This is the second lesson in our week-long series on building a better career. Next week, Cal Newport and I are opening our course Top Performer for a new session. Here’s the first lesson, in case you missed it.
The first two weeks of Top Performer focus on how to do good research. This might seem like a funny place to start a career course: shouldn’t we be polishing our resumes or going to networking events?
We thought the same thing at first. Our earliest sessions of Top Performer skipped over this phase because we assumed most people already knew what they needed to improve.
Boy, were we wrong.
It turned out that the most people’s obstacles have nothing to do with how to design a project or practice efficiently. Instead, the most common struggle is not knowing what to get good at!
Struggles we saw came in three different types:
- The first group either had no idea what they should be working on or had the unhelpfully broad “everything” in their list of skills to master or improve.
- The second group had a clear idea of what they wanted to improve—but it wasn’t closely related to career capital. For a skill to be valuable as career capital, it must enhance the value of your work in a way that the people who pay you can see. If a skill doesn’t do that, it isn’t career capital. Unfortunately, many early students focused on projects they found interesting, even when their contribution to career capital was questionable.
- The third group had no idea what kind of career they even wanted, so identifying a useful skill to improve was impossible.
The Power of Doing Good Research
Knowing how to do good research solves all three of these problems.
Research helps you parse out which skills have actually helped people advance on a career path you find interesting. Instead of misplacing your effort by learning skills that don’t contribute to your career capital, you can focus on mastering the skills that will make you a top performer in your job.
Research can even be a starting point to recognizing what kind of career you want in the first place. Most people who don’t know what they want to pursue haven’t encountered a compelling vision for what their career could be. The solution here is to find people with career capital similar to yours and see what kinds of careers they have—this can help you figure out which direction you prefer.
How to Do Good Research
If research is so important, how do you do it?
The simple answer is that you find people 2-3 steps ahead of you in their careers, and you sit them down and ask them what they did. Not what they think works. Not for advice. But what they actually did.
This process of asking questions helps you chart out their career trajectory. It doesn’t tell you which skills were directly responsible, but it helps you observe the pathway people have followed so you can find a way onto it yourself.
One interview alone doesn’t usually say much. But if you do three, five or a dozen, you start to notice patterns. Not only in the path people follow, but what they fixate on. Generally, the stuff top performers find obvious will be more valuable to you than the opinions they want to share from their soapbox. These “obvious” things are usually the most certain bets for replicating their success.
In Top Performer, we delve into how to do effective research, including detailed lessons on how to find people to interview, how to extract the most useful advice from them, and more. If you’re serious about your career, it’s worth the time to do it properly.
Before you can find someone to interview, it helps to identify your next step. What would a person 2-3 steps ahead of your current career position look like? Write down your answer in the comments and let us know.
A few tips on this:
- It’s 2-3 steps, not twenty. A best-selling author is too far away if you haven’t yet published a single essay.
- The person should be in your career trajectory, broadly speaking. Picking someone who is generally famous or influential isn’t nearly as helpful as choosing someone who is a bit more advanced than you in your specific area.
- If you’re thinking of completely switching fields or aren’t sure where to work, look for people who have gotten a foothold into a career you’re interested in. Since first step would be getting a similar foothold, they will often give you more relevant advice than will those at the top.
In the next lesson, I’ll talk about the science behind deliberate practice, why improvement typically stagnates for skills, and what you can do about it. If you want to learn how to engage with experts and discern what truly matters in your career, Cal Newport and I are opening Top Performer for a new session on Monday!