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3 counterintuitive ways to help build your career potential, according to research

Instead of following well-worn inspirational advice, these are things that we should be doing but aren’t sufficiently aware of.

3 counterintuitive ways to help build your career potential, according to research
[Images: Galina Shafran/iStock; fauxels/Pexels]
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The internet is inundated with career suggestions and the self-help industry contains an endless flux of advice on how to boost your career success and make the most of your talents.

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Some of this advice: “just be yourself,” “focus on your strengths,” and “don’t worry about what others think of you,” is out of sync with the science, but people love hearing it because it feels good. Then, there’s advice backed by evidence such as: “be self-aware,” “don’t give up,” and “find a great mentor,” which is effective but obvious. 

So, what about things that we should be doing but aren’t sufficiently aware of?

Here are three counterintuitive and underrated pieces of advice that academic research would prescribe that are often lost when repeating the same old mantras. 

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Be less confident, but make it your secret

The best level of confidence is not astronomically high, but the right level. That is one that aligns with your actual abilities and skills so that you’re not smarter than you think. Unfortunately, most people suffer from too much confidence. The overlap between confidence and competence is just 9% (the typical correlation between self-perceived and actual abilities is r = 0.30, of which the square is 9%), there will be too many times when betting on confidence will come at the expense of competence.

The best way to become more self-aware and understand your limitations will be to lower your confidence. This is what great mentors and coaches help you achieve. Through accurate feedback, they tell you what you need to (rather than want to) hear, which in turn helps you close the gap between who you want to be, and who you really are.

Lowering your confidence so that it correlates with your competence does not mean that you should come across as insecure, hang yourself, or confess to all your insecurities to others. In fact, the best possible combination is high external confidence, since this is what people actually focus on when they just your competence, and lower internal confidence, so you overprepare, avoid complacency, and don’t overestimate your talents. Most people regard imposter syndrome as a big problem but a bigger problem is how often we reward actual imposters with leadership roles. 

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Follow other people’s passions

It is nice to think that by simply following our passions we may boost our career success, but there’s no evidence for this whatsoever. In fact, our passions are not always in sync with our talents, and as Scott Galloway noted we are better off following our talents. Even if our passions align with our talent there’s no guarantee others will care about them.

Since our career success is determined not by what we think, but by what others think of us, a better way to maximize our career potential is to follow other people’s passions rather than our own. Contrary to popular belief, this means it is quite useful to pay attention to what other people want, understand that our view of the world may not fully represent the actual world and that there’s no point in convincing ourselves that we are smart, talented, or creative if we can’t convince others.

What to do? Ask people—particularly those with influence and resources—what their number one problem is. Bet on the skills that help them solve this problem, and learn to be passionate about what others value.

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If you are still left with other unfulfilled passions you can always dedicate your free time to pursue them and turn them into a hobby. After all, there is more to life than work, and it’s okay to have passions outside of work, just like it’s okay to not be passionate about your work, which is how the majority of humans in the world have always felt about work.   

Try to remain self-critical in the face of success

Most people can learn from failure unless they are deluded narcissists who tend to distort reality to make failures look like success or blame other people for them. The challenge is to learn from success. Success goes to our head easily and this increases the tendency to interpret our own luck as talent, which will weaken us in the long run.

A useful antidote to this is to remain open to the possibility that perhaps it was just chance, serendipity, or privilege that helped us do well, and that at some point luck can run out. In a rational world, we would assess our performance to calibrate and adjust our efforts going forward—for talent is performance minus effort—but when luck is disguised as talent you will fail to prepare as much as needed next time, and undeservedly inflate your confidence. 

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These are strategies to boost your objective success, defined in terms of status, income, and job progression. Of course, your subjective success (whether you enjoy what you do, think you are good at it or are satisfied with your performance) is something else, and both constructs are only weakly related. Subjective career success depends much more on how you interpret your own success, rather than the success you actually achieve.