There’s an underlying belief in America that no matter who you are, if you just work hard enough, everything will work out for you. That’s not true. It’s more like, if you work strategically, you can improve the odds you’ll succeed.
I believe each of us is carrying a backpack. In that backpack are all the things you’ve been handed in this life. You don’t get to control what’s in your backpack. Everyone’s backpack is different. For some of us, it’s weighted down by inequality from the beginning; for others, it’s the weight of tragedies that happen along the way. Some of us shoulder family or health problems; others get caught in economic or political disasters.
Yes, whatever is in your backpack is yours to carry, but (and I cannot stress this enough) it does not have to limit your goals. You can aim high, then strategize your way toward success. You deserve to live the life you want, on your terms.
Here are my top five tips for improving your odds:
1. Find your mentors
There’s almost nothing you will try in your lifetime that somebody else hasn’t already done. I mean that with the utmost respect: You may be innovating, but rarely are you doing something 100 percent new. If you want to move forward quickly in your career, seek out the people who can help you do a better job in the role you have and the people who can help you understand what your next steps might look like.
2. Build your network
You need to be building your network all the time, not just when you want something. In fact, aim for most of your interactions to be spent providing help or value to others. Give more than you take; it’s not just the generous thing to do, but it also puts you in a position of power instead of weakness. This is especially important for people who may see themselves as marginalized or lacking opportunities and privilege. Establish yourself in the terms of what you have to offer rather than on what you might need. Doing so will affect your own sense of self-worth just as much as it affects the impression you make on others.
3. Find the current
In order to rise through the ranks of a company, an organization, or even an industry, you need to understand how the power flows through it. I followed that current to some unexpected places—like Japan—and when it became clear it wouldn’t lead me to the CEO position, I began looking for another current. At that time, the power was flowing toward the internet, and after a brief stop in Dallas, I followed it to Silicon Valley.
Just as a river is going to find its way around a rock, when my flow was blocked, I found my way around the obstacle. When the dot-com bubble burst and I suspected I wouldn’t find an inlet into a CEO position at an A-play company, I went a different way. I found the current that worked for me.
Ultimately, when it comes to reaching your goals, the real skill lies in spotting the strongest current—in an organization, in an industry, even in the larger economy—and then positioning yourself so it propels you forward. Sail past the opportunities that will lead you into the weeds, and take the opportunities that will move you toward your goals.
4. Take risks
There are no two ways about it: Vulnerability is an unavoidable side effect of ambition. Pursuing your career and life goals involves taking risks. When you ask a mentor for advice, you make yourself vulnerable. Same happens when you try something new, when you go after something you really want, even when you fall in love—you open yourself up to risk.
If you avoid taking risks, you limit your opportunities. But in the process of taking a chance, you can transform your risks into rewards.
Risk and reward: two sides of the same coin. Develop the confidence to flip that coin.
5. Life planning 101
You are going to live forever.
Well, maybe not forever, but no longer does the average American professional have just twenty-five or thirty years to make a mark on the world. You may have a fifty-plus-year career, or even a seventy-year marriage. Just imagine that for a minute.
You’ve got your own passions and goals; you’re on your own schedule. Honor that. All you need to do now is pick a direction—something you want to aim for—and start moving toward it.
Excerpted from the book UNAPOLOGETICALLY AMBITIOUS: TAKE RISKS, BREAK BARRIERS, AND CREATE SUCCESS ON YOUR OWN TERMS by Shellye Archambeau. Copyright © 2020 by Shellye Archambeau. Reprinted with permission of Grand Central Publishing. All rights reserved.
Shellye Archambeau is one of high tech’s first female African American CEOs and currently serves as a Fortune 500 board member at Verizon, Nordstrom, Roper Technologies, and Okta.
Shellye will be speaking at the Fast Company Innovation Festival on “How to Embrace Ambition And Achieve Your Goals.”