This post originally appeared in Tactics.
For more than 25 years, I have worked in the volatile and rapidly shifting industry of communications and public relations. From colleagues to clients and even competitors, I have had the enormous good fortune to learn from some of the best marketing and brand leaders of all time.
And as someone who now oversees a worldwide network of communications experts and works closely with extraordinary business leaders every day, I am frequently in a position to offer advice, suggestions or counseling to those in the early stages of their careers.
Though I believe wholeheartedly in the experience that I share, I often have a twinge of nerves over how it will be received — especially by young people like you, who have just toiled at years of study, sometimes at tremendous financial sacrifice to yourselves and your families.
Because I have to tell you that talent is not enough.
Your skills might get you in the door — or sometimes just to the door — but talent alone will not forge your path. That talent is the vehicle you drive. But where you go and how you get there are largely determined by other things.
Luck? Sure. Connections? Realistically, of course.
But often those external factors give rise only to external conditions and opportunities. And there are plenty of examples of people who blazed a trail of success only to look back with regret, even emptiness.
So when young people like you come to me for career advice — even if you’re looking for an introduction or a break, which I am more than happy to extend if I can — I will tell you that there are four things I want you to hold onto, and keep in mind, as you head out to shape the world and your lives. And I truly believe that if you do, you will not only forge paths and careers that are right and true for you, but you will also make an incredible impact on the people around you.
These are the Four I’s:
The first I — and it is first for a reason — is integrity. Flexibility is important. As my favorite songwriter once sang, “Knowledge adds; wisdom lets slide.” But there is a big difference between being flexible and doing what it takes to get something done, and compromising our values.
More than anything else, we will be remembered for our integrity: the fundamental beliefs that we embody and uphold in all our dealings with others. Integrity means keeping your word, honoring your principles, and valuing your definitions of right and wrong over everything else — over promotions, raises, recognition and success.
Define and clarify your principles now and hold to them. Trust me when I tell you: You will be glad you did in the end. And along the way, you will inspire trust and confidence not only in the people who agree with you, but also in those who disagree with you. There will be a moment when you’re under tremendous pressure to go against what you believe in. It will be like reaching a crossroads. The decision that you make, whether you realize it or not, will set you on one path or the other. Please choose wisely, and please remember the first I, integrity.
The second I represents imagination. If integrity represents truth and what is, then imagination represents possibility and what could be. Every day, ask yourself one simple question: “What if?” It will train your mind to look for unseen opportunities, to seek undiscovered solutions and to keep creativity and innovation at the forefront of your thoughts and perspective.
In an age of relentless innovation, it is the people who are able to find new solutions who rocket past everyone else. And that is not just because many old methods and ways of doing things are simply no longer working. It is because the ability to see things coming — risks and benefits alike — in time to devise actionable plans, is one of the most valuable contributions you can make. To do that demands vision, imagination and a mind that is primed to see possibility.
The third I stands for improvement. Stay fascinated. With everything. If you pass a gumball machine and wonder how it works, find out. Stay attentive and alert, and focus on the details: They will reveal what you know and what you don’t know. Don’t be content with your knowledge and ability as they are. All skill, craft and ability atrophies without exercise, and every new skill informs and improves existing abilities.
When you accept the principle of improvement, you are actually embracing two other critical traits: honesty and humility. To truly improve means you have to be honest with yourself about your abilities, about what you can really do. It is not what a boss thinks you can do, what your parents think makes you wonderful or what colleagues define as your greatest talent. It is about you getting quiet with yourself, saying, “I want to be able to do that better,” and then coming up with a real, day-in, day-out plan to make that happen.
When you are able to do this, you will not only find your abilities growing by leaps, you will also learn to be your own best ally, and you will know that you can trust yourself to always move forward.
The fourth I stands for inclusion. Though they seem to be more entrenched than ever, the silos and boundaries of another time are crumbling. Yes, we have digital bubbles that serve as personal echo chambers, never forcing us to hear different opinions and perspectives. But those are a reaction, and often a fearful one, to a world that is more beautifully and imperfectly connected than ever before.
So remember: Inclusion starts in your mind. It is an inside job. Be sure that you seek out different perspectives, opinions and thoughts. If you find yourself sitting at a table where everyone thinks and talks just like you, then you are in the wrong place. Chances are there will not be much for you to learn there after a certain point. Unless you open your mind to others, you will never be able to find the deeper connections, common ground and greater good that unite, inform and inspire.
I love the principle of inclusion because, in many ways, it is only possible after you have embodied the other three I’s. A truly open and inclusive life demands integrity, imagination and a commitment to improvement. And in an age when we are all increasingly connected, nothing is more in keeping with where we are going than inclusion. And nothing is more contrary to it than building walls to keep others out. Make sure you aren’t building those types of walls in your thinking.
If you find yourself excluding other perspectives, then pause and see what will be revealed when you apply the Four I’s to the situation: integrity, imagination, improvement and inclusion.
I truly believe that if you keep the Four I’s as your guide, no matter where you go, they will be of valuable service — to your own life, the lives of the people closest to you and the world that you will eventually inherit.
And then, I encourage you to go out there and give ’em hell.