Lesson 2: Four principles for decoding career success in your field

The following lesson was part two of a week-long career improvement series. It will only be available here until January 27th. If you wish to save the article for later, please print or copy and paste the text now. If you want the other articles in the series, please sign up to the newsletter here, before the series finishes.

This lesson was written by Cal Newport.

In the last article, Scott noted people often underestimate the effort involved in figuring out how to get ahead in their career (the answers are often not obvious and require some sleuthing to identify). In this article, I will dive deeper into what these efforts might look like.

I want to focus, in particular, on four important principles for honing the meta-skill of decoding your career…

Principle #1: Ignore Your Instincts

Something we noticed in the first sessions of Top Performer is that many students arrived already assuming they knew what efforts were required to advance in their career. Sometimes they were right. But in a lot of cases, this instinct represented what they wanted to be true, and now what actually mattered.

This is a common psychological trap in self-improvement more broadly: the tendency to work backwards from the activities you want to do (typically something that is unique enough to seem important, but easy enough to not challenge you).

The best way to counter this trap is to start from a blank slate in your self-investigation. Don’t assume you know what matters in your field, demand instead evidence before you accept a given approach.

Principle #2: Ask Directly What Matters

In many professional contexts, the simplest way to uncover what skills or accomplishments will make the most difference is to directly ask the person responsible for your advancement (if such a person exists).

Some of our students have had great success simply asking their boss: “What would I need to do get to < some desired advancement >?”

The answer might not be what you hoped, but it’s likely accurate, and gives your a target to tackle.

Principle #3: Don’t Ask for Advice

Another useful approach to decoding your career is to learn from people who have already achieved what you’re pursuing. Their experiences can provide evidence-based advice.

The key in conducting these conversations, however, is to never ask for general advice (e.g., “what should I do to get ahead?” or “what’s the secret to your success?”). Something I’ve learned in my time as an advice writer is that people are often terrible at coming up with accurate advice for something that has happened to them in their own life.

The better strategy is to approach these conversations like a journalist. Ask your subject about the timeline of their career; what were the different steps they took, when did they take them, and most importantly, what factors most directly contributed to these advances.

You can then later return to these facts and extract lessons from them on your own.

Principle #4: Don’t Prematurely Constrain Your Options

Another issue some of our Top Performer students faced was a lack of awareness of all the different career options their current training and skills opened up. It’s easy for the specifics of your current job, or the culture of your training, to aggressively narrow the options your consider as possibilities.

Before you spend too much time plotting your master strategy for advancing, make sure that you’re considering a broad enough set of targets for where you might aim this advancement. There’s no one magic bullet that can help you accomplish this goal, but it usually requires thinking more creatively and looking into fields that seem related to your own and that also appeal to you.

One of our Top Performer students stumbled onto a particularly ingenious strategy: she went back and identified some of the most interesting people she knew from her graduate program (e.g., people receiving the same training as her), and then followed up with them to see what they were up to now in their professional lives.

Bottom Line

The motivation for all these principles is the same point we emphasized in the last article. If you want to make the most of your professional life, it’s not enough to just work hard in your career, you also have to work hard on understanding how your career works.


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