Career Path 4.0: Learn. Improve. Adapt.

I am finally in a position where I am truly happy with my professional life. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect or that I’m even remotely satisfied — far from it. Shit is more complicated and difficult now than ever, but I love it. I love what we are building, I’m incredibly fortunate to work with super smart people, and I walk into work every day fired up and ready for world domination. This makes me truly happy. I had no grand plan to be building MVPs at the NYC Dev Shop. It certainly wasn’t a direct path, but it’s been a fun ride so far. So here is my unabridged 4 Part answer to how it all came to be:

Career Path 4.0 Learn. Improve. Adapt. image

Ignoring my mother’s advice, I quit my cushy job and entered the world of entrepreneurship. By some strange fate that makes me laugh now, I did what I would encourage every aspiring entrepreneur to do. I took a position as a Financial Advisor at a company to remain nameless who put me through an intense sales training program. After 6 months I was fired for the first time in my life. And it was awesome!

First Failure: Become a Financial Advisor

I joined the-company-which-shall-not-be-named as a new advisor. For the first 6 weeks, they taught me to sell. Cold calling, door knocking, corny video recorded sales pitches, the full package. I went into full sponge mode and learned like it was my job.

Armed with this new sales knowledge, I set forth to improve people’s financial lives. I shattered my numbers for assets under management, but I wasn’t selling the product that this company wanted me to push. I was selling what I considered to be best for my clients. The company didn’t like that. We battled over it. They fired me. I had never been fired before from anything in my life, but I felt righteous.

I stood my ground and did what I thought was right for my clients even though it cost me my job.

Tough one to explain to my mom who now sees her unemployed son and starts to think that her homeless fears are coming true.

Second Failure: Start my own Wealth Management Firm

Not all at surprising, all of my clients really appreciated that I sacrificed my own employment for their financial well-being. So when I decided to start my own Wealth Management Firm — Petersen Wealth Management — almost all of my clients came with me (I keep this website up because it makes me giggle).

My thought process at the time: I can just start my own company and I won’t have anyone tell me to do things that are not right for my clients.

In the most idealistic world, this makes total sense. In the real world, this was quite a stupid move…

  • I had no idea how to start or run a business.
  • I learned how to not be a bad financial advisor. I never learned how to be a good one.
  • I had no mentor, advisor or anyone that I could really turn to for advice.
  • I was trying to convince people to trust me to manage their life savings meanwhile I was a 20-something dude spending all of his money trying to start this business.
  • Most Importantly: my heart wasn’t in it

Less than a year into starting my own company, I already didn’t like going to work. I don’t have an MBA, but I’m pretty sure that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

Third Failure: Do a startup

Somewhere along the lines of my masterful networking at PWM, I stumbled upon the NJ Tech Meetup and I saw Shelby.tv (fresh out of TechStars) demo the earliest version of their product. I immediately thought that I could “do a startup” too. Dumb. There is no such thing as “do a startup” or “try a startup.” And this is the though process of someone who wants to “do startup”…

I want to be a founder. I have plenty of ideas. So instead of trying to grow the wealth management business, I’ll read tech blogs, watch TechCrunch Disrupt videos, read everyone’s funding announcements and wonder how long before I raised my first round.

I was hooked.

The best part about this was that I was learning everything I could about the world of tech startups. The worst part about this is what follows…

I started pitching this terrible idea I had for a startup. Finally I found a developer foolish enough to entertain my crazy. We applied to TechStars after about one week of work, and this is the result (I am terribly embarrassed by this, but sometimes you just have to laugh at yourself).

— from May 22, 2011

Clearly, we didn’t get accepted.

Getting rejected by TechStars was an incredibly humbling and educational experience for me. I knew I had a lot of work to do. I knew this wasn’t going to be easy. And I knew that I wanted this more than ever.

On the bright side, I met Alec. We went on to build NY Tech Day and help build DigitalOcean, went through TechStars Boulder, and we founded and continue to build NYC Dev Shop.

I have no f’ing clue what Career Path 5.0 is going to look like or when it is going to come, but I’m super excited and fortunate to be where I’m at today. My incredibly indirect path has given me tremendous experience, and I am so thankful for all the good and bad that comes with it. I continue to use everything I have learned along the way to help shape the future of the Dev Shop and everything we build.

Career Path 2.0: Learn to Hate

I am finally in a position where I am truly happy with my professional life. That doesn’t mean that everything is perfect or that I’m even remotely satisfied — far from it. Shit is more complicated and difficult now than ever, but I love it. I love what we are building, I’m incredibly fortunate to work with super smart people, and I walk into work every day fired up and ready for world domination. This makes me truly happy. I had no grand plan to be building MVPs at the NYC Dev Shop. It certainly wasn’t a direct path, but it’s been a fun ride so far. So here is my unabridged 4 Part answer to how it all came to be:

Career Path 2.0: Learn to Hate


Through my history of making uninformed, life altering decisions, I had stumbled upon Engineering Management as a major in college. This major was going to allow me to become a swiss army knife — I’d be able to identify problems and come up with creative solutions because of the engineering discipline, AND I’d be able to understand and evaluate the business implications and financial impact of those solutions. At least that’s what they told me.

Aside from choosing the EM major, I made one other amazing decision during my time at Stevens Institute — I decided to join their Cooperative Education program. As a Co-Op student, I would spend 5 full semesters working at some of the best companies in the world instead of taking classes. As a result, I’d graduate in 5 years instead of 4, but I would have all this crazy stuff on my resume that I could flaunt around.

Here was my thought process around Co-Op:

"You’re telling me, I can stay in college for an extra year without having to pay extra tuition, I’m going to make bank working at legit companies, and when I graduate my resume is going to look better than 98% of my graduating peers… Sign me up for 5 years of college life please!

What I didn’t realize going into the Co-Op program was that it was going to teach me to hate.

Hate is a strong word, and I probably don’t mean it, but I learned to hate career paths that weren’t a perfect fit for me. I can’t overstate how important this was for me as a wandering college student trying to find my way in the world. With a major that was going to allow me to succeed at any job in the world, I had to start eliminating stuff quickly.

Hatred #1: Taking a dump in public

My first Co-Op assignment was at Turner Construction Company, a behemoth of a company, and they hired me for my 1st Co-Op assignment. Makes sense — I had been climbing roofs and pouring foundations with my father since I could walk and I knew how to read blueprints.

Hard hats, jeans, boots, Friday beers at lunch with the crew, telling dudes what to do who have been doing this stuff since before I was born — I was ready for all of that. Nothing could prepare me for the time that I had to use the portable bathroom on the unfinished 27th floor of the tower that we were building. But when it’s an emergency, you gotta do what you gotta do. So I sat down in this thing which had no roof and your feet hung out the bottom. I felt like I was wearing a tube top while going to the bathroom. Of course, my crew sees this going down and proceeds to start heckling me. Needless to say, it wasn’t a very enjoyable experience.

And right then I knew, I had bigger ambitions then dumping in a portable tube top bathroom on the 27th floor of an unfinished building.

Hatred #2: Building things that I don’t understand

Now armed with an awkward bathroom story and some great project management experience, I was able to walk into my next interviews like I was king of the world. I led a team of 10 carpenters on a $3 million renovation project, I did this, I did that. They ate it up. Interviewed for 5 positions and got 4.5 offers (one was bullshit so I don’t count that as a full offer).

I decided it was time to take my talents to pharmaceuticals — another no-brainer: my mother is a pharmacist so when I wasn’t swinging a hammer as a child I was counting pills with mom. I took a position at Ethicon (a Division of Johnson & Johnson), and I was going to do product development. Sweet. I could use my project management to help roll out new products to save peoples lives. The only problems were that (1) it was a 45 minute drive each way to work with no traffic (but there was always traffic) and (2) I had no clue what the hell my group actually built. Totally f’ing clueless about why this white paste was going to help heal wounds faster after surgery. I became the go-to guy for setting up the label printer.

From that day forward, I made a decision to never live far away from work and that passion was incredibly important to me.

Hatred #3: Rotting away at a soulless environment

For my final Co-Op assignment, I went chasing after the money. I landed a sweet internship at an international bank. In my mind, it seemed like the right thing to do:

  • I could work my ass off and achieve eternal glory
  • I could become some hotshot banker and be ready to retire by 40
  • I could chase the American Dream

The only problem, my company wasn’t American and they seemingly didn’t give a shit about us US folks once the financial markets started crashing. The environment was in a downward, death spiral and it was reflected in the attitudes of all the employees at every level of the company — nine-to-five with no accountability. Just survive long enough to get another paycheck before the next round of layoffs occur.

It wasn’t always that way. In fact, it was amazing in the beginning. I used to be incredibly passionate about work. I used to get promoted every six months. By the time I was done there, I outperformed everything that could possibly be measured. But I was being constrained by the bounds of a bullshit system that was designed to keep people in check instead of rewarding outperformance. I felt like I was trapped in the Matrix.

After almost 4 years at the bank and feeling that I learned all that I could without succumbing to the role of a mindless drone, it was time for a move.

I want to be clear. I would never trade my experiences for anything in the world, and I love my “hatred” for where it has lead me. I find myself using so much of what I learned in those early days every single day at the Dev Shop. The most difficult part about it was that each time I had to leave a seemingly good opportunity that other people would have died for.

And that is how we get to Career Path 3.0: Don’t Listen to Your Mother.

I am a scientist

I start this year with the same simple statement that I have made for the last several years:

“This year is going to be the best year of my life”

I say this now with no hesitation that 2012 was definitely my best year ever. It is a little awesome to look back upon all the amazing things that happened, and it brings a giant smile to my face.

Even though this sets an incredibly high benchmark for 2013, I am 100% confident that this year will be even better. How can I be so confident? The answer:

I am a scientist.

I have been performing experiments since I could walk, and the results of these experiments continuously make me a better. I remember one of my earliest experiments as if it just happened yesterday. I loved climbing trees as a kid. I started off small with the 10 ft. apple tree in my grandparents yard, then on to the 20ft pear tree. Clearly, those just weren’t big enough. I needed the ultimate challenge. I was going to climb to the top of the biggest tree i could find — a 50ft oak tree at my parents house. I was scared shitless, but I went up anyways. I look at that tree now with those tiny little limbs and realize how crazy I was, but the view from the top of that tree made me feel like I was on top of the world.

Side note: I feel like I have finally found a tree big enough in my profession life so that when I get to the top, the view is going to be quite amazing. That’s a story for another time.

Everything I do now is an experiment and I’m thirsty for answers…

I perform countless experiments in the name of improvement. Some are epic failures and some are great successes. Most are fun. All of them make me better.

My theme for 2013: keep experimenting.

Learn from your Haters

As a person who thrives on learning and improving, I love feedback. Sure, positive feedback is great, but I really enjoy critical feedback. Tell me where I can improve — I’m not asking you for feedback to boost my confidence.

Recently, however, I was informed that a well-respected person within the tech community had some rather not nice things to say about me behind my back. To be fair, I don’t know exactly what was said, but I heard this from a very trusted source who was in the room. Maybe this person would have said this to my face if I was there, maybe not. It doesn’t matter.

The point is, when I heard the story of what was said, I went through a range of emotions — first I was confused, then I was dejected, then I was angry, then I totally brushed it off like I normally do.

But then I realized this is the wrong approach. You can’t just totally blow off what you haters say. They are providing you with critical feedback. It may be a completely uninformed opinion, but it is still their point of view. They came to that conclusion based on something.

Regardless of how right or wrong they may be, you can learn from your haters. Try to think about what could have caused this person to feel the way they do. Then use it as fuel to prove them wrong and improve based on what you learned.

"First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, then you win"

Old Habits

This past weekend, I continued a 3-year old tradition of traveling to Las Vegas for Super Bowl weekend. Las Vegas represents everything about the old me that I despise, and it didn’t take very long for me to go right back to my old habits.

I am greatly disappointed with myself, but as with every mistake I make I continue to learn and improve from it. As difficult as it is to write about this publicly, I think it helps reinforce the learning process.

That said, here are the things I learned about myself from this past weekend:

  1. I am clearly not yet disciplined enough to put myself in an environment like that
  2. I need to discover some healthy and positive outlets for having fun
  3. I am human

I took a risk, performed an experiment. I thought I could go to Vegas and have a great time while not doing dumb things.

Clearly, experiment failed.

Thankfully, the result of the failed experiment could have been much worse and there is no permanent damage that cannot be resolved.

But that’s part of life. We take chances. Deal with the consequences. Learn from our mistakes. And move forward.

As my dear friend Tim Tebow proclaimed in one of my favorite speeches of all time, “I promise you one thing, a lot of good will come from this…”

How I Fell in Love with Quora


I know I am late to the game here, but I have recently become a daily user and big fan of Quora. It’s like that girl you’ve seen around before and never really noticed until one day you’re blown away by her beauty.

Quora is such a natural fit for me. I love learning —> I love asking questions to help me learn —> I love being able to ask questions to the entire planet so I’m not always bothering the same person —>  I love that other people can benefit from my questions / answers.

Before I got on this recent Quora kick, I would just Google everything. After a few Google searches led me to Quora, I definitely became interested.

So I started the dating phase by just browsing other peoples questions. Nothing to scare me away so far. Then I quickly moved into full blown relationship status when I answered a few questions. I think I’m beginning to like this. We made the leap of faith to move in together when I began posting some questions of my own.

Then magic happened. I asked a question about the success of the Hunch exit which attracted a handful of followers. An anonymous person post a pretty solid answer which I considered acceptable.

But then Chris Dixon posted his answer to my question about Hunch.

Boom. I ask a question about a company and the cofounder / CEO answers. I’m hooked. Time to put a ring on it.

I’ve met Chris through a couple of Skillshare classes he taught, and he is a very friendly / approachable guy. Plus, his blog is incredibly insightful. He definitely gives a lot back to the community, so I am not surprised that he answered the question. But I was definitely not expecting it.

Thank you Quora for easily allowing me to directly connect with the most knowledgeable and intelligent people and for helping me continue to learn. I really hope this relationship lasts, because I’ve overcome a lot of commitment issues to be with you.

What I Learned from the Reinventing Local Hackathon


This weekend, I participated in the Reinventing Local Hackathon sponsored by American Express Open Forum and General Assembly. The theme for the hacks was all around celebrating local communities and small businesses by creating location-based and offline-centric apps.

It was a very nicely done event, so hats of to the sponsors and organizers. The participation of the hackers was incredible with 27 demos showing off their handy work, and General Assembly was crowded beyond standing room only for the demo presentations. All around great event.

If you know me or read any of my posts, you know that I’m all about learning and improving. And this weekend was full of both. I wrote a guest post a while back on “The Importance of Hackathons" which is how I justify spending an entire weekend indoors on 3 hours of sleep.

I had the chance to work with an awesome team to build something really cool — Event Locally. While we didn’t win, we had a great time and built what I think could be the grounds for a very cool startup.

But beyond that, I had a breakthrough moment at about 1:30 AM Sunday morning (really Saturday night in my mind) that more than makes up for the lack of sleep. We were talking about our pitch for the demo and an entrepreneur who works at General Assembly was awesome enough to talk us through some ideas.

He showed us what he was working on as well, and I had to use every ounce of my remaining willpower to restrain myself from yelling at him. Many hours of hacking tends to lower inhibitions, but I was able to hold back.

He had been working on his project full time for over a year now and was “hoping” to launch by the end of the year. His site looked flawless and had a million cool features. He was clearly “one more featuring” the hell out of it. There are some great chapters in “Do More Faster" about this, and this page sums it up great.

I wanted to tell him to launch the site immediately and have some users start playing around to see how they use it, but at that point of the night I wasn’t mentally prepared for the debate that would ensue. When he launches the site, there is no question it is going to be full of cool stuff. I just hope that people find this cool stuff useful and engaging.

He really tipped his hand though when he said, “What you guys are working on is really cool. You could have this thing ready to go in 3 months or so.” I stopped and laughed a little on the inside because I was thinking like 2 weeks max to have people playing with it. He had already “one more featured” our fun little hack to death.

But as I was thinking about his situation and how easy it was for me to spot something that was holding this newly met stranger back, I became aware that there are things that I am doing that are holding me back. Sometimes, I am completely aware of these things and choose to ignore them. Bad John. It’s very arrogant and idiotic of me, but it’s the truth.

So, I’m going to spend some time this week coming up with a list of all the things that are holding me back (including the things I’m in denial about). Maybe this list will allow me to stop fighting myself. Thanks to everyone who was part of the hackathon for a great event and an excellent learning opportunity.

"Behold the Bold Soldier"

It’s ridiculous how many times I’ve heard this song (Triumph by Wu Tang - quite the throwback I know) and never really heard this line:

"Behold the bold solider. Control the globe slowly."

Sure I’ve heard the line plenty of times, but it just never really sunk in. A lot of things happen almost unconsciously that we barely pay attention until one day we finally see the light. And then from that day on, we are always aware of it.

Like the Fedex arrow. If you have never actually seen the arrow in the logo, take a look now. Mind blown. You’re welcome.

Another one of these light bulb moments occurred when I heard about the saying that you are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with. I wrote an entire post about this here - "With a Little Help From My Friends".

I have definitely been making some progress in this area, and it excites me. I like to be around people who are better than me - smarter, more experience, somehow better. That is one of the best ways I know to speed up my learning curve and constantly be improving.

I had a very rewarding moment at the gym this week. I have become friendly with the head trainer (probably because I bother him every day asking for the missing jump rope). As I was doing my ninja workout, he commented that I was making it look too easy, and by no means is this an easy workout. So he told me to make this one little change that will make it much more difficult.

Of course, he was totally right. Almost killed myself but still did it.

These are the type of people that I need in my life. The people that see what I’m doing and push and encourage me to take it even further than I thought possible. Just step it up to a whole new level.

It’s all part of my 3-step plan to “control the globe slowly.”

Learn. Grow. Dominate.