By Jessica Shambora
June 30, 2009

“You won’t become a general unless you become a good first lieutenant.”

— Colin Powell, former U.S. Secretary of State and retired four-star general, in the Best Advice issue of Fortune, now on newsstands. This “barracks wisdom,” Powell says, was passed down from the old reserve captains to the young infantry officers at Fort Benning in the form of a fable: A young officer asked a general what it took to earn that rank. The general told him he’d have to have moral and physical courage, never show fatigue or fear, and always be the leader. The young officer thanked him and said, “So, is this how I become a general?” The captain answered, “No, that’s how you become a first lieutenant, and then you keep doing it over and over and over.”

Powell’s interpretation: “I’ve always tried to do my best today, think about tomorrow, and maybe dream a bit about the future. But doing your best in the present has to be the rule.”

Pattie shared Powell’s story with the students at an ExxonMobil breakfast yesterday. And it fits with her favorite career advice, which came up in a Time Inc. University class that I helped Pattie teach today: Don’t plan your career. I subscribe to that advice too. –Jessica Shambora

You May Like