People have many different beliefs about what drives career success. These different beliefs lead to different philosophies of career advice, which have different implications for how to choose a career.
Here I outline what I take to be five common philosophies of career success, some rough thoughts on which is correct, what they imply, and why most of them differ from mainstream careers advice.
Here’s a short overview of each one, made extreme to clearly illustrate the differences:
1. Find your unique career match
There’s a narrow range of careers that match you really well, and which will let you be happy and productive, while most won’t be a good fit.
Your aim should be to try to understand your unique profile of strengths and find the job that best matches them.
I’d say this is the philosophy of most ‘standard’ career advice. If you speak to a career advisor, they will typically be unwilling to say that some paths are generally ‘better’ than another, but instead maintain that it’s all about finding the right match. Most career books spend plenty of time getting you to reflect on your interests and personality, and then encourage you to look for careers that match them. Career tests work in part on the same principle.
I’d also put the advice to ‘follow your passion’ in this category.
One interesting version of this philosophy is the idea that obsessive interest is necessary for outsized success, combined with the idea that people differ hugely in what they find interesting. For instance, Paul Graham writes about this in The Bus Ticket Theory of Genius.
2. Work hard
In his 2016 book Peak, Anders Ericsson argues that what most distinguishes top performers is the amount of deliberate practice they’ve been able to do.
For instance, he argues that Mozart started intense practice from a very young age, and became a child prodigy not through innate talent, but rather by practicing far more than everyone else of the same age.
We interviewed Cal Newport, another author who puts significant weight on the importance of practice.
If this view is true (putting aside edge cases like professional basketball, where no amount of practice can make you over 6ft tall), you can become very good at a wide range of careers, so long as you’re willing to put in the practice.
The best way to predict skill would be the amount and quality of past practice, and how much additional practice people are willing to put in.
3. Be bright
In some circles, you come across the idea that when hiring, you should just look for people who are smart and motivated. People think that raw ability and the right attitude trumps experience, and that a sufficiently talented team can take on most challenges. This sentiment seems common in Silicon Valley.
This view is often associated with a focus on intelligence, but it could be based on any widely applicable traits, such as determination, charm, ‘hustle’, rationality, optimism, ambition, self-belief, focus — whatever you think is key for success. I use ‘bright’ as a shorthand.
Some versions of this view hold these traits are innate, whereas others might think they’re learned.
One interesting variant is the idea that there are often shortcuts to success, and so the most crucial trait is having an ‘optimising mindset’ — and if you have that mindset you’ll be able to succeed in a wide range of domains. We might put Tim Ferriss and the 4 Hour Workweek in this category.
If this philosophy is right, then the aim in finding a career is to find the most attractive path that you can tackle given your general ability. If you’re very bright — whatever that means — you may be able to succeed in a wide range of paths.
4. Find the right people & organisation
A variant on the fit approach is that what matters is not so much the fit between your strengths and the job, but rather the fit between you and the organisation.
Researchers call this a ‘person-context’ match. Boris Groysberg’s book Chasing Stars is based on an in-depth analysis of transfers among Wall Street analysts, and argues that this match is more important than most believe for top performance.
In Ericsson’s work, he also emphasises the importance of finding a great teacher to enable you to practice effectively.
Proponents of the ‘be bright’ approach sometimes combine it with this view and suggest it’s also crucial to surround yourself with other bright people.
If this is true, then you shouldn’t focus so much on particular jobs, but instead try working at different organisations and in different teams until you find one that’s high performing and a good match for you.
5. Be lucky
Finally, some believe that success is in large part due to luck.
In his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell argues that luck — especially being in the right place at the right time — is much more important than commonly supposed (though the book usually gets remembered for the ‘work hard’ view and ‘10,000 hours rule’).
I think there’s a fair amount of evidence that luck is more important than commonly supposed. For one thing, we haven’t found many great predictors of success, which means that a lot of what drives success is either as yet unknown or unpredictable.
Highly successful people and companies often came close to failure several times, suggesting that if events had been slightly different they wouldn’t have succeeded.
If luck is key, then picking a career is mainly about your tolerance for risk. If you can tolerate risk and you have back-up options, then you might as well gamble on high-upside paths — especially while young. (This could be called the ‘shoot for the stars’ philosophy.)
Otherwise, you should stick to the most attractive paths where outcomes are more guaranteed.
In addition, on this view it’s particularly important not to feel bad about yourself when struggling — almost all of it is out of your hands anyway.
What underlies the views
What underlies these views are different views on what determines career success, i.e.:
- Narrow traits like interests, personality, and skills that are only relevant in a narrow range of jobs, such as a love of art, or being very tall
- Practice and experience in that path
- General traits, such as intelligence, judgment, conscientiousness, and integrity, which help in almost every path
- Context — whether you have good mentorship, supportive colleagues, and fit the organisational culture
- Luck — unknown or unpredictable factors
Each of these factors corresponds to one of the philosophies listed above.
The unique match philosophy implies only a narrow range of paths will be best for you. The other views could imply you have a wider range of options, especially if you’re bright, willing to work hard, or able to find the right people to work with.
Which view to emphasise?
All of the factors I list above are relevant to success to some degree, so all of the views have some truth in them. The interesting question is which view to emphasise the most.
Before we talk about averages and which view is usually most accurate, we should consider some individual differences.
In my experience, some people have ‘spiky’ skills and interests — they’re amazing at one type of work but are unable to focus on much else.
For instance, Ramanujan is one of the most celebrated mathematicians of all time, but according to Wikipedia:
He received a scholarship to study at Government Arts College, Kumbakonam, but was so intent on mathematics that he could not focus on any other subjects and failed most of them, losing his scholarship in the process.
We’ve all heard about amazing thinkers and scientists who lack practical skills.
On the other hand, some people are generalists and feel like they could do at least pretty well in a range of paths.
Several of the staff at 80,000 Hours seem like this to me, and I’d probably count myself as a generalist. When I was leaving university, I considered working at 80,000 Hours, working in investing, or doing a PhD in climate economics and physics. It wasn’t obvious to me which path I’d be best at, or even which I’d find most interesting.
People with spiky skill sets should focus more on the ‘unique fit’ philosophy, while generalists can succeed in a wider range of roles, especially if they practice.
What drives success on average?
Here are some of the factors that typically seem to be relevant to success and that have some support in psychological research:
- General intelligence and different aspects of intelligence, such as verbal or mathematical or perceptual, judgement and rationality, and creativity
- Practice and credentials
- Work ethic: conscientiousness, emotional stability, and grit
- Social skills e.g. social perceptiveness, extraversion, and agreeableness
- Interest match
- Context match e.g. mentorship and cultural fit
- Starting advantages e.g. inheritance, having a parent in the field
- Physical traits e.g. height, attractiveness, and health
Some of the factors in the list correspond directly to the different philosophies mentioned earlier (practice, luck, context). Of the remainder, the following are more generally applicable traits:
- General intelligence
- Conscientiousness, emotional stability, and grit
- Social skills e.g. social perceptiveness and extraversion
- Some physical traits (e.g. height is correlated with income)
The following are narrower traits:
- Specific aspects of intelligence
- Interest match
- Some physical traits (e.g. dexterity is needed by surgeons)
Clearly the different traits have varying importance in different jobs — e.g. creativity is more relevant in creative jobs; social skills are more relevant in jobs dealing with people. That said, most of the traits are useful in most jobs, so all of the philosophies have some truth to them.
We can also ask about which are most important on average. Unfortunately, there is very little agreement about the relative importance of these factors among researchers, hiring managers, and people in general. For instance, some psychologists go as far as to claim that general intelligence is by far the most important predictor, while others claim that research is overstated, or that it doesn’t matter much compared to practice (e.g. Ericsson in Peak).
I’m not especially qualified to judge which are most important, and as far as I can tell they all have some credible backers, so I treat all of them as significant.
However, I would hazard — based on everything I’ve seen — that the general traits seem to be more powerful and have a stronger evidence base than the narrower ones. (For instance, a large meta-analysis by Hunter 2016 claims that when predicting short-term job performance, the narrow predictors only add about 5–10% validity over and above an intelligence test, and I have some notes on the research on interest match here.)
Why does standard career advice focus so much on the unique match view?
If I’m right that all of the views have some degree of truth, and that, if anything, general predictors are more important than the narrow predictors needed by the unique match view, why does mainstream career advice focus so much on the match approach?
One possibility is that narrow traits might be much better predictors than the research suggests. Narrow predictors seem harder to measure and study than general ones, because they sometimes help and sometimes don’t, meaning it takes more data to untangle, so maybe future research will uncover better ones.
Relatedly, measures of interest-match I’ve seen don’t obviously correspond intuitively matters. When psychologists study ‘interest-match’ they’re normally talking about Holland-type match, rather than being fascinated by a certain topic, even though fascination seems clearly relevant and varies hugely by person.
That said, since a significant fraction of the variance is already explained by general predictors, practice and luck, there’s still a limit on how important the narrow traits can be.
A second possibility is that people are already pretty good at sorting themselves by general ability. For instance, getting into college is essentially an indicator of general ability, and if you get into college, you’ll naturally consider the jobs that college graduates normally take. Similarly, career advisors at the university will be used to advising people who are already filtered for general ability.
If you’re at the start of your career, then practice isn’t relevant because you haven’t had a chance to practice yet. And since luck is also not under your control, then maybe most of the remaining work to be done in understanding your career concerns the narrow traits.
And the narrow traits are still predictive enough that it’s worth putting some real effort into understanding them. This could be especially true if you’re facing a winner-takes-all field, where a small difference in initial ability predictably leads to a big difference in output in the long term.
A third possibility is that normal career experts are focused on job satisfaction more than job performance. It’s plausible that job satisfaction is more determined by narrow predictors (like interest match) than performance. That said, I think context and ability are also major factors in job satisfaction.
A fourth possibility is that normal career experts are aware of the importance of general predictors, but don’t like to talk about it, because it’s depressing or controversial.
Some evidence for this is that as far as I can see, many career tests start by measuring something like general mental ability, which they use to do an initial filter of jobs, and then they use interests to match you with jobs within a certain level of competitiveness. This would suggest that the people who design career tests are aware of the importance of general traits after all.
Likewise, a career advisor might try to gently discourage you from considering a career that seems clearly too competitive given your CV, but they will only go there if you bring it up, since talking about your unique fit is more engaging and less likely to cause offence.
Wrapping up — how does this relate to ‘personal fit’?
When thinking about your prospects of success, all of the five philosophies have something valuable to add.
While I think the ‘unique match’ view is likely overplayed in standard career advice, I would still encourage people to put significant effort into determining their individual strengths and how they might be best applied.
On the other hand, I also worry about people pigeonholing themselves too narrowly. The downside of the unique match approach is that people might rule out a whole area if it doesn’t seem to immediately match their current strengths.
The other views suggest you might be able to succeed in a wider range of jobs than you first think e.g. by working hard to build new strengths, through your general abilities, by finding the right team or organisation in the area, or by simply getting lucky on an ambitious bet.
This is partly why at 80,000 Hours we put more emphasis on shooting for jobs that seem good in general — e.g. jobs that are influential, give you useful skills, are satisfying etc. — and a bit less emphasis on match, though we believe that match still matters.
None of the views (besides luck) say that determining your ‘personal fit’ — which we cover in our advice — isn’t important. The main difference is about how to estimate your personal fit rather than whether to estimate it.
We think of your personal fit as, roughly, your chances of outsized success in the field compared to the average. On the different views, your personal fit depends on:
- How much your strengths match the field
- How hard you’re willing to work relative to the average
- Your general degree of ability compared to the average
- Whether you’re able to find a team or organisation that matches you
That said, while personal fit matters on each view, it matters most on the first. The unique match view holds that you might be extremely well-suited for some jobs but terrible at others.
If instead success is mainly about general talent and hard work, then your prospects in different fields should be pretty correlated, even though some fields will be more generally competitive than others. Recognising this could mean you have more options than it first seems.
Ericsson argues this in his 2016 book Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise.