I have just completed reading the third of three vastly different books on career success. The first, about which I wrote at some length a few weeks ago, is entitled “The Startup of You”. Written by an entrepreneur, Reid Hoffman, co-founder of Linkedin, its point-of-view is primarily what I’ll term “Inside-Out,” focusing on identifying individual talents, interests, and personality characteristics that form the foundation of one’s career “launching pad,” and discussing ways in which to leverage those to maximize success. He talks about identifying one’s assets, aspirations and values, and market realities. It’s the approach I use in my work with clients.
The second, “Career Warfare” by David F. d’Alessandro, former CEO of John Hancock takes a more “Outside-in” approach, emphasizing the perils and opportunities presented by the outside world while providing strategies and tactics to prevail in what the author paints as a fairly hostile world. Terms like “enemy,” use people,” “attacks,” “defection,” “have some sympathy for your victims,” and “No mercy for disloyalty” are rife. Revenge is savored.
This perspective is certainly common in hierarchical corporate life, and following D’Alessandro’s prescriptions may well pay off, but the approach is inherently manipulative, calculating and, on many levels, exhausting. D’Alessandro conceptualizes the person on a career path as a product, and he uses product developments and marketing terms freely to illustrate his points:
“Become a product with the right features” on page 24, “Become famous for….,; “become known as” on pages 29 and 34. “The single most important thing you can do for your career is to lay the groundwork for an attractive personal reputation.” on page 9. Focusing a huge amount of attention on the way you’re being perceived by the outside world can be psychologically unhealthy, leading to unnecessary stress and angst. Fortunately, fewer and fewer people ( although still a very large number) are pursuing careers within the kinds of large organizations that inspired “Career Warfare.”
The third is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell, author of the classics “Tipping Point” and “Blink.” This is a book about success from a more sociological standpoint, emphasizing the role that such “macro” factors as one’s ethnic culture, race, religion, access to resources, familial upbringing, and chance opportunity. It’s a 30,000 foot overview of often unrecognized factors that contribute to individual success. Some sample eye-opening examples: Bill Gates, the prototypical “self-made man,” turns out to have had enormous help from outside: the wealthy parents of the students of the private academy in which he was enrolled bought the school a computer in 1968 (!) when Gates was in the eighth grade. He was one of a small handful of kids who could have learned hands-on programming back then. His parents provided consistent support for his technological passion. He also lived near the University of Washington, which had hours of free computer time in which Gates was able to hone his skills. Gladwell does not wish to take anything away from Bill Gates, but does wish to point out that without the many serendipitous assets he was fortunate enough to be able to draw on, Gates would probably not have been the success he turned out to be. Conversely, if many more kids back then had had the same resources we might today have many Bill Gates (I am currently reading Steve Jobs, a biography which makes it crystal clear that Jobs, as brilliant as he was, couldn’t have achieved the success he did if he were not raised in what was to become Silicon Valley.
“Outliers” is filled with fascinating anecdotes and statistics: 14 of the 75 wealthiest people who ever lived ( among whom are Cleopatra, Czar Nicholas II, the Sultan of Brunei, and, yes, Bill Gates) were born in America between 1831 and 1840 – they were fortunate enough to be starting their careers at just the time that the Industrial Revolution was transforming American industry. Another fascinating piece of information: there is a wildly disproportionate number of star athletes born in the beginning months of the year. the explanation: at age three to five children are generally assigned to grades by birth date, and the ones born early in a year wind up with those born later in the same year. The earlier-born children are, on average, bigger, stronger, smarter, and more mature than their classmates simply because they’ve been alive longer. Right from the beginning of their academic “careers” they excel, and are given the extra attention that exceptional athletes and students generally get. Equally talented kids born a little later won’t on average get the same breaks. My libertarian friends may not like Gladwell’s conclusion, but many factors beyond individual ability and initiative contribute to success, and greater recognition of some of these factors could lead to society producing many more outstanding individuals.