The Secret to Career Success


I don't want to overhype this, so let's start with some caveats:
  • I could be wrong.
  • If I'm right, it'll only make your career as successful as mine, so there is a natural implicit cap here. I am not like, you know, Jawed Karim or Mark Zuckerberg or anything.
  • This probably only works as well as it does at fast-moving internet companies like the ones I tend to work at.
  • Okay, here's the secret to career success:
    Focus primarily on making everyone around you succeed.
    That's all.

    This is not just the simple "altruism is an effective strategy in repeated plays of the Prisoner's Dilemma," there are a whole host of real reasons why this is a good strategy for career success. Consider the following:

    First, realize that your career success is not primarily or significantly determined by you. You can work hard, you can strategize, you can plan your career, but there are a lot of other larger forces at work. You might make an incremental difference if you do all those things, but overall you will be swept along in the tide of whatever macroeconomic or industry or company-wide force comes along. Accept this.

    Second, imagine that you have a magic wand, and by waving this magic wand, you can make every single person in your company succeed at their job 120%. What would happen? Well, if everyone knocked their job out of the park, the company would probably be a huge success and even if you did nothing else, you'd be swept along in the tide of success of everyone around you. And there you go, instant career success as your stock options vest. (I said it only works in Silicon Valley)

    Unfortunately, you don't have a magic wand that does that. All you can do is try to help everyone around you succeed. If you do it effectively enough and you do it for enough people, it might result in a sufficient critical mass of people succeeding that your whole group, your whole division, your whole company - will succeed. And you'll be swept along.

    FAQ: Doesn't this leave you open to people who will take advantage of you?

    Answer: People will obviously avail themselves of the help you give them, but if you worry that you're going to be taken advantage of, don't. People just don't seem to do that, or even if a couple do, most people don't. I wouldn't worry about it, honestly.

    And you know what? You don't have to follow this advice 100%. If someone is taking advantage of your helpfulness, just say, "I think you are taking advantage of my helpfulness," and decline their requests for awhile. That will probably solve the problem and soon you can go back to your generally helpful ways.

    There are other reasons this is a good strategy, and in particular, one that is also more satisfying to implement:

    More bang for your buck

    Let's contrast this strategy to the strategy given in the types of books you read in airport bookstores, the ones that give you advice on how to advance your career. These books are full of tips on how to advantage yourself, how to look good, how to gain visibility with upper management, how to pick the right projects to work on, whatever. Primarily, these books give you strategies on how to focus on your own success. You can do this, and it probably won't hurt, but here's why you should focus on the success of others:

    If you do things that advance yourself, you will face envy, resentment, passive-aggressiveness, or at the very least, no assistance from others around you. You may even face active opposition. Instead, if you do things that advance others around you, those same people will help you readily. No one is going to try to stop you from helping them succeed.

    Imagine that you are going apply 5 units of effort towards either advancing yourself or advancing a co-worker. If you apply 5 units towards advancing yourself, you might meet with -2 units worth of passive or active resistance as a result of envy or resentment. If you apply 5 units of effort towards advancing someone else's success, they are likely to help you do so and you will be met with +3 or +4 of cooperative effort. In the first case, you've ended up with +3 total units worth of forward movement. In the second, you've ended up with +8 or +9 units of forward movement.

    The math here is contrived, but you get the idea: self-advancing strategies are friction-generating and thus burn effort, while strategies that involve helping others tend to be met with assistance, and hence multiply effort. Ultimately, by focusing most of your effort on making others succeed, you will simply cause more things to get done and more things to move forward - more total effort will go towards Getting Real Things Done. You will also be happier, because psychologically-speaking, you are meeting with fewer small obstacles to your efforts, and research shows that tiny day-to-day frictions make people unhappy. If you are able to proceed through your day with your efforts being assisted on all sides, you will be happier and this will give you more energy to pursue even more efforts. The effect compounds itself.

    FAQ: So when am I supposed to do my own job?

    Answer: First, remember that your job, like all others, sits within a network of jobs - the output of others jobs is required for you to be able to do yours, while the output of your job is used as an input into other peoples' work.

    Second, this focus-on-others'-success can be defined broadly: other people require you to do your job well so that they can use your output to do theirs well, so one basic requirement of ensuring the success of those around you is to make sure you do your own job well! See that guy over there next to you? Is he writing some code or working on some project that you're going to be dependent on? If he screws up, it's going to mess you up, right? Well, think about your own project - if you totally botch it, aren't there other people who are also depending on you to do it well and if you don't, their success will be inhibited? Well, don't let them down! Do your job well!

    FAQ: Won't others get all the credit and recognition if I do this?

    Answer: Not as far as I've seen. Remember that you're in the center of your own nexus of people, and you can do this with all your work relationships: as a peer, you offer assistance to others, giving them the skills or insight which you may have that they don't, or pitching in whenever you can. As a manager, you help those who report to you succeed (this should be part of your job description as a manager anyways). As a report, you should be focusing on helping your boss succeed - the entirety of your usefulness to your boss is how much you're helping them succeed in turn at their job.

    In my experience, this doesn't lead to a lack of recognition. In fact, the opposite - it will repeatedly come up that you are the one who is helping to make things successful, or gave a certain project that extra boost. Or your reports will cite you as being instrumental in enabling their success, or your manager will note you as an particular key element of their ability to deliver on their success. Even if a couple of the people involved decide not to recognize your help, if you are a contributor to the success of everyone around you, the credit given to you by everyone else will drown out a couple of people who decide to just claim it for themselves. So don't worry about this.

    Helping Everyone Else Succeed Helps You Advance

    It is also the route to advancement most likely to engender the least amount of resentment. When someone gets promoted, there are natural bitter feelings that arise from envy as that person's peers ask why it was that person who was promoted and not them. The person who is most broadly recognized as being someone who is focused on the success of others is the one that everyone wants to see advance, as they are simultaneously the least threatening and the one who, in their new position, is most expected to use it to continue benefiting others rather than themselves (which is a latent fear in people whenever they see someone being promoted).

    Be that person! Focus on helping others succeed, and because people are naturally reciprocal, they will want to help you and they will likely advocate for your advancement. And if you are promoted as a result of it, remember that you are now in a position where you have even more ability to help others, so make sure you keep doing it!

    Thus will your effort be multiplied and amplified through a cooperative and willing network, one that will eventually begin to imitate your ethic, and hopefully develop into a tidal wave of success that sweeps you and everyone along with it.

    Originally posted here on 2009 Apr 23, by Yishan Wong.