The One Simple Rule I Follow for Career Success


This post was originally featured on, a blog dedicated to sharing the stories of people who follow their passion. The topic at hand – the one rule I follow that has had the most impact on my career – has relevance here too, so I’ve decided to repost it. Enjoy!

In my second year of undergrad, I took an interest in digital marketing. Unfortunately, there was a lack of relevant courses at the time, so my Management Information Systems professor recommended that I start a blog to familiarize myself with creating and promoting web-based content. I went, thought of a name for my shiny new blog, and clicked ‘create’.

I wrote my first few blog posts half-heartedly, figuring that this project would be nothing more than a short term learning experience. However, over the course of seven years, it changed my life. Continue Reading…

The Best Piece of Advice I’ve Ever Received

The best piece of advice I’ve ever received is the standard career advice: “Do what you love.” I’ve heard it a million times from different people and various presentations, but oftentimes I wonder if the people who say it actually mean it.

What I believe happens quite often is that the “do what you love” advice is given to us college students and young adults at the surface level. At this level, it is almost assumed that we will still keep the same lifestyle (a steady job with a steady paycheck) with the only difference being the job title (design manager instead of public accountant, for example). This is something that parents and even the students themselves can easily handle. People are comfortable with the security of a 9-5 job and the paychecks that go along with it. But sometimes passion doesn’t happen that way. If we truly love what we do for a living, our jobs may alter our lifestyles, which makes it harder for the people close to us to easily accept that we want to “do what we love.”

For example, my ideal job would be to travel the country giving motivational speeches on personal development. But because this will involve constant travel and living on little income until my career picks up—as opposed to a 9-5 job with a steady paycheck—this was tough pill for those close to me to swallow. It’s tough for those close to you to let you go. When they first hear that you plan to just get up and leave for a life of uncertainty and risk, they’re bound to object. But an unpredictable lifestyle sometimes comes with the territory of your passion.

Obviously, this doesn’t apply to everyone, as most people will have no problem taking a 9-5 job that appeals to them and is close to friends and family. If your passion allows you to maintain that lifestyle, that’s great. But doing what you love can entail something entirely unconventional, like doing environmental sustainability research in Asia, just as easily as it can entail something more conventional like becoming a program director at your favorite non-profit.

Jobs we are passionate about oftentimes mix with who we are at a very deep level to the point where our lifestyle becomes influenced by it. Interestingly, this is how some passionate people prefer it to be, since we spend roughly 1/3 of our waking life working. Some of the happiest people I’ve met are those who have a job that works its way into the other parts of their lives because they love it so much. To them, it’s not “work”. To them, it’s life.

“Do what you love.” On the surface it’s telling you to find a job that is in line with your passions and interests. As you go deeper, you realize that “doing” something you love can oftentimes break beyond the border of a job and begin to influence other areas of your life. Where you live, how you live, how frequently you travel, who you meet, the friends you make, and the person you grow to become are all part of this equation.

How far are you willing to take the advice to “do what you love”? The answer to this may be what shapes your career and your life.

On Working Harder and Working Smarter

An idea I want to explore today is the nature of working smarter versus working harder to achieve progress in your career. More often than not, if a recent graduate asks how she can advance up the corporate ladder in a company, she will be told to work harder and/or work longer hours to show her dedication to the company and her desire to succeed. She might shorten her lunch break a bit, stay a little longer after everyone else leaves, etc. While this approach can and will work if you have a management team that notices and rewards such behavior, there is a diminishing marginal return to the mantra of “work harder to get ahead.” A pictorial demonstration of the concept of diminishing marginal return can be seen below:

Return on Effort

For example, let’s say that I’m a new hire at a company and thus far have demonstrated satisfactory commitment to my job. Then one day I decide to step it up and start working longer hours and being more productive during my day. That would reflects the left side of the curve on the graph above. At this point, I would experience a very noticeable return on my investment of additional time and effort because my boss is noticing my increased efforts and has been taking account of this.

Now let’s say that the positive reinforcement from my boss inspires me to start spending even longer hours at the office and being even more productive than before. Let’s follow the curve to the center of the graph. The percent return on this increased productivity is noticeably lower than before. The additional hours I am putting into my job is beginning to cut into my sleep, social life, family time, etc. These are costs that have been incurred by furthering my efforts to work harder. When the cost of an investment increases over time, the percent return on that investment will progressively become lower over that time period when the return is a fixed result (such as a promotion to the level above your current position). This investment also becomes riskier as burnout becomes more likely as a result of pushing yourself closer and closer to your limit each day. Once the risk becomes too high or the returns become too low, it’s wise to stop investing. This is why finding your individual threshold for working harder is an important step to sustainable success in your career.

Finding the Balance

As we will discuss in just a moment, working harder is only one part of the equation here. Before moving on, make a note to find your threshold for increasing the intensity and duration of your workday. Some people, myself included, do not mind consistently putting in extra hours when need be; however, some many not handle this well. I personally enjoy the challenge of staying as productive as possible in any endeavor, so my threshold in this area is quite high. It’s your job to discover your own personal limits.

Note: Although this isn’t the main topic of discussion for this post, finding a career you truly enjoy is the key to having a higher threshold to be the hard-working, productive employee that your employer expects you to be.

The Other Part of the Equation

Now that you are aware that it is crucial to find your optimal range for working harder, it’s time to introduce the other part of the equation: Working smarter.

By “working smarter” I mean learning new skills relevant to your field. If you can get your employer to pay for you to learn these new skills so that you become a more valuable employee, that’s great. But don’t wait on them to do so; in most cases, you must take the initiative. There is such an abundance of free information on the internet that there is no excuse for not starting today. I will argue that the curve for the return on possession of specialized knowledge looks like this:

Return on Knowledge

Continuing with my example from before, let’s say that I spend half an hour a week reading a blog that discusses topics relevant to the industry I work in. This allows me to have meaningful conversations with fellow employees and my boss. This may yield me a favorable impression on the boss. If I’m lucky, it may even be the tipping point for that promotion I have been seeking. Generally speaking though, the rewards are small for this small amount of effort. Since the curve is exponential in nature, the return on small investments of time stay quite small until you hit a certain level of time invested. This is because the real reward comes from spending the time to internalize and actively apply the specialized knowledge you acquire, which takes significant investment of your time and effort (represented by the right-hand side of the graph).

If I decide to really buckle down and dedicate seven hours a week to learning and applying the latest skills relevant to my field (which would represent a rightward shift to the center on the graph above), by the end of a year I will be a much more valuable employee because of all of the knowledge I have accumulated and internalized. The key is to make sure you can apply this knowledge, otherwise you are of no additional value to an employer. Applying these skills through personal projects or side jobs is imperative to demonstrating your increased value. By acquiring and applying these new found skills that many others in your field may not possess (whether they’re cutting edge or difficult to learn), you are now in higher demand in the marketplace. And basic economics dictates that the more your skills are demanded in the market place, the higher your compensation will be. In this regard, a significant increase in applied specialized knowledge results in a huge reward. Now that’s working smart!


When it comes to finding the trade off between working harder and working smarter (which we defined as acquiring and applying specialized knowledge related to your field), your occupation and your personality will have a lot to do with where you strike a balance between the two. Certain career paths, such as that of an investment banker, will require you to start working at a level that is very far to the right on the return on effort curve. But because they push you to the limit in this regard, they make sure the return on your effort is worth your while (through high compensation) in order to cover the detriment to your work/life balance and even your health. One thing is for sure: don’t focus only on one aspect while neglecting the other. In other words, when you strike the perfect balance between working harder and working smarter, the effects will be synergistic and will achieve a higher return than either could have done alone.