Make Your Job Amazing: Advice for the Young and Employed

10 keys to building a great career

I recently had the opportunity to speak to a group of young professionals, all newly employed and embarking on promising careers. So smart! So well educated! And yet I worry because, like most people their age, their experience in the workplace is limited. (For more, see "Killer Career Advice for College Graduates.")

They probably expected me to talk about one of my favorite subjects: technological trends and their implications for human liberty. Instead, I decided to talk about something more practical and pertinent: how to be amazing at your job, and sustain that throughout your life.

Common sense? Not so much. How to be a good employee (in your own interest) is not a topic discussed in school. It’s something discovered through trial and error. At some point in the past, people learned this early because they had jobs from a young age.

No longer. The laws against “child labor” are severely enforced. High minimum wages lock out new entrants from the labor market. And that market is less fluid due to mandated benefits and health care. As a result, many people wait until the age of 23 to step into the workforce.

By the time they get there, they feel lost and confused. They do not thrive. Sometimes they lose their jobs for reasons that they find mysterious and confusing. They end up blaming the boss, their coworkers, and capitalism itself -- any scapegoat will do. Then they join the throngs of disgruntled twenty-somethings who are hoping that democratic socialism will fix their problems.

There is another way. You can take control of your own job life. You can thrive despite the barriers. As a followup to my piece on being unemployed, here are ten principles for being employed early in your career.

1. Bring more value in than you take out

No one hires you as a reward for your good behavior, your grades, or even your degree. These can be helpful signalling mechanisms. But none of them constitute the reason for your job. They assist none at all in keeping a job and building a career. You are hired to provide value to the firm or organization. The value you provide needs to be higher than they value you take out. That’s the whole reason for the exchange.

Your resume does not do that. Your charming personality does not do that. Your friendliness to the boss and coworkers does not do that. Only your productivity as a worker accomplishes the goal.

To become valuable means not confining your job to what you were hired to do. This is a common problem. New workers set limits on what they will do given their low salary. They draw boxes around their tasks and refuse to expand them.

“No way will I take those boxes to the dumpster on my measly salary.”

“I’m not answering emails on the weekend.”

“I will not keep my notifications on after 5pm.”

“I’m not using this new application. I don’t like it.”

Establishing your own limits on your productivity is a gigantic error. The goal of work is to be as valuable as possible. You should be looking for ways to do this. You need to create ways to do this. Your job must grow ever bigger. Indeed, you want to become indispensable. You only get there by finding ways to make yourself useful. Increases in compensation and status come later. If they do not, get another job.

2. Do what your immediate supervisor asks

Maybe this instruction seems obvious. It is not. So let’s be as clear as possible. A manager assigns tasks all day. It’s a huge pain in the neck to follow up on all of them. It becomes an impossible juggling act, following up on Tuesday what was assigned on Monday, and following up on Wednesday what was assigned on Tuesday plus the leftovers of what was assigned on Monday.

The single most annoying thing about managing people is discovering that you can’t count on people to do the minimum tasks they’ve been assigned. No manager should ever have to follow up to make sure the job is done.

It is not up to you to establish your work priorities at the expense of assigned tasks. When your direct supervisor asks for something, drop other things you are doing to make it happen. If you cannot do that, explain why a few other things (name them) need to come first. But as soon as it is possible, do the thing that is being asked. If you do it, you would be thought of as dependable, i.e. very valuable.

One other thing in this context: show up on time. You would be surprised how many people don’t do that.

3. Take a lower salary

People think that getting the highest-possible salary is the goal. That’s not true. If you take a lower salary, you are not only more likely to be offered the job; you will also be lower down the list of expendable employees when the time comes to cut staff (or make opportunities for higher paid staff).

A lower salary also helps to keep your standard of living low. Strange as it sounds, this is actually benefit early in your career, because it frees you to move quickly when the opportunity arrives and you can be flexible concerning where you work.

Getting a high salary immediately also harms the range of other possible jobs you are inclined to accept later. If for whatever reason, you start earning a six-figure salary out of college, you might quickly discover that this is an unrepeatable event. No other employer can possibly match such a high salary. Then you will be disposed to keeping that job even if you hate it. You will wear "golden handcuffs."

It’s far better to accept a lower salary while retaining your freedom to stay on a job market in which you have many choices about where to work.

4. Be creative in your work

The bare minimum that an employee must accomplish is to perform the required tasks. But that is only the first level of achievement. Employees that are successful are those who look for things to do.

I recall a job I had when I was 15. It was at a catering company and I was charged with washing dishes. I did that, then I didn’t know what else to do. No one told me. So I watched the clock until it was time to go home.

Then one day I happened upon a conversation between the owner and the manager. They were speaking about how worthless I was! I was mortified! But it also changed my perspective. I began to look for things to do. It was easy. There were light bulbs to change, pans to scrub, floors to mop, and so on. That afternoon, I became the hero of the firm. My job was suddenly secure. I had a future.

If you think there is no more work to do, you are surely wrong. There are unlimited things to be done. Finding them and acting on them requires an entrepreneurial outlook.

5. Take out more than salary; gain skills

There is much more to get out of a job than just money. More importantly, you are seeking new skills. You are seeking experience. You are seeking to extend your network. You are seeking success that others can see and that you can parlay into future positions.

This also means that you need to focus on gaining all these things. Consider skills, for example. If there is a piece of software you do not know but would like to learn, ask your boss for the opportunity. The company might be willing to pay for your training. That you would ask, in any case, is a credit to you.

Imagine the day when you show up to the office with a certificate that, for example, confirms that you are certified in Google Analytics. Or you have won an award. Or that you were the champion at a weekend event in some field. This not only impresses your current boss; it gives you substantial accomplishments to list on your LinkedIn profile.

6. Be a good colleague and forget the pecking order

What if you are given a promotion and put in charge? You now have employees that you supervise.

Remember that the least effective kind of leadership is that which is based on a title. Just because a piece of paper declares you to be in charge of something or someone doesn’t mean that your authority will be recognized, much less appreciated, by others.

It is better to accept a lowly title and earn your advancements by being a good servant to others. Your authority increases because you are now respected and appreciated by others. Never pass up a chance to assist someone else. You will become their benefactor and they won’t forget it.

To be a good friend to others is the best possible way to advance in any company. That means being a good listener. It means offering help when others need it. It means not seeking praise for your greatness but rather quietly accomplishing more. Others will notice over time, and you will be trusted with ever greater responsibility.

7. Stay on the market

If you have ever looked for a job or been interviewed, you know it is not easy. Selling yourself is a skill in itself. If you find a steady job and imagine that you will hold it forever, your skills at finding and interviewing for jobs will atrophy.

This is why it is a good idea to stay on the job market even when you are happy in your current employment. You need to test your worth on the market. As I wrote above, it is a mistake to become used to a salary that is too far above its replacement level on the job market.

Truly, you never know: a better position could come along and you will happily move to another job.

Is staying on the market a betrayal of your current employer? Not in any way. If you are ever called on this, it is easy to answer: “Oh yes, I always keep my resume up on LinkedIn and I’m happy to entertain an offer. But I have no real desire actually to accept an offer. I’m very happy where I am.”

8. Live within your means

It’s always tempting to enjoy the fruits of your financial successes. But it is far more wise to live simply and establish a great financial cushion for yourself. What if a good opportunity comes along in a startup but it requires that you cut your salary? What if you have to work for free for a few months? You need to be in a position to do this. This also means limiting debt. Debt restricts your options. It should be paid off with your income stream as soon as possible.

9. Never let success go to your head

Let’s say you succeed. Was it your doing alone? Of course not. Managers and entrepreneurs who believe this, and promote this myth, can be some of the most annoying people. 

In this world, our own successes will always depend on collaboration with others. To take full credit is to believe a lie. All credit should be accepted “on behalf of all those who have worked so hard to achieve this dream,” as the magnanimous line from banquet speeches goes. It’s absolutely true.

The moment you start taking credit yourself is the instant that others begin to resent you and plot your downfall, which takes us to the last point.

10. Watch out for the evil eye; if you are fired, be magnanimous

We like to believe there is perfect justice in this world. If you work hard, you get ahead. That might often be true. But not always. Sometimes your achievements inspire envy. It calls forth people who want you to be punished for your successes. These people might be your co-workers. They might be your bosses who fear your rise.

This is another reason to stay on the move. In order to be appreciated for your achievements and skills, you might have to move onward to a new firm.

A final word: the termination of your employment is a fact of life. Sometimes it is not due to your failures but to your successes. Whatever the reason, you need to have a speech prepared in your head. It should go something like this.

“I’m disappointed of course, but I do want to say thank you so much for the opportunity to work here. It’s been a great experience, and I’ve learned so much. I will always consider you my benefactors as I continue to build a career elsewhere.”

If you say such a thing, you will immediately make your bosses question their judgement, which is a nice thing. It also means that you can use your present job as a bridge to your next one.

Getting fired is not the worst thing that ever happened to you. It is an opportunity to learn, to get out there, and to see what you are worth on the labor market. It could be the beginning of something wonderful. It’s the same with quitting a job. It’s one of the few freedoms we have remaining to us.

You are the productive unit in your life. You -- not some institution, not some boss, not some bureaucrat. Caring for your personal human capital and becoming as awesome as possible is worth focus, time, and maximum personal energy. It’s the most important step in not only a great job but an amazing life.

Further Reading