How to Succeed in Your Career, Backed by Research

how to succeed in your career

Many people talk about how to succeed. Get up at 5 AM, reach work early, hustle, eat 17.2 grams of protein before 10 AM.

But research by two economists and a sociologist from MIT shows that successful people possess traits that are deeper than merely waking up at unearthly hours, hustling, or guzzling protein.

In 2011, Sinan Aral, Erik Brynjolfsson, and Marshall van Alstyne decided to study what made productive people perform better than their counterparts and published their findings in a paper.

Aral, Brynjolfsson and van Alstyne convinced a mid-sized recruiting firm to share its profit-and-loss data, employee appointment calendars, and 125,000 emails the executives sent in the previous ten months.

They identified four key traits that separated the superstars and successful people from the rest.

1. They handled limited projects.

It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential. — Bruce Lee

The first thing that stood out for the researchers was how the productive workers (or superstars) selected projects. They worked on just five projects at once — a healthy but not overwhelming load of work.

Other people, who worked on ten to twelve projects simultaneously, had a lower profit rate than the superstars.

Biting off more than we can chew keeps us at the mercy of circumstances. We multitask and tick many items off our cluttered to-do lists, yet feel stressed and dissatisfied.

By biting off less than we can chew (in terms of quantum of projects), we can manage our energy meaningfully, take better decisions, and make progress. We stay motivated to achieve our goals rather than giving up midway.

2. They built new skills.

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures… I divide the world into learners and non-learners. — Benjamin Barber

Conventional wisdom states that people become faster, more efficient, and productive when they repeat the same tasks and don’t have to learn fresh skills.

how to be happy by doing what you love

But the researchers at MIT found that the superstars defied conventional wisdom. They signed up for projects that made them seek out new colleagues and build new skills. This meant they had to invest time and energy, which is why the superstars worked on just five projects at once.

Most people spend their entire lives adhering to conventional wisdom. As Andy Hargadon says, for most people, “twenty years’ experience is really one year of experience repeated twenty times.” When the knowledge which such people possess turns obsolete, they turn obsolete along with it.

The people who thrive in the new economy are those who can master hard things quickly and produce at an elite level. To imbibe these traits, the beginner’s mindset is as important as eating healthy food.

3. They joined projects during the early stages.

If you dare nothing, then when the day is over, nothing is all you will have gained. — Neil Gaiman

Joining a new project in its infancy is risky. New ideas often fail no matter how well they get executed (even for Amazon). It’s safer to sign up for projects that are already underway.

However, the beginning of a project is also rich in information.

The researchers found that by engaging in assignments during early stages, superstars got cc’d on emails they wouldn’t otherwise see, picked new ideas from smart junior executives, and exposed themselves to emerging markets and digital lessons earlier than other executives.

Joining fledgling initiatives pushes you outside your comfort zone. It keeps you learning and expands your network and array of skills.

Another advantage of this trait is that you can claim ownership for a successful innovation simply because you were in the room when it was born rather than having to fight for credit later on.

4. They built mental models.

If the facts don’t hang together on a latticework of theory, you don’t have them in a usable form. — Charlie Munger

The final trait all superstars shared in common was how much they loved generating theories. They constantly told stories to themselves and colleagues about what they saw and heard.

These stories included topics like why certain accounts succeeded or failed, why some clients were happy or disgruntled, how different management styles influenced employees.

The more superstars obsessed about explaining these ideas, the stronger their mental models became. Doing so at a constant rate helped them share new ideas during meetings, ask colleagues to help imagine how future conversations might unfold, or envision how a pitch should go. They could also contribute concepts for new products and ideas to sell them.

The MIT researchers calculated that getting cc’d on those early emails and building mental models eventually earned productive people an extra $10,000 (on average) each year in bonuses.

Beyond the Existing Workplace

People who can generate theories are also sought after by various companies.

Andy Billing, a VP at Electronic Arts said, “We look for people who describe their experiences as some kind of narrative. They have an instinct for connecting the dots and understanding how the world works at a deeper level. That’s who everyone tries to get.”

This means that people who keep learning don’t just do better at their work; they also grow faster in their careers.

According to Charles Duhigg, developing a habit of telling ourselves stories about what we see around sharpens our attention, improves our focus, and helps us avoid distractions.

Dozens of research papers since then have concurred with these findings.

In a nutshell, here are the five traits you should imbibe to succeed in every aspect of your life, including your career:

  1. Manage your attention: Your energy and attention are your most important assets. Shine them on what’s important rather than living at the mercy of your environment.
  2. Handle limited project: Less is more. Work on no more than five tasks. You’ll make meaningful progress in a healthy but not overwhelming load of work. (As an aside, here’s how you can say no to more projects without offending anyone.)
  3. Step outside your comfort zone: Sign up for projects that require you to meet new people and build new skills. The beginner’s mindset will make you thrive in the new economy.
  4. Take calculated risks: Choose which projects you want to join during the early stages. This exposes you to new ideas early and you don’t have to fight for credit if the innovation succeeds.
  5. Build strong mental models: Understand how things around you function. Tell yourself stories about them and encourage people to challenge your analyses.

The industrial era demanded people to use their hands and take orders. The knowledge era demands that we use our minds and take decisions.

Nothing can stop you from achieving what you want. Go out there and build the world you want to live in.

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