The science of career success is well-established. There are thousands of academic studies comparing the power of a variety of factors that predict performance and achievement across all possible jobs and careers. Unfortunately, it is usually ignored by those who provide actual career advice to the wider public.
This is largely due to the fact that academics tend to publish their findings using technical language and in subscription-only journals with limited access. This is unfortunate, not least because their research is funded by taxpayer dollars.
Another issue is that even though academic findings are more reliable than personal anecdotes from self-proclaimed gurus, they rarely make news, because intelligence, hard work, and social skills aren’t ever going to be viral hits. Likewise, some of the scientific evidence on why some people are more successful than others would make for depressing rather than uplifting reading, and cannot easily derive into practical life hacks.
This is why, despite the evidence that much of our career success is already determined at birth, no one is writing self-help articles advising us to “be born rich” or at least “in a rich country.” And why, despite the fact that 40% of happiness is driven by genetics, it is pointless to suggest “being born with the right personality” (i.e., extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability, which are also partly predetermined at birth).
In contrast, popular advice on how to be more successful focuses on uplifting or feel-good tips, designed to boost people’s self-esteem and make them feel in control of their careers. Here are four popular examples that usually come from a well-meaning person but are actually not terribly helpful.
Follow your passions
This is obviously much more appealing than doing what you hate. But is following our passions an effective approach to attain success? Extensive meta-analysis suggests that this may only work when your interests are correlated with your actual abilities. The better advice would be, “Follow your passions as long as they relate to your actual skills.” You should also consider whether your passion is in demand. I may have a great passion for the things I’m good at, but if nobody cares about those things, I will probably not be successful.
If we measure success in financial terms–which of course tells just part of the story–that is only marginally related to how much people like what they do. As a meta-analysis showed, there is only 9% overlap between people’s salaries and their level of career satisfaction. The best-paid jobs are not always the most fun to do, and some of the most enjoyable or meaningful jobs are generally not compensated well. But the general rule remains the same: When it comes to objective markers of career success, you are better off being relatively good at something you dislike, if there is demand for it, than being exceptional at something you love, if there is no demand for it.
Just be yourself
This suggestion is also much more enticing than the alternative, which would be to censor yourself. However, it’s far more likely to make you successful. Just imagine going to a job interview and being truly yourself–the way you are with your close relatives or best friends–without any social inhibitions. For instance, when the interviewer asks you a dumb question, you can just tell them they’re stupid. And when they ask why you want to work for them, you can tell them that you don’t, but that none of your preferred options invited you to an interview. Or when you answer a psychometric test designed to evaluate your potential, imagine answering that you don’t enjoy meeting new people, that you stress out easily, and that you are not a team player. Finally, once you are at work, you should feel free to tell all your colleagues and your boss what you really think in any given situation–as opposed to exercising good citizenship.
“Just be yourself” in those terms is a recipe for disaster. If you really think you don’t need to worry about what other people think of you, you can be sure that they will never think highly of you. Successful people are rarely themselves. They are extremely good at controlling the undesirable aspects of their personality and putting on a likable and charming performance that requires a great deal of effort and self-control. Studies show that political skills are the strongest predictor of career success. There are probably just five people in the world who have learned to like–or at least tolerate–the unfiltered version of you, and I doubt your boss is one of them.
Play to your strengths
We don’t even need to tell people to do this, they do it naturally. It is a bit like going to the gym and exercising the same muscles every time. You will see progress, but it’s limited to your existing abilities. The only way to develop new skills is to focus on your gaps, and your limitations pose a much bigger threat to your career success than your underdeveloped strengths.
Overused strengths are a liability. For example, you are better off being confident than overconfident, moderately ambitious than greedy, mildly extroverted than exhibitionistic, and modest than insecure or hypercritical. It may be comforting to ignore your weaknesses, but it’s what other people think of you–not what you think of yourself–that matters most. As great as your strengths may be, others are unlikely to ignore your flaws.
Just believe in yourself
Most people do already, and for those who don’t, the real issue is whether others believe in them or not. Your career success depends on others’ perceptions of your talents and output, rather than what you make of them yourself. In fact, many studies show that in any area of competence, it is often the most inept who show the highest levels of self-belief, while true experts are relatively self-critical and modest. This should be obvious, but it’s good to be aware of your limitations, and an accurate estimate of your skills and flaws is more beneficial (for you and others) than a delusion of your prowess.
Our inability to detect actual competence in others often benefits those who are unaware of the limitations, because it is easier to fool others when you have already fooled yourself. However, you will still stand a better chance of developing competence and climbing the ladder of success if your belief in yourself is related to your actual talents.
Boosting your ego won’t build skills, and an overinflated ego without the talent to back it up equates to narcissism rather than career success. And while narcissists often succeed, that’s not a personality trait you need in order to be successful, particularly if you have the talents to back it up.
So take a bit of time to consider advice when it comes your way. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is, particularly when it comes to your career.