There isn’t one, and the definition of “successful” can be pretty personal. When you get to a level that most people would consider “success,” you often find that you want more. There are heuristics.
So let me get into the most important one, at least in technology: focus on multiplicative effects. Which would you rather have: $100 right now, or a bank account that will “magically” grow by 20% per year for the rest of your life? Most people would take the latter. Think long-term, and invest. More specifically, invest in knowledge and relationships that will make you better at your job or more able to accomplish the things you want to do. Don’t worry too much about flavor-of-the-month “coolness” or transient managerial favor (this is easier said than done, because when you’re starting out, it’s hard to tell what matters and what doesn’t). Do good work, but don’t take yourself too seriously, and don’t get attached to others’ opinions of the work, because great work often gets “meh” responses and vice versa. You don’t want to be disliked or get yourself fired, but you’re better off having an average reputation and investing mental energy in self-improvement, than being the “team player” who everyone likes but no one sees as a leader or promotes.
Network and train yourself up before you need it. The “mentor” concept, from the movies, where someone spots you as young talent and grooms you for upper management, doesn’t really exist. Put at least 15 hours per week into networking (internal to your company, and external) and skill-building. I aim for 30-45 (obviously, some of this time is usually “stolen” from the day job; be careful about that and don’t make it obvious.) You want to have allies so that if “Stuff Goes Down” in a major way, you can get a favorable transfer (your project fails) or a positive reference (layoff or firing). Trust me, those things can happen to anyone. You want to have skills because you can always revise your social status (performance reviews, titles, bonuses) if needed (yes, “creative career repair” is something no one admits to, but everyone does) in future job searches, but you can’t fake genuine knowledge unless no one on the other side has it (and then, you’ll typically get a job at a place where no one wants to work). Knowledge is also the one thing that can’t be taken from you. So, there’s that.
Do these principles guarantee career success? No. The game is volatile, and the definition of “success” is somewhat subjective. However, I think they improve your odds. You can’t control the world; the best you can do is to prepare for it.
This question originally appeared on Quora: What is one sure way to have a successful career?
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