- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

Lessons Learned from 5 Years and 5000+ Students in Top Performer

Just over five years ago, Cal Newport and I launched the first session of Top Performer [1].

The release was shortly after the publication of Cal’s book So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Cal’s career-advice book dispelled the myth that following your passion was the key to fulfilling work. Instead, the heart of great careers is rare and valuable skills—in other words, being a top performer at your job.

We designed the course to offer a structured approach to career improvement. How can you figure out how your career really works? How can you produce stellar work that will get you noticed (and rewarded)? More deeply, how can you build a career that gives you the lifestyle you want, instead of just endless ladder climbing?

These aren’t easy questions to answer. Over the last five years, we’ve had the privilege of working with over five thousand students to try to find the answers. This experience has taught us a lot.

Introducing Top Performer 2.0

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In keeping with the themes of continual improvement in the course, we decided to update Top Performer. In doing so, we’ve added dozens of new lessons, interactive worksheets and even some additional mini-courses to go alongside the main program.

We’re calling it Top Performer 2.0 [1], and we’ll be taking new students for a special session of the course until October 8th.

Five Lessons Learned from 5 Years and 5000+ Students

It’s been incredible working with so many students over the years with Top Performer. Here are some of the biggest lessons we’ve learned since the early days of the course:

Lesson #1: The Machine Learning Fallacy

An inside joke among those who help run Top Performer is how often the students’ first idea about how to improve their career is to learn more about machine learning. This is not to say that machine learning isn’t valuable (it is), but its popularity in this context highlights the degree to which many imagine that the key to career success is found primarily in mastering an exotic skill. 

In reality, learning to first become reliable, and then second to produce what you say you’re going to produce at a high level, is typically a much more effective platform on which to build advancement. These abilities will get you noticed, and it’s once you’re noticed that exciting opportunities to tackle big projects, or learn fancy new skills, will emerge naturally.

Lesson #2: Find Existing Paths Before Forging Your Own

Another common pitfall we observed was students’ tendency to want to write their own story about how a particular career works instead of taking the time to master its reality.

The aspiring non-fiction writer, for example, often wants to get started immediately writing 1,000 words a day on their newly purchased, and carefully configured, copy of Scrivener. It’s an exciting but tractable challenge and gives them a compelling sense of progress. The problem, however, is that this isn’t actually how people end up becoming professional non-fiction writers. A lot more time likely needs to be invested in your idea. You need to gain more professional writing experience. You need an agent before you write even your first words. And so on. Not all energy expenditure generates equal results.

To get the most out of your time, it’s critical to ensure your efforts are aimed where it most matters.

Lesson #3: Do Real Work

One of our first Top Performer cohorts included a young architecture associate. He was eager to work deliberately to advance his career and soon found himself poring over new design theory textbooks in his free time. The problem, however, was that learning new design theory was not on the critical path to him getting ahead.

A better project might have been to focus on managing client relations, mastering design software or focusing on project pitches—in other words, skills that directly interact with the stakeholders that will determine his success. Many are more comfortable with abstract, theory-style classroom learning, but in the professional context, it’s almost always better to practice the specific concrete skills that matter for your specific job.

Lesson #4: The Grad School Default

We were surprised, at first, by how many of our students were leaning toward graduate school as a sort of default fix to feeling stuck or bored. As someone who teaches a lot of graduate courses, Cal can speak from experience when he says that graduate education can be immensely positive for your career. But this only holds when you deploy this education for a specific reason.

The mantra we began to preach is that you should enroll in a graduate program only if there is a specific type of position you want, and you have good evidence that getting this degree from this program is what is needed to obtain that position. Never spend multiple years (and multiple tens of thousands of dollars) going back to school based only on some vague hunch that having more degrees will open up more opportunities.

Lesson #5: Don’t Ask People for Advice

Figuring out what skills matter for your career path can be surprisingly tricky. One of the best ways to determine where to aim your deliberate improvement efforts is to learn from those who have already gotten to where you want to go. Getting this information from someone, however, is harder than it seems. Why?

As it turns out, most people are very bad at giving advice based on their own experience. If you ask people for their advice, you end up putting them on the spot to come up with something useful sounding to offer in response. This leads to a panicked internal search for anything that sounds right. You’ll end up with coherent advice, but not necessarily the right advice.

The better alternative is to instead ask people to tell you their story. Like a journalist, extract from them the beats of their career, pushing where needed to help understanding what exactly it was — accomplishments, timing, a particular skill-base — that allowed them to make the more important leaps. Then you should go back through this reporting and extract the relevant advice on your own.

Interested in taking the leap to improve your career? We’re holding the first session of the newly expanded Top Performer 2.0 [1]. Registration will be open until October 8th at midnight Pacific Time.