Road signs: careers, achievements, solutions, success, motivation 10 miles, 25 miles

Self-starter. Self-motivated. Initiative. Critical thinking skills. Ever see these in a job posting? They’re all fancy ways of saying, “I don’t want to have to tell you what to do every five minutes.”

So, what exactly is a self-starter (and can I be one)?

I like The Free Dictionary’s definition:

Self-starter: (noun) an energetic person with unusual initiative – ball of fire, human dynamo, powerhouse, fireball – a highly energetic and indefatigable person (source)

If no one has ever called you a human dynamo, remain calm. Self-starters aren’t all as brazen as the dictionary would have you believe. In fact, many of us are pretty quiet, preferring to work heads-down without much fuss or attention. As I read in a reliable source (OK, fine, it was Harry Potter), loud noises and smoke are often the hallmarks of ineptitude.

I’ll be doing a series of posts on being a self-starter. I’m not a management expert or psychologist, but my last several performance reviews have said something to the effect of “she’s a quintessential self-starter.” I’ve been working on it for 15 years, and I can also share a manager’s perspective. I’ll share what has helped me here; I hope it will help you too. (That’s the whole reason for this blog, after all.)

Why a series? It would be a really long single post. Plus, each of the things that make self-starters what they are is simple (perhaps deceptively so), but you probably won’t have much success trying to implement them all at once.

You might be wondering if you’re already a self-starter. If you skate by, let someone else lead the group project for class, ask others for help with your work instead of learning to do it yourself… you’re not. But, you can learn to be. And if you’re the only person in your job function, department or business, you need to be.

The first step: don’t wait to be told what to do. 

This is the reason insanely busy people who could use the help say they don’t have time for interns; they don’t have time to repeatedly tell/show someone what to do. It’s easier to do it themselves. You don’t want your boss to start thinking that of your job.

If you’re not sure where to start finding new things to do, try your job description. If you don’t have one, write one. (Don’t laugh–I’ve written my own job description more than once after starting the job.) Or if your job description is too narrow, rewrite it to add some things you’d like to have responsibility for, and see what your boss thinks.

Don’t know how to write a job description? Look up job descriptions for your title and type of organization online. (Note: if your organization monitors Internet use–and most of any size do–you might want to give your boss a heads up on why you’re surfing job sites. If you like your job, that is.) Take activities or responsibilities that look appealing to you, and think about you might apply them in your present job.

Take some chances. Make a list of ideas for new web content you could write, once your boss gives the go-ahead. Organize that teetering pile of media clips by date, or better yet, digitize it by date and reporter, and make the archive searchable. Exciting? No. Useful for your organization? Yes. You could even take it a step further and make notes in your media list on previous articles, or include links. Don’t have a media list, or a recent one? That’s another thing you could do.

Make a list. If you’re afraid to start doing things without your boss’ specific approval, make a list of things you could do. Prioritize them by what you think is most important, then ask for feedback, and permission to proceed. Prioritizing is an important step. Why? Your supervisor might use the boss trick: “what do you think?” After several tries at this, maybe you’ll become more comfortable in your relationship with your boss so you can stop asking for permission to tackle new small things.

Tip: don’t ever ask your boss a question unless you already have at least one–and preferably several–possible answers in mind. If all else fails, Google it–it’s better than no answer. You don’t want your boss to stop asking you these types of questions that make you think, because that means she’s given up on you ever becoming a self-starter, or thinking things through before bringing them to her attention. By asking, she’s trying to help you grow, so one day maybe you can take her place.

Next up: learn new things. Bonus points if you learn something new you can do in your job AND do it without asking.