You made it.
This is a resource for people serious about developing skills, earning a good living, and becoming valuable to their company and industry.
It’s about mastery.
It’s about discovering what your core strength is and how you can translate this into a profitable skill.
It’s about finding career happiness through relentless focus.
You won’t find basic resume tips or hear me blathering about following your passion.
These are the same principles I’m using for my own professional development.
If you follow these principles, you’ll find better jobs, understand how to make employers want to hire and promote you, and discover how you can actually turn your intelligence into a good paying job and career happiness.
Focus relentlessly on your core strengths; ignore your weaknesses
You want me to tell you which career to choose. But in your heart of hearts, you know this isn’t possible. I don’t know your strengths or what you love.
I don’t know if being a data analyst sounds like hell to you. Or if you’d hate to be a creative in an ad agency.
I can’t help you choose a specific career direction. But I can help you discover your core strengths. Your core strengths decide which careers you will love and be successful at.
Successful people relentlessly focus on their strengths. They are never jack-of-all-trades. They pursue passion and mastery.
You need a core skill to be successful.
There are four basic types of skill categories in the world. I’ve borrowed these categories from Chris Humphrey, the creator of the helpful career resource Jobsontoast.com.
- Leadership & Management
- Creativity & Communication
- Analysis & Research
- Technical & Information Skills
I know this is a reduction. I also know your strengths can overlap. I enjoy a bit of technical stuff (like coding websites). I enjoy creative tasks. I also don’t mind managing people and quite enjoyed being a boss of a small landscape company in my early twenties.
But these four basic categories reveal your true north.
For example, a teacher would fall into the Leadership & Management category.
A writer or PR professional would fall into the Communication category. A CIA analyst or market researcher would fall into the Analysis category. An engineer, web developer, or accountant would fall into the Technical category.
To find success you need to focus on your core strength. Everyone has one.
Andy Johns, an early employee at Facebook and talented ex-social sciences grad who has companies around the world begging him to work for them, advises for you to begin with your core strength and ignore everything else.
He suggests that grads “start by finding a job that requires you to use your strengths more often than not.
By focusing your work around what you’re good at, you’ll find greater long-term enjoyment with your work as well as a higher likelihood of being successful at it.”
You don’t have to choose one direction completely. I develop technical skills from time to time. But if I had to choose, creativity would be the activity I couldn’t live without.
If you don’t focus on your core strength, you will be at a disadvantage. You will be competing for jobs with other people who have stronger skills than you.
If you are a poet by night and an engineer by day, you’ll be working with people who love being an engineer night and day. They will be focused on being the best while you focus on getting by.
The beauty of this is that it goes both ways. The highly technical math-orientated person is a great analyst. She can find you insights. She can data-dive into millions of records. She understands this area.
Yet, if you ask her “based on this data, should we sell the company and go into a different market?” she won’t have a confident answer. Leadership is not her core strength.
Technical people mock soft-skills but they are also secretly terrified of them. Unlike a technical task, there are no rules and no clear definition of success. You need to thrive with ambiguity.
Becoming a master salesperson, for example, requires you to adjust to each new customer. There are guidelines but few hard-coded rules that work every time. This type of work can be challenging for a scientific mind. The analyst or engineer wants to create a formula that can predictively draw the same result from reality.
It’s never been my ambition to be a CEO or school principal because I know I wouldn’t be good at it. [Management & Leadership]
It’s never been my ambition to be a scientist or market researcher because while I’m pretty good at analytical tasks, I don’t want to do them every day. [Research & Analysis]
I like learning about code and programming, but I find that mastering a language would be mind-numbing. [Technical & Information Skills]
My dream job would be a famous musician, a TV writer, or graphic novel writer. This is why I’ve focused on careers that require creative problem solving and writing. [Creativity & Communication]
It comes down to what you can live without.
Sex, drugs, or rock and roll?
Have you seen Spinal Tap? The documentarian asks the drummer of the band, “Could you ever imagine your life without rock and roll?”
The drummer thinks for a moment and then says, “would there still be the sex and the drugs? As long as there’s sex and drugs, I can do without rock and roll.”
I like being an analyst. I like coding. But I can live without them.
I can’t live without creating. My core skills are Creativity & Communication.
What’s your core strength?
Go back to the list above. Is there one area you couldn’t live without?
The first task is to realize that you need to pursue roles at companies that require that skill. Later, we will talk more about this. But the goal right now is for you to commit to your core strength.
As Andy Johns says, “everyone has their inherent strengths and weaknesses. I’m of the camp that believes that people should focus most on playing to their strengths and to align their strengths with a role that requires them to use their strengths regularly.”
Choose one from the four categories below.
Choose a direction. Begin by identifying your core strength and ignoring the rest.
Which of the skill categories below resonates with you the most? Don’t worry about the specific careers you can get. Each of these areas has careers and all (besides being a CEO) pay relatively the same.
- Leadership & Management
- Creativity & Communication
- Analysis & Research
- Technical & Information Skills
You can read more about the four categories of skills I mention above in this post over at Jobsontoast.com.
Master Skills, Not Subjects
It’s Friday night and I’m sitting with my friend in a pub. We’re talking about her career plans after she graduates with a social sciences degree.
“I’m basically an expert in community composting,” she tells me. “I’ll get my degree in political science but I’ve focused my thesis on municipal composting programs and I’ve read basically everything out there on the subject. I know about the economic benefits and the theory. I’ve read just about every journal article on the topic. My goal is to get a job with the government right away, as I’m an expert on the subject.”
What’s wrong here? Why will she struggle to find a job that uses her knowledge?
“The problem with universities is that they organize the world by subjects,” says Michael Edmondson, a popular speaker, author, and expert on education and entrepreneurship.
You learn history. You learn about economic theory. You learn about science. “But the world isn’t organized by subjects. It’s organized by skills.”
My friend will struggle to find that first job because she thinks that subject matter expertise is what counts in the real world.
The big transition from a degree to a career is really realizing that skill mastery, not subject matter mastery, is what counts.
Most university degrees (English, History, Biology, Psychology) teach you unapplied knowledge, which means you need to translate your abstract knowledge into concrete skills in order to be employable.
If your skill doesn’t produce a concrete product, you will have a hard time finding work.
It’s one thing to know how to write. But if you want to earn money, you’ll need to know how to apply that general ability to serve a specific outcome. For example, how to write a speech for a politician that gets them elected or the mechanics of sales content that persuades customers.
F.B.I. analysts do not just have analytical abilities. Their insight and methods track down criminals.
Creative consultants are not just creative people. Their creations need to either bring traffic to a website or increase sales.
The fluffier your product (“I’m a life coach! I help you realize your dreams”), the harder it is to make a living.
Knowledge produces understanding…..people don’t pay for THAT!
Let’s return to my opening example of my friend, the aspiring government community composting expert.
She is focused on her knowledge. She is essentially saying that “if you hire me I’ll share my knowledge. I’ve read all the books, I’m an expert.”
Your job is to NOT teach people your knowledge. People only pay you to receive the benefit of your knowledge.
I don’t want my doctor to explain the science of how blood works. I want him to stitch me up! He can master the theory. I want the benefit of his learning and practice.
I don’t care about the mechanical theory of how engines work. I want the mechanic to make my car start.
College degrees are no different.
People don’t care about your knowledge. They care about what your knowledge can DO for them.
Experience forces knowledge to produce.
My friend wants to be hired to run community composting programs.
She thinks that her knowledge will show her the right way to do this. But actually running a compositing program for a city will be much harder than she thinks.
Yes, she has read the theory. But she might discover that you need to get participation from multiple municipal stakeholders, you need to work with garbage unions, and that Thursday is a terrible day for compost pick-up as most people forget to put it out. Saturday is much better, but the garbage unions don’t work that day.
The point is that you never really know how to apply your knowledge until you try. Employers know that experience is way more valuable than knowledge.
Stop spending your time chasing knowledge and focus relentlessly on gaining experience. It will pay much higher dividends.
But wait! I need experience to get a job! I don’t have experience! Everyone at the start of their career faces this hurdle. But you have to find a way. Work for free, intern, freelance. Do anything you can to get that first bit of experience.
Make a commitment this year to gain experience, any experience in your chosen field.
Pay, beg, borrow, or thieve any chance to get experience. Unlike stocks, bonds, or Ponzi schemes, having relevant experience in a profitable field is the fastest path to steady money. Experience is where knowledge finally translates into a skill that can earn you money.
Specialization Breeds Opportunity
Seven years ago, I was mowing lawns. Some days, I would very literally get dog shit sprayed in my face while weed-whacking. I was a minimum-wage slave to the rich. I hated every minute.
I also had a Master’s degree in Literature. This made me very depressed. I had no idea what my precious little soul wanted to accomplish. I thought I might work in a magazine, be an editor, or just get paid to be a literary critic? I was lost.
Today, I’m about to leave my house to go to my company’s giant global headquarters. It’s your typical tech company: beer on tap, dogs tearing about the office, sleek modern floorplan, and playful things (a secret bar in the basement, indoor cabins, and underground music space with drums and guitar amps). It’s like high school with money. We had Cirque du Soleil acrobats 30 feet from the ceiling at our Christmas party.
I’ve also worked on marketing campaigns for Silicon Valley startups, Google, Thomson Reuters, and led the digital strategy for a national franchise brand with 150 locations.
I don’t say this to brag. My career is minuscule in comparison to other people in the tech world that I know. I’m not a success story. But I have figured out to make a comfortable wage in a place I like to work. I never worry about money.
Seven years ago, global tech companies would want nothing to do with my overeducated ass.
Specialization is how I went from mowing lawns to earning a decent wage in tech.
Mastery of a single skill is the shortest route to success. Yet few people do it.
The strange thing is that we love what we commit to.
Humans crave mastery. It actually doesn’t matter what the subject or skill is so long as it connects to our core strengths. A master guitar player would be just as happy as a master cello player.
You need to specialize.
You need to commit to mastery.
You need to focus.
Begin with a general direction such as “being an analyst for the government.” Then pick a specialization such as “I want to be a subject matter expert in community relations among aboriginal youth.” Next, develop skills around that specialization.
This will open up career opportunities faster than any other generalist path.
Specialization shrinks your professional world. You’ll meet the people that matter and find the open jobs much faster. For example, the other day an employer tried to recruit me for an interview from LinkedIn. This was simply because of my specialization on my LinkedIn Profile. His company looked alright too. This happens every six months or so.
You might not be ready to specialize, but it should always be your long-term career goal.
But what if you don’t want to get stuck with a career? What if you want to change directions later? People are paralyzed by choice and delay picking a focus. You can always switch. The more likely story is that you’ll be well-employed, happy, and focused and will never look back.
Become a master of something small in your chosen career. Begin with a vertical specialization.
A friend of mine, for example, wants to be hired by outdoor brands. He is a writer, a video producer, and editor. He is currently trying to master writing, journalism, website development, and video production.
My advice to him is to just focus on using YouTube to promote outdoor videos. Become a master of that single channel. Experiment with it. Learn the technical aspects and follow outdoor companies that are using it well.
That way, he can go to these outdoor brands and offer a very specific skill to them. This is the start of specialization.
What’s your X?
Every skill solves a problem. People want something. But they need X to solve their problem. In other words, X stands in their way of getting what they want. To solve this X, they need to either do it themselves or pay someone to solve that problem for them.
For example, a person is born with an ugly nose. They want to be beautiful and have a better nose. A Beverly Hills Surgeon says, “my plastic surgeon skills can help you get that nose. I can solve your X. I can make you beautiful!”
The plastic surgeon solves a big X. And that’s why they can charge a lot.
Or a technology company wants to be seen as creative and loved by consumers. But they aren’t creative. They are a technology company filled with engineers. A creative agency says, “We have creative skills. We will create you a viral video that makes people laugh and talk about how cool your company is. We can make you look creative.”
In each case, a skill helps someone get something they want. It solves their X.
The point is that the more complex and hard problems your X solves, the better the job and higher the pay.
After college, I ran a small landscaping company. We did the things you could do yourself if you weren’t a lazy, rich upper-class person. Things like pruning trees, mowing lawns, and cleaning yards. We could never charge a premium as we were a convenience buy. In other words, our skills were disposable.
If we charged too much, they’d get the sloppy teenager next door to do our jobs. We were replaceable at any moment and often lost contracts, especially when money became tight after the recession.
We solved a very small X.
This is common in many industries including housekeepers, janitors, your local restaurant, exercise coaches, and even tax accountants.
If you want to charge more, you need to develop skills that your customers can’t easily replicate.
Solve a bigger X
Once you get your foot in a career, you should always be looking for a bigger X to solve.
The golden rule for career stability: develop skills that clients and other people can’t easily replicate.
If I had stayed in the landscape company, my best route to higher wages would be to learn how to do complex stonework, run a backhoe, and install water features. These are more complex skills which can’t be replicated by clients (or as easily by competitors, as any fool can buy a lawnmower and go door to door) and so you can charge a lot more.
In other words, your skills should be so advanced that people don’t have a choice but to hire you.
The point is that “processes clients can’t easily replicate” needs to be literal. They literally can’t create the product of your skills.
What’s your five-year skill development goal? You might know nothing now. But think of the deep expertise you could learn in five years.
You could become an expert at complicated analytic systems.
You could become the best non-fiction writer people have ever seen, mastering all the nuances and tricks of the genre.
You could learn every guitar chord there is and create a famous online guitar school.
You could study wine and become a sommelier, consulting for wineries or working for a famous wine brand.
Aim high and start working towards solving a big X for people.
Don’t get comfortable with your skills. Always be developing skills that push your abilities. I have a monthly subscription to Skillshare, which is a great place to take online professional development courses.
Your class reading today involves taking a look at different courses offered on Skillshare. I try to take a professional development course at least every three months and love Skillshare. This year, I bought a course on HTML, Excel, and Data Analysis.
Add technical skills to your skillset, even if you aren’t technical
Mark Twain said, “the secret of getting ahead is getting started. The secret of getting started is breaking your complex overwhelming tasks into small manageable tasks, and then starting on the first one.”
Today’s lesson will expand on the importance of complex skills in your long-term career planning.
The principle is very simple: the more complex skills you develop, the more employable you are. We talked about this last time but now let’s see how it would work in career development.
Let’s take a look at two career paths.
Path A: mediocre skills and little money
Sara graduates with a BA in history. She doesn’t want to teach. But she loves research and analysis. She decides to become a market researcher. She gets a job at a small ad agency. She learns the ropes: basic methodology, a few business concepts, and a few tools. She does research for small companies–for example, local wineries–and her job isn’t very stressful.
Sara will earn a salary, but her job will never be safe. The reason is that her skills are easily copied. A small company could do their own market research. Yes, they might do a terrible job, but they could do it.
Years later, Sara often loses work to younger researchers. They will work dirt cheap and offer basically the same level of quality as really it isn’t that hard to master her job.
When people think about hiring her, they have three options: 1) hire her and pay her expensive rate 2) do the research in-house and save money 3) hire a younger person for less money
Path B: advanced skills and career success
Noelle graduates with a BA in history. Being a teacher never interested her. But she does have a love for research and analysis. She gets a job at a small agency in a market research role. She quickly masters all the basics of her job. She wants more. So she decides to specialize in market research for large consumer brands. This is much more complex work than the local clientele her current job requires.
She takes extra courses on the weekend and learns about big data analysis. Once she has outgrown her current job, she gets a new role at a specialized company. They do complex market research, studying large consumer trends. She works for a few mid-sized brands, not the massive brands she wanted but bigger than local businesses. At first, she is lost. She needs to master Excel and teaches herself Python. But she keeps learning, takes online courses, and works on being a master of her craft.
Years later, Noelle is an expert in quantitative data analysis, an Excel master, and works for big brands like Pepsi and Puma, helping them understand their consumers. When people think about hiring her (as she isn’t cheap), they have two options: 1) spend 5-10 years mastering consumer research 2) hire her.
Develop skills with high barriers to entry
If you want to be paid well, focus on skills that have a high barrier to entry.
For example, I could walk into a classroom tomorrow and begin teaching. I might be a terrible teacher but I could still somewhat manage. In contrast, if I walked into an operating room tomorrow, picked up a scalpel, and tried to freestyle my way through open-heart surgery I would kill someone. This is why surgeons make more money than teachers.
The point isn’t whether being a teacher is harder than a surgeon. Both require lots of skill and training.
If a client or company can easily replicate your skill you will have a harder time staying employed.
For example, an article I read in the New York Times revealed that stagehands (the lighting and production crew) often make much more money than the performing artists on broadway productions. Yes, an artist is highly trained. But you can easily replace one actor with another actor. It is much harder to replace the production crew as they have highly specialized knowledge.
Can you easily be replaced or replicated?
The secret is to add technical skills to your skillset, making it harder for others to replicate your skills. You don’t need to be a programmer or an engineer. You just need to keep pushing and developing your skills.
Most people don’t want to develop technical skills. They are boring to learn, which is why they are so valuable.
Don’t make the mistake of saying “but I’m a creative person” or “I’m not good at math.” This is not about learning mathematical models or building machine learning algorithms. It’s simply adding technical skills that make you able to do your job better.
Most people think they can’t learn technical skills. The language baffles them. Tutorials move too fast. They’ve been conditioned to think of themselves as big thinkers, not engineers. But the advantage of mastering something technical is this: you realize the biggest wall to jump is getting started. Once you learn enough to crawl, you can soon fumble your way to improving your skills.
For example, I play music and consider myself a creative person. For that reason, I decided that learning recording software wasn’t worth my time. I wanted to write the music, not learn about filters, mixing sound levels, and the complicated interface of Logic Pro X.
One day, though, I heard an interview with the singer of the Shins. He apparently records all his albums in his studio apartment in New York. This enables him to have greater control over his work and even though he is a creative person, he has learned the technical skills of being an audio engineer.
I have a long way to go and right now get frustrated with simple tasks. But I’ll keep on developing and chipping away at this new skill.
Update: since the first draft of this resource (about a year), I’ve watched hundreds of YouTube videos on recording software, read four books, and taken five or six online courses.
I’ve recorded 10 songs at home, bought gear I never knew I needed, and now use terms like “low-pass filter” and know how to make vocals sound thick like pop tracks.
The secret to recording pop vocals is, if you’re interested, to record one track. Then copy it exactly. You now have two tracks playing the exact same vocal part. You use a tool called compression on one track, your main vocal track. Compression smooths everything out, bringing up the texture of low volume sections while controlling intense sections.
Underneath that, you have your secondary vocal replica track. You leave that uncompressed and at a lower volume, but then have heavy reverb. This makes the peaks (such as the vocal track having an intense high note) splash into the reverb. This gives you that nice high resonance and harmonic richness that you hear in pop vocals.
When I first started recording vocals, I didn’t even know how to edit them. The most important step: get moving and learn in small task-focused chunks.
First, understand that a high barrier to entry is a good thing for a job.
Everyone stands at the bottom of the mountain. Only a few decide to take their very first step. So while you might say—but how could I ever develop the skills needed to become a complex market researcher?—remember that nobody is born an expert.
Second, every year have a practical list of 10-20 difficult things to master in your craft.
For example, this year I want to master Pivot Tables in Excel. This will help me in my job and let me do more complex work.
Just remember, there are no shortcuts to mastery.
If you are feeling overwhelmed, the most sensible thing to do is to pick a small task and begin.
“A year ago, you’ll wish you started today.”
Not all complex skills are equal
I want to talk more about technical skills and solving complex problems. This topic is essential to your long-term career success.
Last time, I told you the more complex problems your skills solve, the higher your wage.
Yet, people often conflate complex skills with complex problems. They are not the same!
It’s not enough to just develop complex skills. You have to solve complex problems. A custom jewelry maker might spend 50 years honing their craft. They are a master of their skill. But they don’t solve a complex problem in people’s lives. And when the economy tanks, the jewelry maker is the first one out of work.
Your job is to understand where your career fits within the larger economy and culture.
I’m not picking on anyone here. All I’m saying is that our culture and economy tends to value some skills more than others.
For example, being an editor takes years of training. They deserve a high wage! You should hire an editor if you want a professional product right?
But people can edit their own work. They might suck at it. But there is no barrier to entry.
In other words, being an editor doesn’t solve a complex problem. Not at least from the perspective of an independent writer with no money to spend on freelance editing services.
So while it might take 10 years to learn the nuances of editing and have three degrees, this experience and perceived complexity of this skillset does not mean you can charge a premium.
Keep in mind, I’m speaking from a capitalistic lens here. I never said they don’t deserve a higher wage. It’s that they usually can’t charge a premium as people can edit and publish their own books now. A good author will know the value of an excellent editor, but most writers will not.
Many people complain that because they are highly educated or highly trained that they deserve a high wage. Unfortunately, this is not how the market and skill economy works.
For example, most local business owners do their own marketing. You don’t need a license to practice marketing, which means there is no barrier to entry. As a consequence, marketing firms that try to sell their services to small businesses usually don’t make much money.
Dedicate most of your skill development to things people don’t want to master. Often, this is technical knowledge. It is all ‘How’. Zero philosophy. All boring stuff.
For example, my core skill is copywriting. But as my first boss explained to me, most clients aren’t willing to pay a lot for writing. They can get the intern to write blog posts, write the video script themselves, and higher younger, cheaper talent.
For that reason, I’ve done three things.
One, I’ve made sure my skills relate to a big problem in people’s lives. The problem I fix is getting new customers for my company, which means they can pay their rent, pay their staff, and pay their mortgage.
Two, I’ve aimed to work for bigger clients as they appreciate specialized expertise more than small businesses who try to do everything themselves. Small companies don’t care about my skills. They can’t afford a professional copywriter.
Three, I’ve expanded my skill set to include analytics and marketing strategy. A client might be able to write a blog post themselves, but they are less likely to want to spend 10 hours on a Saturday learning how to set up e-commerce tracking in order to measure the effect of that blog post on sales.
I’m not saying that soft skills aren’t difficult to master (I am a soft skill person). What I’m saying is that people will always try first to not pay for soft skills and do it themselves.
So, try to add technical components to your soft-skills. This will protect you from people being able to copy your skills.
Which technical skills can you add to your professional development?
Go to Udemy. Udemy offers technical courses and is an awesome place to learn advanced topics.
If you add technical skills to your career (for example, mastering Excel or digital analytics), you’ll be harder to replace and more valuable to employers.
Flow with the market
Your skills are products. As such, they are subject to the supply and demand of the market. Just ask journalists.
You can’t expect to sell the same thing for decades.
Anticipate change in your industry. Be the first one to shift directions rather than the one dragged last out the door.
You need to learn how to temporarily profit from a trend and then move on.
I don’t mean that you should be changing careers every few years or not mastering your core skills. You still need to stick to your core strengths and aim for mastery. Instead, you need to be evolving your skill set to fit the changing market.
Your skills must develop and morph over time.
There’s nothing wrong with short-term opportunity so long as you are aware that the world is always changing. This is really the key to very successful people. They move with markets instead of rowing against the tides of change.
Make a lifelong promise to embrace change rather than resist it.
If you are trying to break into an industry mastering a new trend or skill is a great way to go. The old workers don’t want to waste their time as they secretly hope it will just go away. Employers, though, fear they are being left behind and will appreciate you having this new skill.
Simple goals and sprints
Set goals with three characteristics: simple, specific, and measurable.
Simplicity helps you remember the goal and gives you a big beacon to follow each day.
By picking specific goals, you’ll be able to measure your success. An ineffective goal would be “become a published writer in one year.” A good goal would be “write 25 short stories in a year and send all 25 to magazines.”
The second goal gives you a clear path and clear way to see if you are slacking. The first goal is just a basic desire.
Let’s set your yearly career goals.
One: set a big simple goal
Pick one goal. It should be both bold and realistic. Such as “get a part-time job at a local PR firm.”
Last year, I set a personal financial goal to save $10,000 in emergency money. I could have set more complex goals like “do my budget every month” or “save 20% of my income and get three freelance jobs to earn extra money.” But the simplicity of the $10,000 goal made me focus. I worked every Saturday to achieve it.
Two: make a deadline
Next, set a time frame. This will let you know whether you fail or succeed, pressuring you to act. For example, you could set the goal of getting a part-time job at a PR firm within six months.
Three: create a task list
Now, dedicate all your energy into reaching that goal.
My personal technique is to create a spreadsheet with 25 tasks that will help me achieve that goal. I set tasks for each quarter. So in a year, there would be 100 tasks.
One of my personal goals this year is to get better at singing. Each quarter, I want to do my vocal exercises 25 times. Those are my tasks. By the end of the year, I’ll have done these 100 times. This is a much simpler system to measure your progress than vague plans like “practice singing every week.”
Each week, you should be aiming to complete 1-3 tasks on your spreadsheet. Some weeks you’ll do better than others. I call these weekly sprints. I use a free tool called Trello to help me manage these weekly tasks.
Always complete the list in order of impact.
Don’t spend two months tweaking your resume or 100 hours reading industry blogs.
I break down the exact steps for a goal like this in my book How to Find a Career with Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days, but in broad strokes, it would go something like this:
- Email 15 PR firms and ask for a job
- Find a local client to do free PR work for to build my resume
- Write five writing samples to send to employers
- Write 10 more PR firms asking for a job
- Write a PR Firm and ask them which skills I’d need to get a job there
- Spend two hours learning about XYZ skill
- Spend two hours practicing XYZ skill
Goals work when they are big enough to excite you and are measurable. Even if you miss your target, you’ll be closer to where you want to be.
Set your big yearly career goal. Write down 25 tasks to complete in the next three months to help you reach that goal.
Take five of those tasks and complete them this week using Trello. Aim for weekly sprints. Refresh your list every three months. Keep taking small steps towards your big goal.
The final lesson
A person I know lists the following skills on his website: an advertising creative, copywriter, social media expert, PR, and marketing strategist.
There’s a big difference between secondary skills and primary skills. Lead with your primary skills. Life is too short to master ten career directions.
This resource explained in three words: focus on mastery.
Employers want experts and people with a career focus.
If you specialize, people will respect you more.
You’ll also earn more money.
And career opportunities will find you faster.
You can have secondary skills. In fact, you need to have diverse knowledge. For example, you can’t call yourself a blogger and not have an understanding of HTML.
You can also have hobbies and passions.
But focusing on a single area of expertise will always make you more valuable. You need to be very clear what your core strength is to employers.
If this area of mastery is close to important problems that people need to solve and more utilitarian than philosophical, you will always do alright.
The philosopher is useful, but he loses his job faster than the breadmaker in times of trouble.
Be a creator.
Be known as a master of one thing.
Summary of what we’ve covered:
- Don’t orphan your passion or core strengths. Soft skills are harder to develop than engineers would like to believe.
- Develop skills that are hard to replicate and have a high barrier to entry.
- Develop skills close to revenue for greatest job security. Your skills should create a tangible product. Don’t be a life coach or parasite.
- Listen to what employers want and then work backward, developing skills.
- Don’t be a Jack of all trades. Master one thing completely.
- Just because your job takes a lot of skills and experience doesn’t mean you will command a high wage. Be a student of markets. Understand that demand changes over time, and you will have to adapt (remember newspapers, publishing, and journalism).
- Set yearly goals. Achieve them with tactical lists and review your progress every three months.
- Learn things you are afraid of and take on big projects above your skill level. The worst thing that could ever happen is that you fail and learn a valuable lesson, making it easier to actually succeed the next time.
- Jump in the water and start swimming. By committing to mastery and calling yourself an expert, you’ll be pressured to master your chosen field.
- Every year, complete 100 practical tasks that will advance your career development.
Your Final Action
If you are looking for my practical guide (much different content than this resource), my book How to Find a Career with Your Humanities Degree in 126 Days lays out a very practical plan for finding a career.
Set achievable life goals with the 4X1 method
Many years ago, I was young. I walked into a financial planning office without an appointment. I wanted to invest 20% of my income. That was my goal. At 16, living at home with a part-time job, it was feasible.
“You keep this up,” said the woman at the desk. “And you are going to become a very rich man.”
The woman was so happy for me. She watched me walk out the door into the bright street. I could feel her hope.
I did become rich. I had 3K in investments by 18, which I spent in one drunken college summer, with the vague plan of returning to my goal of 20% after I started making 100K with my university degree.
That was a dumb goal.
Since then, I’ve become better at setting goals and actually reaching them.
The key to getting what you want is really accepting tradeoffs.
You see, last year I was trying to write a novel and write music and practice singing and write new songs and also write non-fiction.
I had zero outcomes.
A bunch of half-finished ideas. A shitty singing voice. A Google Drive full of new non-fiction book ideas.
I wasn’t creatively satisfied. My writing was crap. I also had all these good songs unrecorded that are very important to me, things I want to say, and they were just sitting there unrealized. That makes you unhappy.
So, I finally took a step in my goal planning and have tweaked my process for this year.
Now, I have four categories. And I can only pick one yearly outcome for each.
In this post, I’m going to share my personal system and some advice that I’ve picked up from reading a lot on the subject.
Because in 365 days from now, I’m going to achieve everything I list in this post.
I’ve done it before. And I’m going to do it again, goddamn it.
The three things you need to remember:
You’ll achieve more if you stop trying to do everything.
You have to make tradeoffs.
Focus on tangible outcomes, not desire.
All will become clear. Let’s set some goals!
Have you ever set a goal you achieved?
I’m not a successful entrepreneur, famous author, or that talented.
But in the past few years, I’ve been checking things off my list.
About five years ago, my big goal was to be published in magazines. Just to be good enough to write in a magazine. It didn’t matter what. A book review, celebrity gossip, I would have written an astrology column if they wanted.
I also wanted to be a published author. A real book in Chapters! Wouldn’t that be cool?
I also wanted to write a blog that people read. I set a goal for 5,000 monthly pageviews. It seemed like a huge number.
And money in the bank. I’ve always worried about that. So, I wanted to make $100 a month in passive income online.
And finally, I wanted to get out of career limbo and have a real career.
I’ve been published a few times now and as part of my job, I’ve had stuff I’ve written appear in popular publications. I actually don’t care about this goal anymore, but sometimes you need to achieve something to move on.
Last year, a major publisher offered me a publishing deal for my eBook. My book would be in real stores and they wanted to build me into a career author. I turned them down, mostly because I don’t really want to be a self-help career writer. My eBook was what I had to say on the subject.
This blog had 93,000 monthly pageviews last month. So it’s come a long way from my first 5,000 month. But this is not an important goal for me anymore.
I make between $700 and $1000 per month in passive income. This was a fun goal and I’m keeping it.
I now work at one of the best global companies in my industry. It’s a dream job. My career is one of the most important things to me.
I’m not an expert at goals. But I’ve thought a lot about them and taken a few wrong routes.
Here’s the only thing you need to know.
One goal. One year.
Many years ago, long before the Rolling Stones were the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards had a humble goal. He wanted his band to become the “best rhythm and blues band in London town.” That’s it. He didn’t want to become rich or be the biggest band in the world or get a record deal. Just be the best in his city at a specific genre of music.
He thought he had a shot, too. Keith had been buying all these records from the American South. Down there in the South, he wouldn’t have thought this goal possible.
The real rhythm and blues bands were too good and Keith was just an eighteen-year-old kid. But London–this was feasible. And so he went after it.
The reason why your goals don’t work is that you focus on habits, instead of outcomes. Saving 20% of your income, getting in shape, and working hard to find a better job—these are behaviors, not goals. Behavior is important but easily shifts.
You won’t achieve anything until you have singular focus
Every year, you need one simple, big goal.
Not a stupid goal like “I want to be a writer!” Or: “I want to make a 100K per year!”
But a singular achievable goal that is feasible to achieve in one year.
Focus on outcomes. It’s the only way to keep yourself honest.
Here’s the framework:
Is your life in crisis?
If you are broke, desperate for a career, hunting for a life partner, or need to accomplish something that will make you happy and complete, then I recommend only creating one goal this year.
Just remember to focus on outcomes, not behaviors.
If your life is not in crisis, you’re lucky! You get to create four goals, one big goal for the four important areas of being a happy human being: Personal, Financial, Spiritual, Career.
Achieve a big outcome in each of those categories every year and you’ll be a happy soul.
As I have no crisis, I get to choose four goals. Each of these corresponds to a part of my life.
With this system, it’s important to not care about the tactics too much. You figure out those on the journey. But right now, you need to look at the big star over the mountain and say, I don’t care what swamps I need to swim through, I’m getting through and reaching my goal.
For example, I set a goal for saving 10K in one year. That same year, I had an offer to do some freelance work. This meant, goodbye Saturdays. But it offered a clear path to my goal. I reached that goal and it’s my new favorite goal.
If I didn’t have such a measurable goal (for example, save 20% of my income), I might have skipped on the goal.
So, don’t worry if you are missing tactics. I’ve put some of mine down. But they might change as I start moving.
These are my goals for the next 365 days.
CAREER (Because this needs to be tended to grow)
Develop one content strategy that has a big win.
> Publish three amazing, lead gen pieces
> Deepen my knowledge of content strategy
> Spend 100 hours listening to enterprise customers
PERSONAL (What makes you happy?)
Record 10 of my original songs by December.
> Spend one weekend every month recording at home
> Don’t record new songs; record the ones already complete first
> Don’t get distracted by other pursuits
FINANCIAL (Because poverty is fucking miserable)
Save $10,000 by December.
> Finish draft of my new eBook project
> List my eBook on Kindle
> Never touch any passive income or freelance money
SPIRITUAL (To not be a selfish ass)
I’m a godless heathen and so I skip this one but some people like to volunteer and do things like that. I might one day include this when the days of me actually roasting in hell are more imminent.
But I am starting to chip away here and include family and friend goals here:
> Go on a trip with my old, good friends
> Spend more time with my sister
The three things you need to remember
You’ll achieve more if you stop trying to do everything.
You have to make tradeoffs. Only pick one goal per category. For example, music is my personal goal. I don’t get to have a killer beach body.
Focus on tangible outcomes, not desire. “Get a job as a marketing analyst” is a desire. “Read 55 books on marketing analysis in 365 days” is a tangible and measurable outcome.
Use the 25/25/50 rule to develop skills quickly
If you are sick of waiting to enter an industry or find a new job, here’s a good rule to help you develop new skills in less time.
It comes from Bob Bly, a copywriter who has written over 70 books and made millions off his writing.
He says that we tend to take in too much information at once. That’s because it is easy to delay action by keeping busy. But just reading book after book leads to an overload. As Bob Bly says, “You take no action–other than to order yet another course or report to read.”
In order to make sure that you take real action, divide your time like this: Spend 25% of your time researching and studying the subject (marketing 101, how to be an editor, reading blogs about new skills). Spend 25% of the time observing. Read great writers, watch for examples of the principles you are reading about. Then spend 50% of your time actually doing it. It doesn’t matter if you aren’t an expert yet, just get started. Write a bad novel. Write another less bad novel. Write an article for the paper. Volunteer at a magazine.
At first, it will be hard to spend 50% of your time doing. Reading about “how to become an internet marketer” is relaxing. Editing code, fixing bugs in your website, trying to find profitable niches, and losing money at Google AdWords–these start to feel like work.
You will feel like you are stumbling in the dark when you could be consulting the book of an expert.
Wouldn’t it be faster to read about how to do it, rather than trying to figure it out myself?
But the 25/25/50 rule works. I follow it every day. I force myself to do something, rather than just passively learn.
Americans watch thousands of hours of movies and shows every year, but 99% couldn’t even tell you the three basic plot-points writers use to craft screenplays. That’s because it is much easier to watch than do.
The next time you have an hour to work observe habits. I bet you would much rather reach for the textbook rather than pick up the pen.
The education on your resume is just fine. If you want to build a great career, you need practical experience. This means less learning, more doing.
Perfection delays action.
How to get out of your crappy job
“I WAS 24. I WAS BEHIND IN LIFE. I STARTED AT THE BOTTOM BECAUSE THAT’S WHERE I BELONGED.”
The shit jobs, the awkward conversations, the insecure moments, the poverty, the kerosene heaters, the studying, the writing, the graduating, and the growing up: all fucking worth it. I exited out of skating’s backdoor years ago, but somehow managed to find my way back through the front.
Meet Tony DaSilva.
In his early twenties, he was a professional skateboarder. You can Google him and find photos of him in Thrasher, the world’s most respected skate magazines with millions of readers. Back then, it was endless partying, sponsors, and getting paid to do what he loved.
But with a long-standing injury, he decided to quit skateboarding. He moved back into his mom’s house and found himself without a degree, zero employable skills, and no idea of where he wanted to go in life.
He worked at a gas station and lived in a crappy studio apartment with no heat in the ghetto of New Haven. As he wrote in his article Is There Life After Skateboarding?
“Many of us that step out of the skate industry after making a living at it are left over as society’s bottom feeders. We don’t have anything to offer.
We don’t have a degree. We don’t write with proper grammar. We speak our own language. We don’t want to talk about the Phish show you went to last weekend on spring break. Fuck you and fuck that.
But I was now alone in that world, on my own. I had to put on the face and force myself into the room I didn’t want to be a part of. I had no choice. I was quiet, insecure, and felt completely fraud [sic] when even speaking to someone outside of skating.”
While Tony started at the bottom, he began to climb. Now, he works for Emerica (a global skateboarding brand) as a Marketing Manager.
So how did he climb from minimum wage to a new career he loves?
I emailed Tony and asked him to share more of his story. If you are working a shit job and looking for a way out, this interview is going to shake you up.
After you left your skateboarding career, what was your lowest point?
I’d say my lowest point came when I was working as a gas station cashier and it was robbed the night before my morning shift. I saw myself again for the first time and how far I had fallen in life. One of the biggest reasons for how low my life had gotten I think came from just not been present for so long. I let time pass me by for too long.
It was always easy to say I’d go back to school or work on my resume later. But this was one of those times I realized I let things get too far and forced myself to move forward in life.
I knew I was smart and talented, but that doesn’t mean anything if you don’t put any motivation or energy behind it.
At the time, I didn’t know what to do, but just living in that new mentality put me in a place to figure it out slowly.
You built your skills and now work for Emerica, a global brand. How did you decide on marketing?
When I went back to college I wanted to write, which led me to major in journalism. I am also a gamer, so I worked on becoming a games writer. While doing so, I saw the benefits of using social media, especially Twitter, to gain a network of like-minded people and look for work. This was very early on in the social landscape and nowhere near as accepted of a marketing tool as it has become.
Seeing the opportunities that came my way from this new technology sparked me to keep at it. I saw it only growing and the potential was endless.
Did you try other career directions? How did you know this was a good path to try?
I knew I had to get back to school, not just as a means to learn and get a degree, but also for the structure that it would create for me in my life. The direction my life had before going to college wasn’t a life of my own making. It was a lack of pursuing anything.
So, after signing up for classes, I knew I wanted to write, maybe be a reporter, and create awesome stories. So, I majored in journalism.
But when I was embedded in these classes in college, I saw a lot of what they were teaching to be an old school way of seeing things. They didn’t really grasp how important online journalism was becoming and how the rules of journalism were being bent and molded to a different style of reading. The internet does not have a lot of patience (most of the time). It’s not the same as sitting down with the Sunday paper.
It’s a mix of people wanting immediate gratification through the portals they’re clicking. I had and have a lot of respect for the old school ways of newspapers, but I was drawn more to the full scope of writing, from the actual writing phase to self-marketing through social media.
If you aren’t ready to help promote and be a part of the story after it’s printed or posted, then you’re missing a big piece of the discussion and interaction. Starting out on this road lead me deeper into the digital space.
Before I knew it, I was part tech nerd, part writer. They go hand in hand at this day in age, in my opinion.
How did you take that first step and start building skills? Did you buy books? Get an internship? How did you get your first start?
Like I previously mentioned, I was a pretty avid gamer in college and made some great connections in those couple of years through writing. I learned everything I could about the games industry and would go to events where I could meet some of the people I was talking to on social media.
This was huge.
Having this skill set and printed work on my resume landed me an internship at MTV Games (publisher of the Rock Band franchise). My passion for games and background in writing and social, helped get me to that point.
I learned a lot at MTV. I was a small fish in a big pond. I attended weekly meetings, had deadlines, had to be organized, and most importantly, accountable. These were things that I thought I was decent at previously but realized quickly I had a long way to go.
Let say I have no experience. I don’t know what career I’d like. I have no skills. What advice would you have for me?
Me. Me. Me. Me. All of that was who I was and it made me scared to death. It’s one of the reasons I did nothing for so long in my life when I was younger. The idea of starting a path with no confidence or skill set terrified me. Hell, it’s what landed me at a gas station register and stacking bags of cement at a construction distributor. Nothing wrong with those jobs, but I knew I wanted much more.
I would ask yourself: what have you always been drawn to in life? What’s the one thing you seem to have always enjoyed doing? What do you have a passion for?
There’s always something if you look hard enough. For me, it was writing. I always kept a half-ass journal or would write to myself when things got really hard. It was a means to vent or express my feelings when I didn’t have a lot of people to talk to. I took that thought and built upon it, through college, and after, and it’s brought me to some special places.
Sure, I’m not a writer for the New York Times and do more with my writing these days for PR and marketing, but it’s what lead me to the place I felt comfortable living within. Now I write on my own terms and when I feel the urge, which is a freedom I enjoy having within a passion that means a lot to me.
What advice would you give to your younger self who doesn’t think that a normal career will make them happy? Are you happy now?
I use to tell myself that. I’m different. I don’t want to be part of the system. Blah, blah, blah… But the thing is, you don’t really have to be. If you stick to the things that make you happy and stick up for yourself along the way, you’ll find yourself in a career almost by accident. That’s what happened to me.
I realized I had a career and that, yes, I liked what I was doing and wanted to learn more about it. Sure, you’ll get some bad bosses and you’ll be stressed out sometimes, but it’s nothing compared to how stressful living in a place where you’re lost and don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent next month.
Having a career gives you more freedom than you think. It lends choices to you that you will not have if you stay stagnant. Happiness is something I think about a lot. I think I’m happy, sure.
Like everyone else, I have good days and bad days, but the bad days are nothing compared the feeling I lived with for so long before I decided to not wait for life to help me anymore. I just woke up I guess and was sick of feeling like shit.
Anything you wish I asked?
I think you had some great questions, just hope I didn’t rant for too long.
Where can readers connect with you?
Last Bonus Lesson:
The Meaning of Life Revealed (Finally!)
I recently finished the amazing book Man’s Search for Meaning, written by a concentration camp survivor.
The book has a simple premise: what was everyday life like in a concentration camp and, in such a horrible existence, can you find meaning?
In one scene—you’ll need to read the book to understand the story—Vicktor interrupts his narration and wonders aloud about his friend in the camp, Otto.
He asks, “Otto, where are you now? Are you alive? What has happened to you since our last hour together? Did you find your wife again?” I cried. I cried as hard as I have at funerals.
It really is an incredible book. I’m certain that the book is one of the most important guidebooks for finding your way through life. You can find it for free on Google by searching for: Man’s Search for Meaning .pdf
Vicktor’s central insight is that goals motivate humans and give meaning to their lives. Having a goal—such as doing everything you can to survive in the camp in order to possibly see your wife again—is what gives meaning to human existence.
Likewise, Kant apparently said “Rules for happiness: something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.”
Goals push us forward. They give us something to do. They make a pact with the present and future: no matter how low or impossible the situation, our actions give us freedom.
If you are unhappy right now, lost with your career, you need to set concrete goals. This is not only something that will get you out of this career rut but if you make a habit, it will serve you your entire life.
Poverty is an obstacle. Being dragged to a crappy job each day is tough work. But even when faced with tragedy, it’s your attitude towards life that counts.
I have friends who have given up. They are unlucky. Life, they say, has for whatever reason turned against them. There is no solution. There is only bad luck. Others live well and find fortune. But their obstacles are too large. They can’t find work. They can’t switch into a new career. Life came, swept them somewhere, and now they need to sit down, accept it, and live in their fate.
Vicktor’s tour of the darkest hole in human history says that’s bullshit.
As he writes about his fellow concentration camp prisoners.
Woe to him who saw no more sense in his life, no aim, no purpose, and therefore no point in carrying on. He was soon lost. The typical reply with which such a man rejected all encouraging arguments was, ‘I have nothing to expect from life any more.’What sort of answer can one give to that?
What was really needed was fundamental change in our attitude toward life.
We had to learn ourselves and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us.
We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life – daily and hourly.
Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct.
Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.
These tasks, and therefore the meaning of life, differ from man to man, and from moment to moment. Thus it is impossible to define the meaning of life in a general way.
Questions about the meaning of life can never be answered by sweeping statements. ‘Life’ does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete.
They form man’s destiny, which is different and unique for each individual. No man and no destiny can be compared with any other man or any other destiny.
No situation repeats itself, and each situation calls for a different response.
This is the meaning of life:
“Life does not mean something vague, but something very real and concrete, just as life’s tasks are also very real and concrete.”
We search for symbols, for signs, and say money can’t buy happiness. We search for ghosts and abstraction. Ideas and fantasies about what will change our life. The lottery. A random job offer. An employer to spot your potential and say, ‘I’ll mentor you and guide your career.’ A day where your luck switches like a light in a dark tunnel.
The better truth is that life demands a concrete response from us.
What will you do today?
What do you hope to finish by next month?
What work will you accomplish this year?
What is the pain you are willing to endure to achieve your goal?
Will you suffer for your happiness?
Will you do the work?