You can gain valuable skills, connections and credentials – what we call career capital – by both choosing the right jobs, and doing the right things within your current role.
Here’s a list of the best ways we’ve found to improve your career capital in any job.
We recommend working on one at a time, so skim through the list then pick one area to work on. They’re roughly in order: apply the earlier advice first, then move on to the more advanced tips. Generally, the earlier tips are useful in a wider range of situations, have bigger effects and are quicker to learn.
Table of Contents
- 1 1. Look after yourself, and take care of the basics
- 2 2. Look after your mental health
- 3 3. Take advantage of positive psychology
- 4 4. Save money
- 5 5. Surround yourself with great people
- 6 6. Do what you can to become more productive
- 7 7. Learn how to learn
- 8 8. Teach yourself useful skills
- 9 9. Become an expert and innovator
- 10 Conclusion
1. Look after yourself, and take care of the basics
The basics are getting enough sleep, exercising, eating right and maintaining your closest friendships. All of these make a big difference to your energy and productivity, and prevent you from burning out. They also do a lot to drive how happy you feel day to day (probably much more than other factors we tend to focus on, like income).
So if there’s anything you can do to significantly improve one of these areas, it’s worth taking care of it first. A lot has been written about how to improve each of these areas by building better habits. A good starting point is this list.
2. Look after your mental health
About 20% of people in their twenties have some kind of mental health problem, and depression is much more common among the young than the old.1
If you’re suffering from a mental health issue – whether anxiety, bipolar disorder, depression or something else – then make dealing with it or learning to cope your top priority. It is one of the best investments you can ever make both for your own sake and your ability to help others. We know people who took the time to focus intensely on dealing with serious mental health problems and who, having found treatments and techniques that worked, have gone on to perform at the highest level.
Mental health is not our area of expertise, and we can’t offer medical advice. We’d recommend seeking professional help as your first step. If you’re at university, there should be free services available.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has also been found to help with many mental health problems, and is increasingly available online. One resource to check out is Go Lantern.
All the same applies if you have a problem with your physical health – look after your health first.
3. Take advantage of positive psychology
There have been plenty of recent discoveries about the sources of wellbeing (as we mentioned in the article on fulfilling careers). Besides taking care of sleep, exercise, diet and friendships, positive psychologists have developed exercises designed to help you be happier, and tested them with randomized controlled trials. It seems well worth trying out these exercises as a way to prevent burnout, protect your mental health, perform better, and hell, just to enjoy your life more.
Here’s a list of techniques recommended by Prof. Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the field. Most of these are in his book, Flourish.
- Rate your happiness at the end of each day. You’ll become more self-aware and be able to track your progress over time. Moodscope is a good tool.
Gratitude journaling – write down three things you’re grateful for at the end of each day, and why they happened. Other ways of cultivating gratitude are also good, like the gratitude visit.
Learn basic cognitive behavioral therapy. A simple exercise is the ABCD which you could do at the end of each day.
Do something kind each day, like donating to charity, giving someone a compliment, or helping someone at work.
Practice active constructive responding.
Adopt the growth mindset. If you believe you can improve your abilities, you’ll be more resilient to failure and harder working. See the excellent book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck, which reviews this research and discusses how the mindset can be learned.
To get more exercises, read The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky.
4. Save money
We recommend saving enough money that you could comfortably live for at least six months if you had no income, and ideally twelve. First, it gives you security; second it gives you the flexibility to make big career changes (read more). The standard advice is also to save about 15% of your income for retirement.
How to save money?
- Save automatically. Set up a direct debit from your main account to a savings account, so you never notice the money.
- Focus on big wins. Rather than constantly scrimping (don’t buy that latte!), identify one of two areas of your budget you could cut that will have a big effect. Often cutting rent by moving somewhere smaller or sharing a house with someone else is the biggest thing.
- But beware of swapping money for time. Suppose you could save $100 per month by moving somewhere with an hour longer commute. Instead, maybe you could spend that time working overtime, making you more likely to get promoted, or earning extra wages. You’d only need to earn $5/hour to break even with the more expensive rent.
- Until you have six months’ runway, cut your donations back to 1%.
- For more tips, check out Mr Money Mustache and Ramit Sethi’s book, I Will Teach You to be Rich.
Bear in mind that it might be more effective to focus on earning more rather than spending less, especially through negotiating your salary.
Once you’re saving 15% and have 12 months’ runway, move on to the next step.
5. Surround yourself with great people
Why networking is more important than you think
Everyone talks about the importance of your network for a successful career, and they’re right. A large fraction of jobs are found through connections and many are probably never advertised, so only available through connections.
But the importance of connections goes far beyond finding jobs. It may be an overstatement to say that “you become the average of the five people you spend the most time with”, but there is certainly some truth in it. Your friends set the behavior you see as normal (social norms), and directly influence how you feel (through emotional contagion). Your friends can also directly teach you new skills and introduce you to new people.
Researchers have even measured this influence, which is reviewed in the book Connected by Christakis and Fowler. One study found that if one of your friends becomes more happy, you’re 15% more likely to be happy. If a friend of a friend becomes happy, you’re 10% more likely to be happy; and if a friend of a friend of a friend becomes happy, you’re still 6% more likely to be happy. The researchers don’t think this effect is caused by the fact that happy people tend to hang out with other happy people – they used a couple of smart techniques to separate causation from correlation.2 Negative behaviors like smoking spread in a similar way. Our guess is that who you spend time with is a major factor in your personal growth and character.
Your connections are also a major source of personalized, up-to-date information that is never published. For instance, if you want to find out what job opportunities might be a good fit for you in the biotech industry, the best way to find out is to speak to a friend in that industry. The same is true if you want to learn about the trends in a sector, or the day-to-day reality of a job.
If you ever want to start a new project or hire someone, your connections are the best place to start, because you already know and trust them.
Finally if you care about social impact, then your connections are even more important, because they’re also a platform for advocacy. Partly this is because you can persuade people in your network of important ideas. But it’s also because your behavior will help to set the social norms in your network, spreading positive behaviors in the way we just described above. For instance, if you become vegetarian, it seems likely that you can cause more than one other person to become vegetarian. In this way, your influence on your network could be more important than the direct impact of your own behaviors. There’s evidence in Connected to back up this idea, at least in some cases. The more people in your network, and the more influential they are, the more powerful the effect.
How to network
So how can you build connections? Networking sounds icky, but at its core, it’s simple: meet people you like, and help them out. If you meet lots of people and find small ways to be useful to them, then when you need a favour, you’ll have lots of people to turn to. It’s best, however, just to help people with no expectation of reward – that’s what the best networkers do and there’s evidence that it’s what works best.
You don’t have to meet people through nasty networking conferences. The best way is to meet people through people you already know – just ask for an introduction and explain why you’d like to meet. Otherwise you can meet people through common interests.
Finally, don’t forget that you want both depth and breadth – it’s useful to have some allies who know you really well and can help you out in a tough spot, but it’s also useful to know people in many different areas so you can find diverse perspectives and opportunities – there’s evidence that being the ‘bridge’ between different groups is useful for getting jobs and being successful.
Try to develop habits that will let you build connections automatically e.g. join a group that meets regularly, or set aside some of your budget to take one person out to dinner each month.
Many people we’ve advised have found the biggest single way we helped them was by introducing them to a community of likeminded people who want to have a social impact.
Here’s how to join in:
6. Do what you can to become more productive
Most people find that if they work on it a bit, they can become more productive no matter the task. Here’s an example: the Pomodoro technique involves setting a 25 min timer whenever you need to work on a task, and committing to focusing just on that task for 25 min. It’s hard to imagine a more simple technique, but many people find it helps them to overcome procrastination and be more focused, making a major difference to how much they can get done each day.
If there are opportunities like this lying around, they’re really worth taking because they’ll help you no matter what you’re working on.
Here are some other techniques that many people have found helpful. Work through them one at a time, spending several weeks on each until you’ve built the new habits.
- Set up a system to track all your small tasks, like the Getting Things Done system.
Do a five minute review at the end of each day. You can put all kinds of other useful habits into this review e.g. gratitude journaling, tracking your happiness, thinking about what you learned each day. You can also use it to set your top priority for the next day: many people find it useful to focus on this first (a technique called “eating a frog”).
Each week, perform a review of your key goals, and plan out the rest of the week. (And the same monthly and annually.)
Batch your time e.g. trying to have all your meetings in one or two days, then block out solid stretches of time for focused work; clear your inbox once a week.
Build a strong daily routine, which you can then use to complete plenty of other tasks automatically, such as exercise.
Set up systems to take care of day-to-day tasks to free up your attention, like eating the same thing for breakfast every day.
A huge amount has been written about all of these ideas. Hopefully this gives you an idea of what’s out there and some ways to get started. We especially recommend the book Deep Work by Cal Newport. When you’ve spent a few months incorporating some of these habits into your routines, move on to the next step.
7. Learn how to learn
Because technology and the world are changing so fast, being successful requires constantly learning new skills. Moreover, the world seems to be becoming more “winner takes all”, so having world class expertise has never been more important, and developing that expertise requires a lot of learning. Finally, the ability to learn quickly and effectively will help you to gain all the other skills you need for good career capital.
Perhaps surprisingly, you can become a lot faster at learning. One example is spaced repetition. If you’re trying to memorize something, like a word in a foreign language, research shows there’s an optimal frequency to review the word. If you use this frequency, you’ll be able to memorize the word much faster. There are now tools that will do the revising for you, like Anki for making your own flashcards, and Memrise for pre-prepared cards.
There are lots more techniques. Our top recommendation in this area is this course on Coursera, which is now the most viewed MOOC of all time.
When you’ve learned the basics, go on to the next step.
8. Teach yourself useful skills
But bear in mind often the quickest way to learn a skill is just to do it, while getting feedback from experts. So rather than learning on the side, look for people who can give you feedback, then incorporate it into your work or side projects.
Also consider whether to focus on one main skill, or explore lots of skills. In some areas success is more a matter of being exceptional at one thing e.g. academic careers mainly depend on the quality of your publications. If you’re focused on that kind of area, then just focus on getting good at that one thing. Having one impressive achievement is also usually more useful for opening doors than several ordinary achievements, so that’s also reason to focus.
Here are some skills we’d especially recommend studying on the side (besides those listed above). The recommendations are partly based on this preliminary analysis. Choose one or two to focus on.
- Persuasion and negotiation
- Data analysis
- Communication (especially writing)
- Analysis and problem solving
9. Become an expert and innovator
After you’ve taken the low hanging fruit from the steps above, and explored different areas, one end game to consider is becoming a recognized leader in a highly valuable skill set or problem area.
The best research available suggests that expertise in established areas takes 10 to 30 years of focused practice to build, depending on the area.3 It’s debated how importance practice is compared to talent, luck and other factors, but everyone agrees that it’s necessary in well established areas. It also seems that most people can improve at most skills with practice, so even if you can’t reach expert levels, you can still improve a great deal.
To find out more about this research, and find out how to practice effectively, we recommend reading Peak by K. Anders Ericsson. For more practical advice on how to practice, we recommend Deep Work by Cal Newport.
We think it’s prudent to focus on an area where you think you might also have talent. To find out where you’re most talented, we recommend exploring lots of areas, as we argue in our article on personal fit. There may be other restrictions to bear in mind, for instance, some fields also seem to require that you start by a certain age to reach top levels of performance, especially sports.
Practice also seems most important in fields that are predictable and established. If you go into a new area, where there are no existing experts, then you’ll be able to reach the forefront much faster. Likewise, practice is much more important for something predictable, like running, than for areas involving lots of novel situations, like responding to aviation crises.
Finally, in some areas, recognized experts don’t actually obviously perform better than lay people. For instance, see Tetlock’s surveys of “expert” political and economic forecasters (Amazon), which shows their predictions are rarely more accurate than chance. In these areas, success is due to other factors.
To find out more about how to make creative contributions to a field, we recommend Originals by Prof. Adam Grant.
There’s a huge amount anyone can do to make themselves more productive, happier and able to have a greater positive impact on the world. Do the steps above and you’ll achieve more.
Now go back to our main article on career capital: