When you see someone who has a career you want, it’s a safe bet that they spent the majority of their career clearly defining themselves and then differentiating themselves from all the other people who defined themselves the same way.
Self-knowledge is a huge career tool, but most people find it onerous and try to skip it. The problem with skipping over self-knowledge is that people hit a career ceiling, not because someone put it on top of them – we put it on top of ourselves by not knowing who we are.
In order to differentiate yourself, you have to know what you don’t do well, and what you can do better than most people. This takes trying a lot of stuff (read: tons of failures) and it takes being wrong a million times (read: take public risks).
1. Forget about being smart.
The first thing you should not be is smart. You know that great American idea that we are a meritocracy? Well, it’s true, except it’s not a meritocracy based on hard work, we’re a meritocracy for good social skills.
We used to place high value on people who were walking Encyclopedias. Now we don’t need those sorts of people, and, in fact, they are weird. Their formerly very-useful ability to store data is relegated to parlor tricks now that we have computers.
My favorite example of the cultural demise of the know-it-all is the infographic of dumbest editorial arguments on Wikipedia. The arguments are fueled by people who think they will somehow define themselves by their arcane knowledge. For instance, on the page for Andre the Giant, 3,766 edits have been made in a dispute about whether his height was 7’4” or 6’10”. The problem is that these people will be defined by their obsession with facts, but they will be defined as useless.
2. Create new ways for people to connect.
The value people bring to the table today is social. We can see this in the reports from human resource departments across all industries about how emotional intelligence is key to hiring decisions.
The shift toward valuing peoples’ ability to create community is evident in marketing departments (community manager is a hot job title right now) and in technology roles (Microsoft just revamped its review process to emphasize social skills among developers).
One of the hottest trends in the art world is relational art. That is, art that changes the way people relate to each other in a given space.
For example, did you notice the ping-pong table in the picture at the top of this post? It’s sitting in an empty corridor of a parking lot. The artist, Laura Cashman, turns the parking lot into a place for people to play. The artist is not Leonardo da Vinci, but the Mona Lisa does very little in the way of creating a community of warmth and support.
3. Understand which commodities you add value to.
Personality is how you decommodify a commodity. Like spam. Or porn. (It’s such a fine line, really.) Look at this writing by Patricia Lockwood. She makes tweets into poems about porn that smack of the rhythms of spam:
Midnight. My wife and children are asleep. Breathlessly I begin to search for my favorite kind of porn: “Women Standing in Big Jeans”
THE BIGGEST WOMEN IN THE TIGHTEST JEANS!!! U WONT BELIEVE YOUR EYES! THESE WOMEN SIMPLY CANT GET ENOUGH STANDING AROUND IN BIG JEANS!
These jeansluts stand up really straight with their tits out, holding the jeans as far away from their bodies as possible! SO RAW
This girl wants a denim vest, a denim scrunchie, and denim Keds — are YOU the sicko who’s going to give them to her
Did you love those? We love them because they show us something we know in a new light. Making a commodity personal brings pleasure to people who are bored with the commodity.
4. Be known for your ideas.
This means you need to be okay being wrong. Being stupid. And being told you were wrong and stupid.
You can’t be known for ideas if they are not new ideas. It’s really hard to think of a new idea. A lot of times an idea is so clearly true to me that I don’t recognize that it’s new. For example, when I tweeted about having a miscarriage in a board meeting, it was so clearly true to me that tons of women had already had miscarriages in the middle of meetings so it was right to talk about it. But it ended up that this was a new idea to a lot of people.
On the other hand, sometimes I think I have a really new idea, like taking Adderall to get more work done, and it turns out it was only new to me—Generation Y had already done it to get through high school.
So it’s clear that the only way you can tell if an idea is new is to tell it to people. It’s a good bet that if it sounds terrible to people then it’s a new idea. For example, Peter Moskos, associate professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, advocates that we stop putting people in prison and start flogging them. He argues that if you give people the choice between prison and flogging, most will choose flogging.
Flogging doesn’t actually ruin your life. It just ruins a few moments. So how can we say that prison is not barbaric and flogging is? On top of this, we already know that prison is not a deterrent to crime, and prisons cost us way too much money. So prison is terrible and flogging solves almost all the problems of prison (except deterrence, but that’s another story.) This is a new, radical, persuasive argument to me. (And bonus: his soon-to-be published book on flogging.)
So I remember the guy’s name. Because he made a difference in how I think. I love him for that.
5. Face reality: this is the game you have to play.
Getting a job is a popularity contest. It doesn’t get more personal than that. So paying attention to how people work around the commodification process is important.
There’s a movement among economists and philosophers to should stop measuring a nation’s success as GNP and start measuring it in terms of collective wellbeing, or Gross National Happiness.
I like this approach because on a micro level this means that you should stop fighting against a market that is not going your way. Offline journalism is a dead end. Being a novelist will not support your lifestyle—even if you are homeless. And you can’t expect to get a job as a 40 year old that a 20 year old can do. Just face the fact that 20 year olds are full of potential and promise and more fun to hire.
The practice of shifting how you think to go with the flow is important. You need to focus on your happiness instead of the market. You cannot force the market to offer something it doesn’t have. And you cannot change yourself to fit the market. But you can look at what’s there. Look at what’s true. And be with it instead of fighting it.
You’ll be surprised how much more effective you’ll be in all aspects of life if you play this game with yourself.