For people who were always successful in school, spending 20-odd years winning in the classroom can be poor preparation for the business world.
Our education system conditions people to think of success as a simple function of effort, because that's how school usually works. Study more than everyone else and you'll be at or near the top of the class. Applying that same formula to your career works up to a point, but the "Hard Work Paradox" dictates that as the stakes in your career go up, working hard won't guarantee success.
I can say, as one of those people who mostly aced their academic career, seeing someone in your peer group advance ahead of you can be unnerving. Even if you're happy for the other person, it still feels like losing, and losing sucks at any age.
About a year into my first job out of college at a large consulting firm, I thought I was doing great. A good relationship with my manager, getting the hang of the business... I thought I was at the top of the class yet again. Then one day, I saw the email from my group's managing director that "Michael” (not his real name), another analyst whom I had started alongside fresh out of college, had been promoted after less than a year.
It didn't matter that I liked Michael and wasn't interested in what his new team was doing. I was a little freaked out. So many questions needed answers: How did Michael get promoted so quickly? How does our managing director even know him? Does she know what I'm working on? Oh sh*t.
It's not a reaction that I'm proud to recall, but that moment of anxiety is something to which I think many can relate. I thought that I was doing all the right things and getting noticed, and then I got lapped. The rest of us responded to the news of Michael's promotion the only way we knew how: We tried to outwork each other and catch up.
In hindsight, my reaction was as silly as it was simplistic. It was simplistic because even though working that much harder wasn't easy, it was an easy answer to my questions. I've learned that it takes zero critical thinking or creativity to just work harder. Even though I didn't have a productivity problem and was working 12-14 hour days already, I treated Michael's promotion as a call to work ever longer hours. Nothing against work ethic, but that wasn't what I needed.
What I should have done, instead, was step back and look for ways to contribute more meaningfully to the business. I should have considered what it really means to be good at your job and how to do that rather than just work "harder."
My inability to see the bigger picture robbed me of a lot of experiences in my early 20s that would have been more fun than banging my head against the desk at work. At the very least, I probably could have gotten more sleep and been healthier.
"Working Smarter" is a real thing.
The most ridiculous thing about how I handled the situation was that Michael didn't work any harder than I did. He wasn't “smarter” than I was either, or at least not in the IQ sense. So what was going on?
It took me a while to realize it, but the biggest difference was that Michael spent a high percentage of his time on things that mattered. He created significantly more value for the business, not to mention visibility for himself, from each hour of his time than I did.
If I wanted to emulate Michael's rapid ascent, I needed to create more value, not just do more of the same even faster. Understanding how Michael came to work on such cool, important projects in the first place is what led me to figuring out a better way to work.
While I was dutifully plowing away on whatever my manager assigned, Michael spotted a big project on another team that aligned with his interests and background and decided to get involved. That team was short-staffed at the time, and their work had our executives' attention because it served some VIP clients. It wasn't part of Michael's job description, but he saw an opportunity to do something bigger and just went after it. It worked.
Management was eager to shift Michael's responsibilities around so that he could ensure success on a critical project (it helped that he had some technical chops they needed). As a result, he spent close to 100 percent of his time working on something that interested him, added major value to the business and built his network in the company. When they rearranged Michael's responsibilities around, the rest of us probably picked up the slack. In other words, Michael got his peers to "subsidize" his career move.
So while I was chugging Red Bulls and putting cover sheets on my TPS reports, Michael found a way he could make the business more successful. In so doing, he sent a message to the management team that he was focused on the ultimate business outcomes — the best way to build trust with your bosses.
That's a powerful brand to have at such a young age.
When his project wrapped up, Michael presented his contributions to a bunch of other project leads. I remember seeing that senior staff felt comfortable taking off the kid gloves and really peppering him with tough questions like he was a peer rather than a junior guy who was still learning the ropes. That was the most telling sign that he had earned their trust and respect and that he was indeed on the fast track. Pretty soon, other teams were angling to get Michael onto their projects for a rotation. That's what career momentum looks like.
Here's the takeaway.
It doesn't take a genius to spend every waking hour at the office. If your plan is to simply outwork 100 percent of your peers at all times, you will inevitably fail at some point and risk burning yourself out in the process.Your energy is better spent figuring out how you can make the business you work for more successful by solving real problems.