5 Bits Of Career Advice From Charles Murray and Sheryl Sandberg

Two career gurus from opposite ends of the sunny-spectrum give great career advice–for any life stage.

5 Bits Of Career Advice From Charles Murray and Sheryl Sandberg
[Image: Flickr user Kevin Galens]

Charles Murray and Sheryl Sandberg are very different people. He’s a self-described “ill-tempered old man,” and is best known for writing The Bell Curve, one of the most controversial books of the 1990s, with its analysis of race, class, and intelligence. Sandberg is the cheery COO of Facebook, on a mission to get women to “lean in” to their ambition, and for corporate America to be more diverse and welcoming.


Both have new career books for young people out on April 8: Murray’s The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead, and Sandberg’s Lean In, For Graduates. Figuring they might have different visions of the universe, I read both books on the same day. I came away more surprised at how similar their advice for the young and ambitious turns out to be. Here are five bits of wisdom you’ll get from either book:

1. Now is the time to work hard.

At age 25, “without a spouse or children, you have a lot more freedom to throw yourself into your work,” writes Murray. “Why anyone would want to lead a balanced life at 25 is beyond me.”

Likewise, the whole thesis of Sandberg’s book is that “The months and years leading up to having children are not the time to lean back, but the critical time to lean in.” That way, you’ll be in a great position, professionally, when you want more flexibility at age 40–and you want somebody else to stay late at the office for a change.

2. Want to stand out? Do a shockingly good job.

“Intuitively, people invest in those who stand out for their talent or who can really benefit from help,” Sandberg says. She describes several mentees who have anticipated problems and jumped in to solve them.

Murray, likewise, notes that in his 20s, “I saw the people on top as having an unlimited number of good people to hire and promote, among whom I was helplessly anonymous. It was only many years later that I discovered it looks completely different from the top. Good help is hard to find. Really hard to find.” People who figure out what their bosses need, and deliver results, will go far.

3. Candor Is Okay.

In the long run, sucking up is a loser’s game. “Highly successful people tend to value honesty and courage,” Murray writes. Tact is appropriate, and you shouldn’t disagree just to disagree, but “don’t trim your views if they go against the grain of the discussion. Express yourself forthrightly, and the odds are that you’ll get points for it.”


Sandberg likewise claims to value feedback from people who work for her–even if it’s harsh. “The upside of painful knowledge is so much greater than the downside of blissful ignorance,” she says. She describes a summer barbecue where “an intern told Mark [Zuckerberg] that he should work on his public speaking skills. Mark thanked him in front of everyone and then encouraged us to extend him a full-time offer.”

4. It’s also okay to wander.

Careers, writes Sandberg, are jungle gyms, not ladders. That’s what she told a friend who was considering starting a new career that would require going back in seniority. “My argument was that if she was going to work for the next 30 years, what difference does going ‘back’ four years really make?”

Murray is typically blunt: “Suppose you intend to retire at 65. If you don’t start your career until you’re 30, that still gives you 35 years to make it professionally. If you can’t make it in 35 years, you weren’t going to make it in 40 or 45.”

5. You can ask for help when you need it.

A tough boss is one thing. Murray says to suck it up. But a sexist/racist/domineering/belligerent jerk? “You shouldn’t assume you have to do battle all by yourself,” says Murray. Your best bet in this case might be to go to some crusty old guy who seems fair-minded–because he’s probably the one who has the authority to change things. “Most of us see ourselves as gentlemen,” he says. “Don’t underestimate the decency of the other people in your workplace.”

Sandberg once resorted to just such a strategy. When she worked at a consulting company, her client kept saying–in front of his team–that he wanted to fix her up with his son. She asked him to stop, but he laughed it off. So she went to her manager. “He listened to my complaint and then told me that I should think about what I was ‘doing to send these signals.’ Yup, it was my fault.” So she went over her manager’s head to the senior partner, who told both men to knock it off. Just because you’re young doesn’t mean you have to put up with bad behavior–in any career you might pursue.

About the author

Laura Vanderkam is the author of several time management and productivity books, including I Know How She Does It: How Successful Women Make the Most of Their Time (Portfolio, June 9, 2015), What the Most Successful People Do Before Breakfast (Portfolio, 2013), and 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think (Portfolio, 2010). She blogs at