Some Career Advice For President Obama

09/07/2016 09:37 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2016
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

Dear Mr. President:

In just a few months, your career will undergo a dramatic transformation. You will leave the office of chief executive of the free world and once again become a civilian — at an age when the average American still has a decade or more left in his or her working life. Like millions of baby boomers, you will have to navigate the final big chapter of your career.

I know you’re quite busy, but as you plan for this next phase, here are five pieces of unsolicited, but heart-felt, career advice:

1. You don’t need a two-year plan, you need a 20-year plan

Most people underestimate how long a career journey is in total and how many miles are still ahead. If you work well into your 70s, as many Americans do, you could easily have more than 30,000 hours of work life still in your future. How will you shape a post-presidential career that is rewarding, purposeful and sustainable?

You have already written three bestselling books, and a number of retired presidents have successfully turned their attention to speaking, writing and philanthropic work. While those who have come before can serve as models, you will have to chart your own course. How many speeches and books do you really want to write? Will that be sufficient to sustain you over another two decades?

As you ponder your options, ask yourself how each one stacks up on the four big career questions:

Will I learn?
Will I have impact?
Will I have fun?
Will I be fairly rewarded?

2. Build on your sweet spot

You will find your sweet spot at the intersection of three things: what you love, what you’re good at, and what the world values. Again, you can look to the paths that other leaders have taken once they’ve passed the peak of their careers. Al Gore built his later stage as a champion for combatting climate change. Mike Bloomberg is backing gun control, and Bill Gates has become a leading philanthropist, with a particular focus on infectious diseases. Judging by the moments where you have shown the most resolve and passion, it feels like your sweet spot can be found somewhere in the vicinity of healthcare and education.

3. It’s time to prune and cultivate your career ecosystem

One of the great things about being president is that you have almost unlimited access to resources and contacts. Everyone takes your calls. As a private citizen, you will need to edit down your contacts. Ask yourself which colleagues, experts and mentors will be important to your next chapter, not just your last one. Which are the relationships that bring you energy and joy, and amplify your expertise and impact? A career ecosystem is a powerful fuel that propels us forward to do even greater things. Which exciting new skills and connections will you need post-POTUS?

4. Keep playing basketball every week

In our work lives, it is often the non-work activities that act as vitamin shots to keep us fresh and energized. Your weekly hoop games have become legendary in Washington and they have probably helped keep you sane during the White House years. Find a way to keep up the tradition. Golf is okay, but basketball seems to hold a special place in your heart. It brings out your trash-talking competitive streak. It lets you bump into people and push them around. So find a way to keep up the ritual of Sunday basketball at Barack’s place. Just don’t be surprised if the competition seems to beat you a lot more now that you’re not president.

5. Stay healthy. If you have the urge to smoke again, take up the harmonica instead

You’ll get to enjoy these next decades and thousands of working hours in top health. By all accounts, you’ve done a great job cutting out the smoking. And you are certainly someone who understands the benefits of moderation — the seven-almond nightly snack makes good sense. But as a former 60- cigarette-a-day smoker, I know that the tobacco demon is an immensely powerful and seductive force. You cannot just wish it away or ignore it. You need to channel it. If the urge comes back, take up the harmonica. It is cheap, highly portable and remarkably satisfying for the orally fixated among us. Keep resisting the Marlboros and get your Mojo Working. Stevie Wonder and I will come over to give you lessons. 

Your career to date has been remarkable and unusual, but the stage you’re moving into now is one that all of us will navigate in our working lives. Build on your strengths, invest your time wisely and with purpose, and you will thrive for years to come.

Brian Fetherstonhaugh is author of the new book, The Long View: Career Strategies to Start Strong, Reach High, and Go Far, and Chairman and CEO of OgilvyOne Worldwide.

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