people come to me is because I work through what a new program might look like very methodically. If you were to ask my colleagues, I’m confident they’d describe me as logical, organized, and meticulous.

3. Naming Three Positive Traits With Short Examples for Each

Coming up with stories can be tricky when asked on the spot (which is why you should have a few prepared), so if you just can’t think of anything, here’s another approach. Try to think of three positive traits you bring to your work or workplace. Then, have a short example after each. It might go something like this:

I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I’m pretty confident my colleagues would describe me as thoughtful—I’m the one in the office who remembers everyone’s birthdays—and hard-working, since I never leave my office until it’s been dark out for a couple of hours. My boss in particular would say I’m very knowledgeable about audience development—it’s why I kept taking on more and more responsibilities in that domain.

Next time you get this question, you should be smiling because of what a great opportunity it presents to talk about pretty much anything you want to framed in a way that makes it easier for you to talk about. That’s what you call a win-win.

This post is in partnership with The Muse. This article was originally published on The Muse.

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