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6 Rules That Should Be Guiding Your Career

10 minute read
Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Daniel Pink’s The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need conveys a number of principles about the world of work that everyone should take note of.

Why? Though Pink doesn’t bog the story down with academic research, all of his core ideas are backed up by plenty of studies, many of which I’ve posted about in the past.

So what does he have to say? Six simply-stated concepts:

  • There is no plan.
  • Think strengths, not weaknesses.
  • It’s not about you.
  • Persistence trumps talent.
  • Make excellent mistakes.
  • Leave an imprint.
  • So let’s break these down and explore what they mean and why they’re so effective.

    1) There is no plan.

    As Pink explains, you can’t plan your career too far in advance because there are too many x-factors.

    In the world of work we do things for two reasons: instrumental and fundamental. Instrumental reasons are things that get us from point A to point B — whether we enjoy it or not. Fundamental reasons are ones we consider inherently valuable — doing something we care about or believe in, even if we’re unsure where it will take us.

    Which one is the better choice? Pink explains:

    “The dirty little secret is that instrumental reasons usually don’t work. Things are too complicated, too unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen, so you end up stuck. The most successful people — not all of the time, but most of the time — make decisions for fundamental reasons.”

    What does the research say?

    The most obvious type of person who would fit into the fundamental category would be artists. Despite low pay and high unemployment artists have higher job satisfaction than most people. And it’s not due to personality. In fact, if anything, artists are more likely to suffer from depression and other mood problems. And yet they’re happier with their careers.

    It is hard to predict where life will take you: 35% of college graduates end up in a job that was not their major.

    What’s the number one thing people regretted on their deathbed?

    “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.”

    That’s a strong argument for acting on fundamental reasons.

    5 Horrible Habits You Need to Stop Right Now

    Do Not Email First Thing in the Morning or Last Thing at Night “The former scrambles your priorities and all your plans for the day and the latter just gives you insomnia,” says Ferriss, who insists “email can wait until 10am” or after you check off at least one substantive to-do list item.Chris Pecoraro—Getty Images
    Do Not Agree to Meetings or Calls With No Clear Agenda or End Time “If the desired outcome is defined clearly… and there’s an agenda listing topics–questions to cover–no meeting or call should last more than 30 minutes,” claims Ferriss, so “request them in advance so you can ‘best prepare and make good use of our time together.'”Sam Edwards—Getty Images/Caiaimage
    Do Not Check Email Constantly Batch it and check it only periodically at set times (Ferriss goes for twice a day). Your inbox is analogous to a cocaine pellet dispenser, says Ferriss. Don’t be an addict. Tools like strategic use of the auto responder and Boomerang can help.Jetta Productions—Getty Images
    Do Not Carry a Digital Leash 24/7 At least one day a week leave you smartphone somewhere where you can’t get easy access to it. If you’re gasping, you’re probably the type of person that most needs to do kick this particular habit.by nacoki ( MEDIA ARC )—Getty Images/Flickr RF
    Do Not Let People Ramble Sounds harsh, but it’s necessary, Ferriss believes. “Small talk takes up big time,” he says, so when people start to tell you about their weekends, cut them off politely with something like “I’m in the middle of something, but what’s up?” But be aware, not everyone agrees with this one (and certainly not in every situation), and you may want to pay particularly close attention to norms around chit chat when traveling internationally.Reza Estakhrian—Getty Images

    2) Think strengths, not weaknesses.

    “Successful people don’t try too hard to improve what they’re bad at. They capitalize on what they’re good at.”

    What does the research say?

    This is one of the primary points that management expert Pete Drucker, author of The Effective Executive, hammered home in his writings:

    First and foremost, concentrate on your strengths. Put yourself where your strengths can produce results. Second, work on improving your strengths… In identifying opportunities for improvement, don’t waste time cultivating skill areas where you have little competence. Instead, concentrate on—and build on—your strengths.

    Pink also directly references the work of Martin Seligman. His research has shown that people who use their signature strengths, those things they are uniquely good at, experience more “flow” on the job and are happier at work:

    The more signature strengths were applied at the workplace, the higher the positive experiences at work. This study showed that character strengths matter in vocational environments irrespective of their content. Strengths-congruent activities at the workplace are important for positive experiences at work like job satisfaction and experiencing pleasure, engagement, and meaning fostered by one’s job.

    3) It’s not about you.

    “…the most successful people improve their own lives by improving others’ lives.”

    What does the research say?

    Those who are other-focused are happier.

    Via Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don’t Have in Search of Happiness We Can’t Buy:

    “Researchers have: they’ve found that happy people are ten times more likely to be other-oriented than self-centered. This suggests that happiness is a by-product of helping others rather than the result of its pursuit.”

    Happier people are more successful — and that’s causal, not correlative:

    Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

    We become more successful when we are happier and more positive. For example, doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

    4) Persistence trumps talent.

    That one is pretty straightforward. :)

    What does the research say?

    How much does natural talent control what you can achieve in life?

    In ~95% of cases, it doesn’t.

    Via Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

    “After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme… He is counting everybody else.

    What makes the best musicians? Nothing but hard work:

    Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

    One factor, and only one factor, predicted how musically accomplished the students were, and that was how much they practiced.

    I’ve posted exhaustively on the 10,000 hour theory of deliberate practice, “grit” and what it takes to be an expert. The best resource for that is here and the best books on the subject are here.

    5) Make excellent mistakes

    “Too many people spend their time avoiding mistakes. They’re so concerned about being wrong, about messing up, that they never try anything — which means they never do anything. Their focus is avoiding failure. But that’s actually a crummy way to achieve success. The most successful people make spectacular mistakes — huge honking screwups! Why? They’re trying to do something big. But each time they make a mistake, they get better and move a little closer to excellence.”

    What does the research say?

    Making mistakes can be vital to improvement.

    Via Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation:

    “The errors of the great mind exceed in number those of the less vigorous one.” This is not merely statistics. It is not that the pioneering thinkers are simply more productive than less “vigorous” ones, generating more ideas overall, both good and bad. Some historical studies of patent records have in fact shown that overall productivity correlates with radical breakthroughs in science and technology, that sheer quantity ultimately leads to quality. But Jevons is making a more subtle case for the role of error in innovation, because error is not simply a phase you have to suffer through on the way to genius. Error often creates a path that leads you out of your comfortable assumptions. De Forest was wrong about the utility of gas as a detector, but he kept probing at the edges of that error, until he hit upon something that was genuinely useful. Being right keeps you in place. Being wrong forces you to explore.

    Being guided into mistakes during training led to greater confidence and overall better learning than being taught to prevent errors.

    Via The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work:

    In one experiment where 90 people went through a software training program, half were taught to prevent errors from occurring, while the other half were guided into mistakes during training. And lo and behold, the group encouraged to make errors not only exhibited greater feelings of self-efficacy, but because they had learned to figure their own way out of mistakes, they were also far faster and more accurate in how they used the software later on.

    One of the best ways to improve is to keep making little risky bets.

    6) Leave an imprint

    “…when you get older and look back on your life, you’ll ask yourself a whole bunch of questions. Did I make a difference? Did I contribute something? Did my being here matter? Did I do something that left an imprint? The trouble is, many people get towards the end of their lives and don’t like their answers. And by then it’s almost too late.”

    What does the research say?

    Visualize your funeral and consider what you would want friends to describe as your legacy is an excellent way to clarify what is really important to you and what you want to achieve.

    Via Richard Wiseman’s excellent book 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute:

    Asking people to spend just a minute imagining a close friend standing up at their funeral and reflecting on their personal and professional legacy helps them to identify their long-term goals and assess the degree to which they are progressing toward making those goals a reality.

    9 minutes in to his famous Stanford commencement speech Steve Jobs discusses the importance he placed on thinking about death during life:

    “Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.”

    Scientists now agree he was on to something:

    Thinking about death can actually be a good thing. An awareness of mortality can improve physical health and help us re-prioritize our goals and values, according to a new analysis of recent scientific studies.


    Six lessons:

  • There is no plan.
  • Think strengths, not weaknesses.
  • It’s not about you.
  • Persistence trumps talent.
  • Make excellent mistakes.
  • Leave an imprint.
  • Also, Dan Pink’s other book Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is one of the best things I’ve read in the past few years. (You can check out my notes from it here.)

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    This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

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