Why Most People Get Stuck in Their Careers

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.

Sound familiar?

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:

What I’ve Been Reading

Here’s some of the books I’ve read lately:

Flash Boys – Michael Lewis’s book about high-frequency trading and Wall Street corruption. I’m quite envious of Lewis’s ability to take a complicated story that hinges on weird financial derivatives and somehow make it a page-turner.

The Undoing Project – Also by Lewis, this one covers Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky’s scientific partnership. I’ve become increasingly fond of well-written biographies as a way of understanding history and science. Seeing how their discoveries were made, and eventually led to a Nobel prize, helps me understand the science more than if it is discussed apart from its discovery.

The Geography of Thought – I went back and forth on whether I agreed or disagreed with the thesis of this book. The basic idea is that East Asians and Westerners think differently. Part of me feels like this is almost trivially true (after all, I believe people in different professions think differently, even when they share all other cultural aspects), but part of me remained unconvinced.

The generalizations being made felt somewhat cherry-picked. Maybe I’ve been reading too much Andrew Gelman, but I found myself wondering how many forking paths and degrees of freedom some of their experiments contained. I left feeling like East/West thinking differences likely exist, but I’m suspicious that they conform to the story the authors suggest.

Buddhisms: An Introduction – I’ve been digging into Eastern religions more lately, with an emphasis on Buddhism. One of the challenges I’ve found is that the Buddhism as promoted in the West often seems very different from the Buddhism I see practiced in Asian countries. This book was great as providing a context for how Buddhism started as a religion, its diverging branches and the varieties of beliefs and practices around the world today.

The Gene: An Intimate History – Another great book. I enjoyed Emperor of All Maladies by Muhkerjee, and this book was even more interesting. It suffered a bit of controversy by a New Yorker article written by Muhkerjee which raised some questions, but it has since gotten a lot of coverage and I haven’t seen anyone objecting to the science in the actual book.

In Other Languages…

In addition to reading in English, I’ve also tried to maintain a little reading in some of the languages I speak to keep them up. Here’s two I’ve finished in other languages.

The Martian (El Marciano) – I read this book in Spanish. Overall I found it enjoyable, if somewhat less dramatic than the movie version. I really hope engineering science fiction becomes a new genre.

The Three-Body Problem (三体) – My first complete book I read in Chinese. I read this in my Pleco reader, so I could easily look up words I didn’t know. This kind of assisted reading was very helpful in bridging the gap between graded readers (which are usually boring) and real novels in Chinese (which are usually hard). I’m currently about 2/3rds the way through Moyan’s Frog (蛙) which will soon be my first novel read on paper with minimal dictionary assistance.

For past reading, see my previous lists here and here.