How to succeed in a rapid-paced, ever-changing industry: my belief and advice to younger generations

by Christopher Tobias, PhD

After spending 10 years in an academic biomedical laboratory and close to an additional 20 years in pharmaceutical marketing, I am astounded at the speed in which almost any task can be accomplished with the innovative tools we have today. In the laboratory, it once took 24 hours to sequence a section of DNA from a plasmid. Today, it takes only 30 minutes. A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machine occupied a 3-foot by 3-foot space on a bench (and 4 hours of running time), whereas now it is 1/3 of the size and can amplify a sequence of DNA in a fraction of the time. These advancements have yielded many additional hours in a day to accomplish more tasks, produce more results, and determine answers faster than ever before as we push our understanding of science and its application in medicine. 

Equally, in the marketing world, the speed of our computers, the depth of our creative software, and the ability to communicate and share documents in a fraction of a second have provided unparalleled productivity to the highly competitive and exciting world of agency life. Yet, even with these incredible advancements at our fingertips, I am struck by the ruts so many of us fall into when looking to grow and excel in our careers today. When I see my colleagues, especially those in younger generations, face these challenges, my recommendations for success tend to fall into 3 main areas: (1) Excel by slowing down, (2) grow and learn from failure, and (3) reimagine your idea of success.

 “In order to get better faster, you first have to slow down and think.”

Our current working environment is packed with complexity, hourly deadlines, challenges at every turn, pressure to perform, and a never-ending stream of distractions throughout the day. Even with this somewhat onerous description, I still feel that marketing is one of the most exciting, challenging, and rewarding careers today. Recently, however, I’ve seen a disturbing trend that is surely getting in the way of some of us reaching our true potential.

Too often while walking the halls or in meetings with my colleagues, I see a stream of endless distractions keeping us from accomplishing the tasks in front of us. In today’s world of constant emails, alerts, texts, posts, notifications, emojis, memes, updates, messages, photos—oh, and Instagram, Facebook, Gmail….am I making my point?! Admittedly, my personal communication to the outside world is primarily through email and text, and I have not answered my land line since 2008. However, I do believe we need to make a serious effort to minimize the distractions that can occur every 4 seconds throughout our day. If we do not take the time, and I mean “real time,” to stop, close the door, put on the ear buds (or, better yet, sit in silence), and actually think through the challenges we face, it will never be as good as we can make it, never be as meaningful as it should be, and certainly will not be a platform in which to grow in our career.

All of us strive to be better, and want to do it faster, but making that happen takes time: the time to think, the time to explore the options, the time to learn more, the time to reflect, the time to learn from your colleagues, the time to experiment, and the time to take chances. I completely understand that time is always finite, and there is never enough of it, but slowing down and removing the distractions can open doors in your abilities—and in your career—that you never thought possible. Honestly, slowing down has the best potential for speeding up your professional growth. Yes, I believe—the turtle can and often does win the race.

“Learn and grow from failure, rather than pointing fingers.”

Failure is a part of life, often a painful one. I see it in small ways and in ways that have a much greater impact on our organization. The point about failure that is often overlooked is that it is inevitable, and even necessary, and creates a deeply valuable opportunity to learn. 

Yes, failure hurts, and often for a long, long time. But, I believe we can learn far more from failure than we ever do from success. Success is like a drug. It is exhilarating, intoxicating, and often masks the many challenges and weaknesses we have to overcome to achieve it. Failure, on the other hand, stings, lingers, and leaves wounds. Worse, it can lead to fear when trying to move forward. Failure also can cause team members to question one another and begin to point fingers. Who failed? Who’s fault was it? Who dropped the ball? This pattern of behavior leads to further in-fighting and destructive team behavior. When failure occurs, we often blame first and seek answers at another time. However, in my experience, the most high-performing teams spend time analyzing how and why failure occurred in a safe, trusting environment, so that together we can learn how not to fail at the same thing again. It seems simple, but is incredibly difficult in practice. It takes a leader who is willing to say that they could have done better, a supporting team who recognizes where they could have course corrected or spoken up, and individuals who understand that we all rise and fall together. In my experience, spending the time learning from failure not only makes each person stronger, but the team stronger, and is the best way to prepare everyone for when the next challenge arises.

“Success is not about you, but about what you can do for everyone around you.”

There are many different ways to define success in our business. We find reward in receiving promotions in title, salary increases, positive feedback and public recognition, or perhaps a “thank you” from a client or colleague. In an environment where each member of a team has a unique skillset that is essential to project development and delivery, it is understandable why the definition of success is often individually focused. And while all of these elements feel good and make us proud in the short-term, I believe success can be defined in another way.

I believe that the most powerful and rewarding measure of success occurs when we are able to recognize our innate ability to make our colleagues perform better, grow deeper, and achieve personal and professional fulfillment. When we look to improve others, every sequential piece of a project is exponentially better than the previous one. When things are truly “clicking” on a team, not only do individuals shine, but the glory of success is seamlessly bestowed across the entire group.

When everyone truly believes that collective success supersedes individual success, we can each become stronger and better than we ever hoped to be as individuals. There are amazing teams whose members believe in one another (and who also receive promotions, increased salaries, increased responsibilities, etc). These are the ones who seem to be the happiest and most positive about coming to work every day. So, remember that success can be far more satisfying as “we,” than through the acknowledgment of the efforts of “me.”