Are You Working In Your Career or On Your Career?

As you may know, over the past four years Scott Young and I developed an online course about career mastery called Top Performer. It teaches you how to apply the rules of deliberate practice and depth to systematically get ahead in your professional life. We’re planning on opening the course to new students next week. In anticipation for this next launch, Scott and I wanted to share a series of articles on interesting lessons we’ve learned about career mastery from the previous sessions of the course.

Below is the first such lesson. It was written by Scott. To avoid cluttering the blog, the subsequent lessons, and information about when/how to sign up for Top Performer next week, will be sent only to our email lists. If you’re interested, sign up for my email list in the box in the righthand column of my blog.

Take it away Scott…

A Common Complaint

One of the most common complaints Cal and I heard when working on Top Performer is that people feel stuck in their careers. They’re working hard, but they don’t know why they’re not getting ahead.

Sound familiar?

It turns out a big reason people get stuck has to do with a small distinction people rarely make when pursuing professional advancement: the difference between knowledge and meta-knowledge.

Meta-Knowledge

Doing well in your career requires two crucial factors: first, you need to be able to do your work well. This requires knowledge. If you’re a programmer, you need to master the languages you work with. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to know your market and how to serve them. If you’re a lawyer, you need to have a rich knowledge of the law.

However, this is only the first factor. The second is meta-knowledge.

Meta-knowledge is knowledge about how your career works. For example, which skills matter, and which you should ignore, and how best  demonstrate your talent in your particular industry, and so on.

This second factor is often invisible and many people can go their entire careers without getting a very good picture of how people succeed beyond their current station.

One of Cal and my students from Top Performer, Chris L., didn’t even realize that he was missing it, telling us: “I was frustrated specifically because I thought I was doing a good job, and I see people who I don’t think are doing a good job and they’re getting ahead of me. I work hard, but nothing happens.”

He had knowledge but didn’t realize he was missing meta-knowledge.

How Do You Get Meta-Knowledge?

Figuring out how your field really works isn’t easy, but it can make a huge difference. Instead of guessing, you can know with confidence which skills are worth investing in and which are not. You can know which positions are stepping stones and which are dead-ends.

The main route to meta-knowledge is good, old fashioned research. This kind of research rarely comes from school or books, it instead comes from other people.

Talking to people who are ahead of you in your career and comparing them to people who aren’t is often a very successful strategy to isolate which skills and assets you need to develop. Ask yourself: what is the successful group doing different than the comparable group that is falling short? The answer is often different than you might at first guess.

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential in this style of research is to avoid simply asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. Act like a journalist not a protege. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

In Top Performer, Cal and I worked hard to develop a system of doing research geared towards accomplishing exactly this goal — extracting useful meta-knowledge about what matters in your career and avoiding the usual fluff and platitudes like “work hard” or “have good communication skills.”

Put another way, treat this information gathering step with respect: it’s non-trivial to get right.

(For an example of this type of meta-knowledge acquisition in action, see Cal’s post about his systematic efforts to understand what really matters for obtaining academic tenure at a research university.)

(Photo of and by Rachel Maddow)

 Source: Cal Newport

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