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5 Principles of Career Success

3 February 2016

My work with people on the development of their career has shown me again and again that there are 5 core principles that drive career success no matter what the domain and in this article I would love to share them with you.  In individuals who live these principles career success follows regardless of the specific actions they take.  In no order of importance these are:

·       Be generous

·       Have a learning mindset

·       Keep active

·       Know why you care

·       Be vulnerable

Let me quickly give you an overview of each area.  As you read I hope you are heartened to recognise the many things you are probably already doing.

Be Generous

The work of Professor Adam Grant from the Wharton Business School has shown the seminal importance of taking an intentional genuine and generous approach to work.  Grant has found that on all the typical indicators of success e.g. income, job status and career success, people who generously give to others (e.g. their time to listen and advise, sharing resources, offering help, mentoring others, creating opportunities, linking people…) experience the most success and are most engaged and satisfied with their careers.  This is in contrast to people who have an approach in their careers more characterised by an attitude of either matching favour for favour (i.e. I give you something and expect something in return) or taking (i.e. looking and creating opportunities to get things from others without giving in return).  Grant warns that being generous is not about being used and surrendering your goals selflessly for others – that does not lead to success.  So be generous and be abundant, but also know what your own career goals are.  

Have a Learning Mindset

Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University is one of the leading researchers in the area of the mindsets that people bring to their work and their learning.  In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dweck set out the different mindsets to learning that individuals hold and the impact these have on the level of success they achieve in life.  People appear to have predominantly either a fixed or a learning mindset.  With a fixed mindset people believe (mostly subconsciously) that their level of intelligence is, to a large extent, predetermined and that when they hit their limit of skill and/or understanding further effort is unlikely to give added results so they stop learning.  People with a learning mindset in contrast know that there is always more to learn and greater skill they can develop in whatever area they focus on – they just need to put the effort in, so they do.  The key difference between the two mindsets is the degree of effort the person is willing to invest.  People with a fixed mindset will give up too early, people with a growth mindset are better able to judge the value of additional effort.  A very encouraging finding of Dweck’s work is that simply knowing the difference between the two mindsets consistently leads people to adopt more of a learning mindset – when you see there is a choice, and when you want to be successful, you will enthusiastically embrace the learning mindset.

Keep active

It is cliché, but true – success does not happen overnight and is not the result of being “discovered” or “chosen” or “better than others”.  Career success comes about from continually stepping up and taking action to achieve long term, big picture goals.  Angela Duckworth of the University of Pennsylvania has looked at the role of grit in the achievement of long-term goals, for example career goals, and found that perseverance and passion in the face of setback, or when things are difficult or unclear, is the number one standout predictor of success.  When you find it in yourself to continue to take action you build habits and resources that, over time, create success.  And the actions taken are not big, scary, courageous ones – they are the little actions you take daily, weekly, consistently – actions that are just a smidge outside your comfort zone – actions that everyone is capable of doing.  The differentiating factor is sustained commitment to take action even when the actions don’t appear to be making progress.

Know Why You Care

The sources from which you gain your motivation, your sense of ‘WHY’, are closely linked to career success and are likely to be a mix of both extrinsic and intrinsic factors.  In fact it is very healthy if they are a mix.  Extrinsic factors are those that come from the external environment – praise, physical rewards, money, status, accolades…  Intrinsic motivating factors are identified more closely as originating from within you and are connected to why you care about the work you do – e.g. a sense of self-satisfaction, keen interest and curiosity, a sense of fun, feeling you are making progress… The ‘story’ of career success in our western culture is highly linked to extrinsic markers of success, and without taking the time to think about what your own definition of success is, and why you care about the work you do, is it can be easy to adopt this cultural story of success. The thing is that the higher the degree of intrinsic motivation you have for doing an activity, the higher the level of persistence, engagement, and achievement you are likely to have as you do it.  The research of Dr. Amy Wrzesniewski on the construct of career orientation has shown that higher the level of identity you have with the work you do the greater will be your level of success and well being.  Enjoy the external, extrinsic rewards of success, but try to guide your career development in line with things that are meaning to you and in which you find purpose.  This doesn't mean that to be successful you need to find something you are passionate about what it means is that in whatever you are doing you need to find the elements that you care about and identify with the meaning the work has for you.

Be vulnerable

Believing you already have all the answers, or that it would be weak to show you don’t know is so often a barrier to success.  When you are unable to be vulnerable and make mistakes you cut off opportunities to learn and opportunities to give others chances to help you.  And get this - people love helping you and view you more favorably when you ask for help (it makes them feel more valued which rubs off on how they feel about you).  Time and again I see career success flow from people stepping into the unknown – a different job, a new boss, a short-term secondment to a new department, new learning…  The thing that supports you to be vulnerable is a sure sense of what your own definition of success is.  As I have already mentioned there are external hallmarks of success and there are internal success markers.  Most people have their own unique mixture of the two.   Knowing what is your own internal definition of success is often the hardest to achieve as our society and our friends, family and acquaintances are so good at telling us what “should” constitute success – it is important that you cut through others’ expectations and definitions and find your own so that the success you achieve is what you want it to be.


So to sum up the 5 principles of career success are:

·       Give generously to others in the workplace - as long as it doesn't compromise your own career goals

·       Continually learn and develop your skills (see a prior post for more on this)

·       Take consistent ongoing action to develop your career - keep going, don't give up

·       Care about and find meaning in the things you are working on - there is meaning in all work when you look for it

·       Be willing to be courageous and let your vulnerability show to others - perfection is not the key to success


Future articles will continue to explore these 5 areas that underpin career success, and as always here are some actions you can take now to further explore these ideas:

·       Watch the inspiring, and viral, talk on the power of vulnerability by Brene Brown

·       Have a read of the Harvard Business Review article – Make Your Job More Meaningful – and look for ways you can craft your work so it is has greater intrinsic motivation for you

·       Test your Grit Score by visiting Angela Duckworth’s research lab web page at the University of Pennsylvania 

·       Get an insight into your mindset via an online test provided by Carol Dweck on the web site of her book Mindset 

·       Explore a little about the idea of reciprocity on the Give and Take book website 


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