During this week, Cal Newport and I want to share some of few of the most useful and surprising lessons we’ve learned from teaching our career mastery course, Top Performer , to over two thousand students. We will only be posting this first lesson publicly. If you want to get the other lessons (for free), please join the newsletter  before we send them out.
One of the most common complaints we’ve heard is from people who feel stuck in their careers. They’re working hard, but they don’t know why they’re not getting ahead. Or worse, they don’t even know what they should be doing with their careers.
It turns out a big reason people get stuck has to do with a small distinction people rarely make when pursuing their careers: the difference between knowledge and meta-knowledge.
Doing well in your career requires two crucial factors: first, you need to be able to do your work well. This requires knowledge. If you’re a programmer, you need to master the languages you work with. If you’re an entrepreneur you need to know your market and how to serve them. If you’re a lawyer, you need to have a rich knowledge of the law.
However, this is only the first factor. The second part is that you need to have meta-knowledge.
Meta-knowledge is knowledge not on how to do your job, but knowledge about how your career works. That means you need to know which skills are the ones to invest in and which ones you should ignore. You need to know how to be able to demonstrate your skills to other people and the types of signals which carry weight in moving you ahead.
This second factor is often invisible and many people can go their entire careers without getting a very good picture of how people succeed beyond the station they find themselves in. One of our students, Chris L., didn’t even realize that he was missing it, “I was frustrated specifically because I thought I was doing a good job, and I see people who I don’t think are doing a good job and they’re getting ahead of me. I work hard, but nothing happens.”
How Do You Get Meta-Knowledge?
Getting knowledge about how your career works isn’t easy, but it can make a huge difference. Instead of guessing, you can know with confidence which skills are worth investing in and which are not. You can know which positions are stepping stones and which are dead-ends.
You can get meta-knowledge by doing good research. This kind of research rarely comes from school or books, so it’s the kind of knowledge people often lack. Instead it comes from other people.
Talking to people who are ahead of you in your career and comparing them to people who aren’t is often a very successful strategy to isolate which skills and assets you need to develop.
An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential was to avoid just asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.
In Top Performer, we’ve worked hard to develop a system of doing research geared towards doing just that–extracting useful meta-knowledge about what matters in your career and avoiding the usual fluff and platitudes like “work hard” or “have good communication skills.”
What If You Don’t Know Where You’re Going in Your Career?
Another surprising, but useful, lesson we’ve pulled from teaching Top Performer is that many people avoid building meta-knowledge on the idea that they have to decide what they want to do first. If they aren’t sure which direction to go in their career, they need to finish soul-searching before they can work on their ambitions.
But this feeling of being lost or unsure of where to go in your career is exactly a problem of meta-knowledge!
By researching multiple career paths and exploring what it’s actually like to work in them, you can get a much better sense both over where you want to go and also which skills and assets you might develop that will assist you in many future career trajectories.
Make 2017 the Year You Master Your Career
In one week, Cal Newport and I will be reopening Top Performer  for a new session. In the class, we have dozens of lessons dedicated to understanding and developing the skills and assets that will create a career you love.
For the rest of this week, we’ll be offering more lessons like this one for free. But the other lessons will only be posted to the newsletter, so if you’re interested in learning more, please sign up below: