All the evidence-based advice we found on how to be successful in any job
The trouble with self-help advice is that it’s often based on barely any evidence.
For example, how many times have you been told to “think positively” in order to reach your goals? It’s probably the most popular piece of personal guidance, beloved by everyone from high school teachers to best-selling careers experts. One key idea behind the slogan is that if you visualize your ideal future, you’re more likely to get there.
The problem? Evidence suggests that the opposite is true. Recent research found evidence that fantasizing about your perfect life actually makes you less likely to make it happen. While it can be pleasant, it reduces motivation because it makes you feel that you’ve already hit those targets. We’ll cover some ways positive thinking can be helpful later in the article.
Much other advice is just one person’s opinion, or useless clichés. But, there are a number of evidence-backed steps that anyone can take to become more productive and successful in their career, and life in general. And as we saw in an earlier article, people can keep improving their skills for decades.
We’ve tried to come to an all-considered view of what makes sense to try, given (i) the strength of the empirical evidence, (ii) whether it seems reasonable to us, (iii) the size of the potential upside, (iv) how widely applicable the advice is, and (v) the costs of trying. The details are given in the further reading we link to and the footnotes.
We’ve put the advice roughly in order. The first items are easier and more widely applicable, so start with them, then move on to the more difficult areas later. The order is also partly based on an in-depth analysis of which skills are most valuable.
We recommend working on one area at a time. Skim through and pick the area that would make the biggest difference in your life for the least effort, then focus on it until you can nail it down. We typically pick one or two areas to work on each year.
Reading time: 30 minutes
1. Don’t forget to take care of yourself
Before we go onto more complex advice, a reminder: ambitious people often don’t take care of themselves. But, this can make them burn out and ultimately be less successful.
In fact, even if you just want to help others, it’s important to look after yourself. Professor Adam Grant did research that suggested that altruists who also looked out for their own interests were more productive in the long-term, and so ultimately did more to help.
To look after yourself, the most important thing is to focus on “the basics”: getting enough sleep, doing exercise, eating well and maintaining your closest friendships. Research in positive psychology suggests that these have a big impact on your day-to-day happiness, not to mention your health and energy. In fact, as we’ve seen, they probably matter much more than other factors people 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 them. Sometimes there are small technical tricks (e.g. some people find they sleep far better if they wear an eye-mask), but otherwise it often comes down to building better habits (e.g. scheduling a weekly call with your best friend). A good starting point is this list.
Adam Grant’s research is also another reason why we don’t think it helps to be overly sacrificial in trying to help others. If you, for example, work long hours and lose your close friendships over time, or ruin your health, you’ll ultimately be less productive. Instead, set limits. This is one reason why we like the Giving What We Can pledge. Rather than constantly worry about how much to donate, set a percentage then stick to it.
2. If necessary, make mental health your top priority
About 20% of people in their twenties have some kind of mental health problem.
If you’re suffering from a mental health issue – be it anxiety, bipolar disorder, ADHD, depression or something else – then make dealing with it or learning to cope your top priority. It’s one of the best investments you can ever make both for your own sake and your ability to help others.
We know many people who took the time to make mental health their top priority and who, having found treatments and techniques that worked, have gone on to perform at the highest level.
If you’re unsure whether you have a problem, it’s still well worth investigating. We’ve also known people who have gone undiagnosed for decades, and then found their life was far better after treatment.
Mental health is not our area of expertise, and we can’t offer medical advice. We’d recommend seeing a doctor as your first step. If you’re at university, there should be free services available.
Otherwise, you might like to look into the latest evidence-based treatments yourself. For instance, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) has also been found to help with many mental health problems, and is increasingly available online. A classic book is Feeling Good by David Burns – reading the book has even been tested in rigorous (randomized controlled) trials and found to reduce the symptoms of depression.
Here’s a summary of treatments for depression and anxiety. For ADHD check out Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy for Adult ADHD and Taking Charge of Adult ADHD. Manage Your Mind is a popular guide to many types of mental health treatment written by a psychologist.
Just as with your mental health, it also pays to focus on your physical health…
3. Deal with your physical health (not forgetting your back!)
Lots of health advice is snake oil. But, it’s probably also the area where the most evidence-based advice exists. Besides your doctor, you can find easy-to-use summaries of the scientific consensus on how to treat different health problems on websites like NHS Choices and the Mayo Clinic. Read more about how to get evidence-based health advice.
We were surprised to learn that the biggest risk to our productivity is probably back pain: it’s now the leading cause of ill-health globally, at least by some measures.
Repetitive strain injury (RSI) is also a hazard of modern workplaces, and can even permanently damage your ability to type or use a mouse.
Nevertheless, you can reduce your chances of back pain and RSI in a couple of ways. First, correctly set up your desk and maintain good posture – see advice here, here and here. Second, regularly change position (the pomodoro technique is useful). Third, exercise regularly.
These steps sound trivial, but statistically, it’s pretty likely you’ll face a bout of bad back pain at some point in your life, and you’ll thank yourself for making these simple investments.
4. Apply scientific research into happiness
Although most advice about being happier isn’t based on anything much, the last few decades has seen the rise of “positive psychology” – the science of the causes of wellbeing – as covered in an earlier article.
Researchers in this field have developed practical, easy exercises to make you happier, and tested them with rigorous trials to see whether they really work. The evidence is still emerging, but we think this is one of the best places to turn for self-help advice.
Partly, this research emphasizes the importance of the basics – sleep, exercise, family and friends. That’s why we listed the basics ahead of this section. However, they’ve made lots of other discoveries.
Below is a list of techniques recommended by Professor Martin Seligman, one of the founders of the field. Most of these are in his book, Flourish. Test them out, and keep using them if they’re helpful.
Being happier is not only good in itself, but it can also make you more productive, a better advocate for social change, and less likely to burn out.
- 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.
Use your signature strengths. Take the VIA Sig Strengths survey. Then make sure you use one of your top 5 strengths each day.
Learn some basic cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is the kernel of truth within positive thinking – much unhappiness is caused by unhelpful beliefs, and it’s possible to change your beliefs. CBT has developed lots of techniques for doing exactly this. A simple exercise is the ABCD which you could do at the end of each day. You can learn more in section 2 above.
Mindfulness practice – usually done via meditation. There’s trial evidence meditation helps with mental health. There isn’t yet strong evidence, however, that it helps with general wellbeing. In part, this is just because it hasn’t yet been studied. Given that lots of people say it helps them and the theory behind it makes sense to us, we think it’s reasonable to try and see if it helps you. To get started, we recommend Headspace and the book Mindfulness by Penman and Williams.
Do something kind each day, like donating to charity, giving someone a compliment, or helping someone at work.
Practice active constructive responding to celebrate successes with others.
Adopt the growth mindset. If you believe you can improve your abilities, you’ll be more resilient to failure and harder working. See the book, Mindset, by Carol Dweck, which reviews this research and discusses how the mindset can be learned.
Craft your job. In an earlier article we covered the ingredients of a satisfying job. Often it’s possible to adapt your job so that it involves more of the satisfying ingredients, and less of what you don’t enjoy. It could be as simple as trying to spend more time with a friend at work.
It can also be possible to find more meaning in your work. Adam Grant did a study of fundraisers for university scholarships. He found that introducing them to someone who had benefited from the scholarships made them dramatically more productive. This is especially important if you’re pursuing a more abstract way of doing good, like earning to give. How can you make it seem more vivid?
5. Improve your basic social skills
Social skills are useful for almost everything in life, and although not much is known about how to improve them, there are some really basic things that everyone can learn. It’s small habits like how to make small talk and changing how you think about social situations. Even these can make it much easier to make friends, get on with colleagues, and generally deal with people.
The most popular guide to learning basic social skills is probably How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It’s full of advice like “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” We think the advice is a bit dated, simplified and has a manipulative undercurrent.
If you have social anxiety and want to go more in-depth, then we’d also recommend Joyable. It’s a 12-week online coached course that uses cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), the most evidence-based form of talking therapy, to overcome common blockages in social situations. We’ve tried it out and it’s useful for anyone who gets nervous when socializing.
If you’re looking to develop more advanced social skills, then you might find The Charisma Myth by Olivia Fox Cabane useful. It makes at least some attempt to use the research that does exists. Other people have found things like improv and Toastmasters helpful.
Finally, much comes down to practice, and getting comfortable talking to new people. So it’s useful to work on this area while also following the steps in the next section…
6. Surround yourself with great people
Everyone talks about the importance of networking for a successful career, and they’re right. A large fraction of jobs are found through connections and many are probably never advertised, so are only available through connections.
But the importance of your 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, as reviewed in the book Connected by Christakis and Fowler. One study found that if one of your friends becomes 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.
Your connections are also a major source of personalized, up-to-date information that is never published. For instance, with NextStep's ever-growing list of Partners, we are an excellent resource to find out what career paths might be a good fit for you. 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. Partly this is because you can persuade people in your network of important ideas, such as the importance of global health or animal welfare. 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 start donating more, there’s a good chance more than one other person will join you.
Practical tips on how to build connections
Networking sounds icky, but at its core, it’s simple: meet people you like, help them out, and build genuine friendships. If you meet lots of people and find small ways to be useful to them, then when you need a favor, 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 networking conferences. The best way to meet people is through people you already know – just ask for an introduction and explain why you’d like to meet. Alternatively, you can meet people through common interests.
When you meet a new person, a useful habit is the “five-minute favor”. Think what can you do in just five minutes that would help this person, and do it. Two of the best five-minute favors are to make an introduction, or tell someone about a book or another resource. The right introduction can change someone’s life, and costs you almost nothing.
However, it still takes effort to reach out to people. In the long-term, it’s even better to develop habits that will let you build connections automatically. For instance, join a group that meets regularly, or live with people who have lots of people to visit. Starting a side-project can work really well – it gives you a good reason to meet people, and work alongside them, building more meaningful connections.
Don’t forget that you want both depth and breadth in your connections – it’s useful to have a couple of 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 – being the ‘bridge’ between different groups is what’s most useful for getting jobs.
Draw up a list of your top five allies, then make sure to stay in touch with them regularly. But also think about how to meet new types of people for breadth.
In a later article, we’ll cover the very best way to improve your connections: join a community.
- Chapter 4 of The Startup of You by the founder of LinkedIn, Reid Hoffman.
- Give and Take, by Professor Adam Grant, which is about how the most successful people are those with a giving mindset, in part because it helps them to build more connections.
- Never Eat Alone, by Keith Ferrazzi. The tone isn’t for everyone, but it shares the same approach as the above, and also has lots of tactical tips.
- How to make friends as an adult, a short essay on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
7. Consider changing where you live
Should you move to the hub of your industry?
Another way to greatly improve your connections is to change city.
Despite the rise of remote working, it’s still true that industries cluster in certain areas. Go to Silicon Valley for technology, LA for entertainment, New York for advertising / fashion / finance, Boston or Cambridge (UK) for science, etc.
In these clusters, it’s much easier to build professional connections, and there are more jobs. Indeed, in some industries, the top positions only exist in certain regions. Three-quarters of US entertainers and performers live in LA. There are also significant pay differences between regions, which are often larger than the differences in the cost of living.
But that’s only part of what’s special about these regions. The world’s ten largest urban economic regions hold only 6.5% of the world’s population, but account for 57% of patented innovations, 53% of the most cited scientists and 43% of economic output. This suggests that, in terms of innovation and economic output, the people in these regions are about eight times more productive than the average person.
These regions in 2008 were: (1) Greater Tokyo (2) Boston-Washington corridor (3) Chicago to Pittsburgh (4) Amsterdam-Brussels-Antwerp (5) Osaka-Nagoya (6) London and South East England (7) Milan to Turin (8) Charlotte to Atlanta (9) Southern California (LA to San Diego) (10) Frankfurt to Mannheim. Silicon Valley, Paris, Berlin, and Denver-Boulder also deserve a mention as having some of the highest rates of innovation per person.
It’s unclear exactly why these areas are so productive, but at least part of it seems to be that innovation comes from being in close communication with other innovators. Culture and social norms might be important too. If that’s true, then it suggests you’ll be more likely to make a breakthrough if you move to these regions. We’ve certainly advised people who saw major boosts to their careers after moving city. (Read more about this in Triumph of the City by Edward Glaeser).
Should you move to Thailand?
The opposite strategy is to move somewhere fun and cheap. This is easier than ever due to the rise of remote work, and could be good for quality of life. It’s also good if you want to make your savings last longer to start a new project or study. However, due to the reasons above, someone ambitious early in their career might be better served by moving to their industry hub.
Your location is important in many other ways. One survey of 20,000 people in the US found that satisfaction with location was a major component of life satisfaction.
This is because where you live determines many important aspects of your life. It determines the types of people you’ll spend time with. It determines your day-to-day environment and commute. It even determines your security in retirement – most people’s biggest financial investment is in their house, and different regions have different property markets.
The main cost of changing city is to your personal life. It takes a long time to build up a network of friends, and you’ll probably leave behind relatives. Since close relationships are perhaps the most important ingredient of life satisfaction, this is not a trivial cost.
If you don’t feel like a good fit with the social life in your hometown, then you’re more likely to gain overall. Another option is to move for a period of years to build your connections, then return home later. Or if you can’t move, you can periodically visit the cluster for your industry.
If you’re unsure where to live, the ideal is to spend at least a couple of months living in each location.
If you’d like to learn more about this topic, we recommend the book Who’s Your City by Richard Florida. In the Appendix, he has a scorecard you can use to rate different cities based on the predictors of location satisfaction. Though note that we don’t put much stock in his actual rankings of locations (e.g. see this criticism) and the data is from 2008. We also enjoyed Paul Graham’s essay on the topic.
8. Use these tips to save more money
We recommend saving enough money that you could comfortably live for at least six months if you had no income, and ideally twelve. Firstly, because it gives you security. Secondly, because it gives you the flexibility to make big career changes and take risks. Exactly how much to hold depends on how easily you could find another job. The standard advice is also to save about 15% of your income for retirement.
So how can you go about saving 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. Unfortunately, the tone of these is not for everyone, but they have the best tips we’re aware of.
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 at least 6-12 months’ runway, move on to the next step.
9. Try out this list of ways to become more productive
You can find lots of articles about which skills are most in-demand by employers – is it marketing, programming or data science? But what people don’t talk about so often are the skills that are useful in all jobs.
One example is personal productivity – building the habits and techniques that allow you to be more effective no matter what your goal is.
Here’s an example: implementation intentions. Rather than saying “I will exercise every day”, define a specific trigger, such as “When I get home from work, the first thing I’ll do is put on my trainers and go for a run”. This surprisingly simple technique has been found in a major meta-analysis to make people much more likely to achieve their goals – in many cases about twice as likely (effect size of 0.65).
This section will also help you implement the rest of the advice in this article. Want to socialize more? Use a commitment device. Want to be more focused when you study? Batch your time. Want to take up gratitude journalling? Add it to your daily review.
What follows is a list of productivity techniques that have seemed most useful to the people we’ve worked with. This section is particularly un-evidence-based, but that’s fine, because you can quickly try the techniques yourself and see if you get more done. Work through them one at a time, try them out, then spend several weeks on each until you’ve built the new habits.
Here are some tips on sticking to your goals. If you’re having trouble getting going, start here.
First, use “implementation intentions”, as we covered above.
Second, you can make implementation intentions even more effective by: (i) imagining you fail to achieve the goal, (ii) working out why you failed, then (iii) modifying your plan until you’re confident you’ll succeed. So, in this case, it’s negative thinking that’s most effective. You can read more in Rethinking Positive Thinking by Professor Gabriele Oettingen.
- Set up a system to track all your small tasks, like a simplified version of the Getting Things Done system (most people find the full system over-the-top). This helps you avoid forgetting things, and provides (some) peace of mind.
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 that’s been called “eating a frog”).
Each week, take an hour to review your key goals, and plan out the rest of the week. (And the same monthly and annually.) Here’s an example.
Batch your time e.g. try 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. Paul Graham discusses this in his essay, Maker’s schedule, manager’s schedule. The reason is that it reduces the costs of task switching and attention residue. More detail on this can be found in Deep Work by Cal Newport.
Also, consider defining a fixed number of hours for work (e.g. have a hard limit of stopping work by 6pm). Many people have found this makes them more productive during their work hours, while also reducing the chance of burning out and neglecting their social life. Read more.
- Be more focused by using the Pomodoro technique. Whenever you need to work on a task, set a timer, and only focus on that task for 25 minutes. It’s hard to imagine a simpler 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. Professor Barbara Oakley recommends it in her course, Learning how to learn.
Build a regular daily routine, which you can then use to complete other tasks automatically e.g. always exercise first thing after lunch.
Many people find having a good morning routine is especially important, because it gets you off to a good start.
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.
Block social media. It’s designed to be addictive, so it can ruin your focus. Changing tasks a lot makes you less productive due to attention residue. For this reason, many people have found tools that block social media during work hours, or for a certain amount of time each day, to majorly boost their productivity.
A recent carefully conducted study even found suggestive evidence that using Facebook makes people less happy.
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. When you’ve spent a few months incorporating some of these habits into your routines, move on to the next step.
10. Learn how to learn
Another skill that will help you in every job is learning how to learn.
Surprisingly, you can become much faster at learning. One example is spaced repetition. If you’re trying to memorize something, like a word in a foreign language, research shows that there’s an optimal frequency to review the word. If you use this frequency, you’ll be able to memorize it 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 the Learning How to Learn course on Coursera by Professor Barbara Oakley, which is now the most viewed online course of all time. You can also read the book it’s based on, A Mind for Numbers.
Another key skill is learning how to build new habits, since that’s what you’ll need to master everything else on this list. We recommend the Tiny Habits course by BJ Fogg at Stanford. Otherwise, check out Leo Babauta’s guide to gaining habits in The Power of Less, which is summarized here.
Finally, Peak by Professor K. Anders Ericsson is a fascinating book about the importance of practice in developing expertise, and how to practice most effectively. In brief, you need to have (i) specific goals for your practice, focused on improving your weaknesses, (ii) rapid feedback on how well you’re performing, (iii) intense focus on the task and (iv) a good coach or teacher. Many people have spent thousands of hours driving, but they’re not expert drivers. This is because they don’t practice with all these ingredients, and their skill quickly tops out. This is the same for many people in many jobs.
Deliberate Performance is a great paper by Fadde and Klein about how to turn any activity into practice that improves your skills. See a summary.
When you’ve learned the basics, go on to learning more narrowly applicable skills, as we cover in the next two steps.
11. Be strategic about how to perform better in your job
How can you perform better in your job? As we covered earlier, being good at your job brings all kinds of other benefits – you’ll have better achievements and connections, boosting your career capital; you’ll gain a sense of mastery, making you more satisfied, and you’ll have more positive impact.
Working harder helps – if you can go 10% beyond what everyone else is doing, that’s often all that’s needed to stand out. But it’s better to work smarter rather than harder.
One key question to ask is “what is really required for advancement in this position?” It’s easy to get distracted, but there are often only a few things that really matter. For a salesperson, it’s the revenue they bring in. For an academic, it’s how many good papers they publish.
Talk to people who have succeeded in the area, and try to identify what this key thing is. Don’t just trust what they say, work out what they actually did. Then, using the material in section 10, figure out how to master it. Try to cut back on everything else.
12. Use research into decision-making to think better
Another example of a skill that’s useful in every job, but not usually discussed, is good thinking. Recent research suggests that intelligence and rationality are distinct – perhaps that’s why smart people make so many dumb decisions – but fortunately, rationality is easier to train.
Clear thinking is also especially important if you want to make the world a better place. As we show in the rest of our guide, having a big social impact requires making lots of tough decisions and overcoming our natural biases.
So, how can you become more rational?
Partly it involves building up better habits of thinking. Decades of research have shown that we often make bad decisions due to cognitive biases, such as those mentioned here. You can read more about this research in Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Fortunately, there are some habits that can help you overcome these biases. For instance, several studies of decision-making found that “whether or not” decisions – those that only consider one option – were much less likely to be judged successful than those where several options were simultaneously compared. This suggests a simple habit of always considering at least two options when you make decisions. This and much more advice is covered in Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath.
There is also fascinating new research on how to make better predictions, which is summarized in Superforecasting by Professor Philip Tetlock. You can practice this skill for real by making predictions in a public forecasting tournament, seeing how you perform and trying to improve. You can also try this game.
Finally, you can become better at thinking by building up your toolkit of concepts and mental models. This means understanding the big ideas in every field. 80,000 Hours staff member, Peter McIntyre, created a list of 52 key concepts, which you can sign up to get via email.
It’s particularly important to understand basic statistics and decision analysis. A great book about taking a rational approach to messy problems is How to Measure Anything, by Douglas Hubbard.
If you want to go into even more depth on improving your rationality, check out the free courses on Clearer Thinking.
Beyond that, The Center for Applied Rationality is using research in cognitive science to develop practical three-day training programs, especially for people who want to have a positive impact. These are expensive and not for everyone.
13. Consider teaching yourself these other useful work skills
If you’re not learning directly from your job, then you can study on the side.
But often the quickest way to learn a skill is just to use it, while getting feedback from someone more experienced. So rather than self-study, try to incorporate new skills into your day-to-day work, or start a side project. For instance, if you want to learn web design, then volunteer to design a page for a group you’re involved with. Doing projects is also much more motivating than trying to learn in the abstract. Finally, don’t forget to apply all the advice in section 10 above.
Which skills are best to learn?
- Analysis, including decision-making, critical thinking and problem-solving.
- Learning new skills and information.
- Social skills, including spoken communication, active listening, social perceptiveness, and persuasion.
- Management, including time management, monitoring performance, monitoring personnel and coordinating people.
We could broadly classify these as “leadership” skills. The problem is that these skills are hard to improve. You’ve had to make decisions and speak to people your entire life, and well-established ways to train these skills don’t always exist. Contrast this with computer programming: you can go from zero to having useful abilities in a year or two of practice.
So what to do? Our suggestion is to take easy ways to improve the high-level skills listed, such as in the ways covered earlier in the article, and then focus on technical skills after that.
Within technical skills, we’d particularly recommend those involved in the software industry, because software has growing importance in the economy. This includes software engineering, data science, statistics, digital marketing and software design.
You also need to consider your personal fit. Some skills will be faster for you to learn than others, and this will make your efforts more effective. And you need to consider which skills will be most useful in the options you want to take in the future.
Which combinations of skills are best?
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 career progression mainly depends on the quality of your publications. If you’re looking at 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.
However, in other areas, it’s useful to have an unusual combination of skills and become the best person within that niche. For instance, the creator of Dilbert, Scott Adams, attributes his success to being fairly good at telling jokes, drawing cartoons, and knowing about the business world. There are many people better than him on each dimension, but put all three together and he’s one of the best in the world.
That said, not all combinations of skills are valuable. We can’t give hard and fast advice about which combinations are best, or whether to focus on a single skill or a portfolio.
However, one combination that does seem valuable is the combination of mathematical/technical and social skills. As technology improves, there’s more and more demand for people who can work at the intersection of people and technology, while people usually specialize in one or the other, so there’s a shortage of people who are good at both.
How to improve these skills?
Ideally, find a project that uses the skills, where you get feedback from a mentor. Supplement this with high-quality learning materials, such as the following:
- Decision-making – covered in section 12
- Learning how to learn – covered in section 10
- Social skills – covered in section 5
- Personal productivity – covered in section 9
- Management – covered below
- Sales and negotiation – covered below
- Software industry technical skills – we have some advice in the career capital article; consider studying them at university; and beyond that, there are lots of good online materials.
Management is perhaps the easiest to learn of the “leadership” skills since there are lots of concrete habits and processes you can learn:
- A good introduction to basic management is the Manager Tools “Basics”podcast, which has also been turned into a book.
- Good management is based on coaching, and a good introduction to that is Coaching for Performance by John Whitmore;
- There are lots of useful management processes, including The 4 Disciplines of Execution by Sean Covey and Scrum by the Sutherlands.
- For more academic, evidence-based advice, check out The Handbook of Principles of Organizational Behaviour, by leading management researcher Edwin Locke. Google also has interesting research.
On sales, persuasion and negotiation, some of the best resources we’ve found include:
- Much of good selling comes from genuinely trying to benefit and build good relationships with customers — so check out our advice on building connections in an earlier section.
- Spin Selling by Neil Rackham. It sounds terrible, but it’s actually the most evidence-based resource we found. Rackham studied top sales people, saw what techniques they used, trained people in those techniques, and did randomized controlled trials on the results. However, note that this advice is fairly old and widely known.
- Influence by Robert Cialdini aims to summarize what psychology research can tell us about persuasion.
- To Sell is Human by Dan Pink also looks at what research can say about how to sell.
- Getting Past No by William Ury is one of the classic books on negotiation techniques. The techniques have not been rigorously tested, but we’re not yet aware of any evidence-based negotiation advice.
14. Take these steps to master a field and make creative contributions
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 valuable skill set or problem area. This is where you gain the deep satisfaction of mastery, and can make a big impact on a field. Though, while the previous points can be covered in years, this usually takes decades.
So, how can you become an expert? This is a subject of huge debate.
A common belief is that in every area, some people are naturals, and can attain mastery with ease. The most famous researcher in the study of expert performance, K. Anders Ericsson, however, mostly debunked this idea (as we covered in the earlier article on career capital). For any area where large differences in skill exist, the highest-performing people have all done a huge amount of focused practice, usually with top mentors. Child prodigies, like Mozart, got ahead by practicing more and from a younger age.
However, there is still debate about whether practice is the main thing you need, or whether talent is also important. Given that there’s not yet a consensus, we think the most reasonable position is to assume that both matter.
So this means that to become an expert you need four things:
- Talent for the area.
- The right training techniques and mentorship.
- 10 to 30 years of focused practice.
How much practice is required depends on the area. There’s evidence that it’s most important in well-established, predictable domains, like running. In newer areas, you can get to the forefront faster.
So how should you choose where to focus?
First, if you’re going to put in decades of work, you’ll want to pick an area that’s valuable. which skills are most valuable (see section 13 above) and high impact career paths.
Second, you want to choose an area where you have a reasonable shot at attaining expertise. One short-cut here is to focus on a field that’s new and neglected since then it’ll be much easier to get the forefront. For instance, we think GiveWell established themselves as experts on charity evaluation in about five years, despite having little background.
Beyond that, as we covered in the article on personal fit, it’s hard to predict who’s going to perform best ahead of time. So we think the best approach is to try lots of areas. NextStep's 4-day Variety Career Shadowing Program allows students the opportunity to shadow up to 4 businesses in 4 days (5 hours/day) to gain valuable insight in specific careers.
Then, when you’ve tried several areas, based on our reading of the research, we suggest a process like this:
- Find out what most motivates you. Being motivated is necessary for success (although not sufficient).
- Find out where you improve fastest. Rapid improvement is one of the key signs of talent.
- Speak to experts and ask for an honest assessment of your potential.
- If available, look for objective predictors of success, e.g. getting into a top PhD program is a predictor of success in research; in some sports you need to start by a certain age. Apply the material on making better predictions that we covered in section 12 above.
- Once you identify an area where you have unusually good potential, it may be time to commit. At that point, apply all the research about how to learn effectively that we covered in section 10 on learning how to learn.
- Be prepared for years of hard work, but bear in mind that your interest in the area will probably grow as you gain mastery, and you start to use your skills to help others.
To learn more about how to develop expertise, we’d recommend Peak by K. Anders Ericsson (though bear in mind he’s the strongest supporter of practice over talent). We’d also recommend Grit, by Angela Duckworth, which is about how to develop your passion and perseverance.
Once you become an expert, what then? Use your skills to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Do what contributes.
A key way experts contribute to the world's pressing problems is by coming up with new solutions no-one has thought about before. Unfortunately, we’re not aware of much good advice on how to be more innovative, but our top recommendation is Originals by Professor Adam Grant.
15. Work on becoming a better person
Ultimately, everything above isn’t worth much if you don’t use it for good ends.
By becoming a better person, we mean coming to understand your own values, leading your life in line with those values, and having a life of purpose.
Becoming a good person is a lifelong journey. Here are some steps to consider:
- Take time to reflect on your values and goals. We find it useful to set aside some time each year to identify our values, consider whether we’re living up to them, and work out what our top goals should be for the next year. Here’s a process for doing that by Alex Vermeer. By “values” we mean ultimately what you think a good life consists of. To get clearer about them, ask yourself why you’re pursuing your goals over and over again, until you can’t think of any deeper reasons. Or, imagine you were going to die in a year, and think about what you’d do in the remaining time. When it comes to your goals, look for the smallest things you can do that will have the biggest impact, and don’t pick too many. It’s helpful to talk this through with a close friend.
Learn about what else has been written about being a good person. People have thought about these questions for millennia, so don’t just try to work it out by self-reflection. In particular, it’s useful to know some basic moral philosophy.
Build character day-by-day. By this, we mean developing strengths like grit, self-control, humility, gratitude, kindness, social intelligence, curiosity, honesty and optimism. These strengths are vital to having a fulfilling, successful life, as well as helping others. You can build character by surrounding yourself with people you want to emulate (as in section 6), as well as by building up small habits of better behavior. If you think that it’s generally good to be honest, then practice being honest in low stakes situations each day. That’ll make it easier to do the right thing when you’re really tempted. You can see examples of the importance of character in David Brooks’ book, The Road to Character, which Bill Gates picked as one of his top books of 2015.
Occasionally, really challenge yourself – change job to help others, give more, or take a stand for an issue. You could set yourself one big moral challenge each year.
How to be successful: the compounding benefits of investing in yourself
We’ve seen that even if you’re not in the ideal job right now, there’s still a huge amount you can do to make yourself happier, more productive and better placed to have a positive impact on the world.
Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest. Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works 10% more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity.
— Richard Hamming, You and Your Research
If you apply the material on productivity and learning how to learn, you can learn everything else more quickly. Similarly, if you apply the material on positive psychology, you’ll be happier, which helps you be more productive. If you surround yourself with supportive people, that helps with everything else too, and so on.
In this way, over the years, you can learn how to be successful, build your career capital, and achieve far more than you might first think.
So, pick one of these areas, and get started. (If you’re having trouble getting started, check out the motivation tips in section 9!)
Next, we’ll show how to tie together everything we’ve covered in the guide and avoid some common planning mistakes.
Part 10: How to make your career plan
Or if you’re new, get an overview of the whole career guide.
"From Social Skills to Sleep Patterns: All the Self-help Advice That Actually Works." 80,000 Hours, 80000hours.org/career-guide/how-to-be-successful/.