Four Subtle Skills That Will Give You a Permanent Edge in Shaping Your Career or Starting a New One

The Hive
Collective wisdom.
Sept. 12 2011 7:10 AM

Four Excellent Habits

The subtle skills that will give you a permanent edge in shaping your career or starting a new one.

Future Career
How do you choose the best career path for you?

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A 2005 piece in Seventeen, predicting which careers would be in high demand over the next decade, scored some pretty impressive hits. Good things will come, no doubt, to the teenage girls who, six years later, are following the magazine's advice to work as “Chinese interpreters” or “energy engineers.” Faring less well, we suspect, are the girls looking for work as a “space tourism agent.” (Richard Branson can take only so many trips.)

It’s hard to forecast which jobs will be prized in the future. So to get an edge in your work, focus on what you can control: not the macro-economy or specific trades, but the way you steer your career. There are four principles—consider them navigational skills—that will serve you well regardless of what the future brings. These principles are habits of mind: How can you make better choices by thinking differently? 

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Principle 1: Look for bright spots

In a tough economy like the one we’re facing now, it’s easy to focus on the negative. Psychologists say our negative bias is baked in; a review of 233 research papers in psychology concluded, rather depressingly, that when it comes to the way we think, “bad is stronger than good.” Bad events, bad feedback, and bad emotions all have more impact on us than their good equivalents.

This bias will tempt you to focus on the negative when it comes to your work: What are the problems I’m facing and how do I fix them? And, in doing that, you’ll neglect an equally important question: What’s working now, despite the obstacles, and how can I do more of it?

“Finding the bright spots” means that you spot things that are working and study them carefully, in hopes that you can reproduce them. (This is distinct from “looking on the bright side,” which will just make you annoyingly sunny.)

Consider a sales manager who oversees a team of five, including three average reps, one superstar, and one laggard. The typical manager will spend most of her time dealing with the laggard—after all, that’s where the problem is, right? But a wise manager will fixate on the superstar: What can I learn from him that I can spread to my other reps? Or a freelancer with only a few clients will be tempted to obsess about the difficulty of landing new work, but she’ll be better served by focusing on her bright spots: Despite the odds, I’ve landed work with several clients. How, exactly, did I manage that?

Bright spots can give you an advantage: As you’re thinking carefully about how to reproduce success, your competition will be stuck contemplating failures.

Principle 2: Find the right gravity

Motivational speaker Jim Rohn says, “You’re the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” This is not true in any scientific sense, of course, or else the Jersey Shore cast would all look and act the same. Er, never mind.

Certainly the quote is directionally correct. One of the best-defended statements in social psychology is that behavior is contagious. Our peers’ behavior influences our own. Think “planking.” Or, more to the point, think about how different jobs have influenced the way you behaved—what you wore, what you talked about, how hard you worked, and so on. When we put ourselves into a new environment, it exerts a gravitational pull on us; the longer we stay, the more we’ll come to resemble the people we surround ourselves with.

That’s why you should scoff when you hear people say things like this: “Long-term, I’m really interested in doing economic development in Africa, but first I want to spend 10 years in investment banking so I’ll be financially secure.” That’s a nice plan, but its flaw is that after 10 years as an investment banker, you’ll be a different person—a person marginally more interested in money, spreadsheets, and status, and marginally less interested in Africa. (To see the absurdity of the plan, just flip it around: “Long-term, I’m really interested in working in investment banking, but first I want to spend 10 years working in Africa so I’ll be ethically secure.”)

Perhaps the most underused question in job selection is, “Do I want to be more like the people I’ll be working with?” In a tough economy, you may not have the luxury of choice, but long-term, don’t settle until you find a place whose gravitational pull tugs you in the right direction.

Principle 3: Maintain your bridges

A landmark 1973 sociology paper by Mark Granovetter described the surprising amount of benefit we receive from our acquaintances, whom he called “weak ties” (as distinct from our “strong ties,” who are our closest friends and family). For example, in one study, Granovetter interviewed people who’d found a job through their contacts. In about 83 percent of the cases, the critical job lead came from a weak tie—a person seen occasionally or rarely.

To understand why, consider the redundancy of your strong-tie network. Chances are, a lot of your strong ties know each other well (e.g., your mom knows your sister pretty well, and your two best friends probably see each other frequently). Information flows quickly and easily within the network, which means that to a reasonable extent, everyone knows the same things. Weak ties, by contrast, serve as bridges between separate networks. So when you talk with a weak tie, you’re tapping into a wealth of knowledge that you have no other way to access.

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