Five ways to make yourself a workplace superstar

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It’s fun to be a superstar. You get a lot of accolades. But the real benefit to being a workplace superstar is that you have more control over your life. A superstar gets flextime. A superstar gets to take a five-month sabbatical and have their job held for them. Superstars are so top-flight that they’d be very hard to replace. Average performers don’t get those benefits. Aim to be a superstar so that you can have more options in your career for creating a life you want.

1. Have gaps in your resume
You want to be known as a good thinker, right? But good thinkers need time to think, and that’s what gaps in resumes are for. Sure, for the unemployable, the gaps are times of financial terror and emotional doom. But if you feel confident that you can get another job, then taking time off to think, get perspective, try something totally new — all these things actually make you more employable.

If you’re in the middle of a gap in your resume right now, and you think it might be the not-so-good kind of gap, and might make you unemployable, then start doing something exciting and rejuvenating with your time while you are job hunting. Then the gap will look intentional and exciting.

It’s all about spin, really, so take time to think and then hire a resume writer to help you turn your resume into the kind that tells the story of a great thinker.

2. Cut corners at work to make time for the gym
Most people who don’t get regular exercise say that job interferes with their exercise time. This is absurd reasoning, because people who don’t exercise do worse at work than people who do.

People who exercise perform better at work than people who don’t exercise. People who exercise think more clearly and are more even-tempered. And the self-discipline that it takes to exercise regularly spills over into other areas of life, making people who exercise more able to reach work goals than people who don’t exercise.

So cut corners at work to make time to exercise. Your work performance will go down a bit at first. But on balance, your performance will go up once you start reaping the benefits of exercise throughout your life.

3. Start a side business
One of the best ways to stand out in your career is to make sure you always have a lot of options. A great way to create options is to build your skill set so that you’re adaptable within your field and on the cutting edge of your specialty.

But there always comes a time when the opportunities all look bad. When that happens, you should know you can start something of your own. Entrepreneurship used to be starting a company in your garage and growing it to be big and take over the world. And most people failed, because not many people can take over the world.

But today, entrepreneurship is often about microbusinesses you can do at home, while you have a day job. And success is about creating a work life that accommodates your personal needs. Success is also about keeping your learning curve high, no matter how much money you make.

For all these reasons, starting a business while you work in a cube at someone else’s business is a smart way to go. It ensures that you’re never stuck. And it’s not actually that hard to do.

4. Turn down promotions
The raise you get when you get a promotion is absurd. It’s usually less than 10% of your salary, and it’s not going to change your life. Surely you can find something to ask for that is more meaningful than that.

Also, when a company offers a promotion, the company says, Here is the next step in our ladder, and we’d like you to climb it. But why would you follow a path laid out for you by someone else? You should customize you career according to your workplace strengths and your personal needs, Laying out a path for yourself is difficult, but necessary. You need to understand yourself, and then you can tell your boss what you really need. Think about mentoring, training, getting on a really interesting project, or asking for flexible hours. These are things that will make a long-term difference in your career.

Not convinced? The process of giving someone a promotion is usually watching them succeed in one type of work and then giving that person new responsibilities that they do not necessarily have talent for. And that is why a promotion is more stressful than a divorce. So ask for other rewards instead. Really.

5. Start a blog
Superstars distinguish themselves from everyone else by being known for their ideas. This doesn’t mean they sit in a room and think all day. Execution matters. But you need both. That’s why a blog is so great for putting you at the top of your field.

A good blog presents your opinions on a wide range of issues within your chosen specialty. If you can post regularly you show not only that you have the self-discipline to produce, but you can make a plan and execute it over time, and, most of all, you show everyone the way that you think about issues in your field.

One of the most exciting things about specializing is taking part in a high-level discussion about cutting edge topics. Someone needs to lead that discussion, and increasingly, it is the bloggers who are doing that.

So, here are some easy instructions for starting a blog.

As with many things in life, it’s harder to make the mental commitment to seeing yourself as a superstar than it is to take the steps to get there. The core of being a superstar is not about what you do in your work, it’s what you do in your head: Believe in yourself and your ability to stand out for your ideas and then focus on being that person in whatever you do.

31 replies
  1. Matt Bingham
    Matt Bingham says:

    Hey PT,

    In most of the my jobs my boss and I have laid out a career path of which they work with me on. I have laid out where I want to go which has directly led to promotions and/or role changes. Every promotion/role change that I got was because I asked for it and most of the time the position was created for me. In that case, with myself at the wheel, is it ok to climb to another position to attain superstar status? This is very intriguing and i’m interested what other ideas will come in.


  2. Joe Fusco
    Joe Fusco says:

    Penelope, may I contribute some additional thoughts to this discussion?

    These are all very provocative ideas, with a helpful message in there somewhere between the lines (with the exception of “start a side business” — this may be good for your career and your life, but it won’t necessarily make you a superstar at work, particularly if it’s used as a “hedge”).

    As a senior executive who is always looking for, and trying to develop, “superstars,” I’d like to suggest five additional ways to shine brightly in the workplace, particularly for twenty- and thirtysomethings. These, too, are paths to accolades, control over your life, and value:

    1. Build Yourself. You cannot spend enough time seeking mastery of not only your technical skills, but your personality/behaviorial/leadership skills as well. Find out how the most effective leaders you know behave and treat people, and work exceedingly hard to become just like them.

    2. Build the People Around You. Do you make everyone around you great at what they do? Coach, teach, encourage — that’s what a true superstar does.

    3. Never Take Any Job You Are Not Matched For — one whose problems and challenges you don’t have a deep passion for and enjoyment of. You will suck at it or, at best, be mediocre and waste precious time in your one turn at bat on this planet.

    4. Fight for Margin. Margin is the space between your limits — physical, time, financial and emotional — and your life’s workload. Superstars have margin, lots of it. They have the energy to work hard, the time to think, the financial security to say “screw you” if need be, and the relationships that give support. Also, all the great things you will do in your career will flow from margin — building yourself, building other people, and building a business.

    5. Be Truthful. The biggest enemy faced by senior executives and CEOs is that no one wants to tell them the truth. There are two types of people who are useless in the workplace: those that can’t (or won’t) tell the truth, and those that can’t (or won’t) listen to the truth. Want to be a superstar? Be someone your leaders can count on for frank and candid insight, advice and feedback.

    Superstars are superstars because the things they are good at are very rare. My experience is that these five things are among the most rarest behaviors in any organization.

    Thank you, Penelope, for making me think about this.

  3. Andrew
    Andrew says:

    Penelope – your #2 on promotions is dead on correct. I give my friends more advice on this item than anything else. Some companies have vertical systems that advance you on an intuitive track without your role really changing, you just advance hrough knowledge and experience gained. These systems are generally favorable to employees because let’s face it, they are meant to compensate for a lack of strong management direction and thus don’t involve a dramatic increase in expectations.

    But when you are happy in your job, and someone comes at you with a new opportunity for advancement either internally or externally, I would suggest you ask yourself two questions: 1) what will you gain from this besides more money? and 2) do you have a great boss? The answers to these questions are very telling.

    At my last company I was in the exact situation I described above: happy in my job, no desire to move ahead and presented with a promotion opportunity from left field. It was neither in line with my career path, nor was it working for a better boss than the one I had (who was my best boss ever). But I couldn’t turn the money down, so I let myself be talked into it. I might have succeeded in the job, but I failed at being happy in it. If you know yourself, and know what you want, you should listen to that voice inside you.

  4. The Edge
    The Edge says:

    Hey Pen, nice post.

    There are many deadly career sins; one that has always stuck out is the one mistake that nearly everyone makes – letting the company manage their career. Granted we let people manage our money, manage our kids’ sports teams, or manage wedding planning (I’m divorced too) but do we need people to manage to make our career decisions for us?

    Superstars are guided internally whereas the average bunch are content to be guided like steer to slaughter. It’s not that HR is inherently bad but it is true that their experiences are inherently limited. Yet who helps make the decisions for the humans?

    Want some real advice? Buddy up to successful people – listen to some of them, and listen to none of them. The Zen of Career…

  5. Chris
    Chris says:

    But here’s the obvious question and perhaps fodder for another blog post: How does one know if they are a superstar?

  6. Michael Holley Smith
    Michael Holley Smith says:

    I like this thinking and I suggest your superstar use a super resume when out & about: a stunning and powerful bioblog. 3-d if possible. with a cast of thousands. a bit of love/sex/$$. oh yes, don’t forget the all-important objective: TO BE DIFFERENT BEFORE I DIE LIKE ALL THE REST OF YOU. something to give them the idea of where you’re going, what kind of character at work you are. with all the information well above the fold. maybe some flowers on it. a lot of people like flowers don’t they?

  7. Michael Botnick
    Michael Botnick says:

    Never Never Ever allow yourself to become complacent… I think complacency is the ‘8th ‘Deadly Sin’.

    Differentiating technical skill sets don’t remain so… different for long. If you aren’t ‘a people person’ you at least need to be able to play well with those that are.

    A good boss, with a willingness to mentor is nearly the definition of a great job.

    Thanks for being thought provoking

  8. Red Jello
    Red Jello says:

    I agree with all that has been said above regarding other tips and ideas to become an office superstar. Having gaps in the resume is making me pause for extreme thought. I’m not sure I agree completely with that one. Maybe I never thought of it. Maybe it’s my age in keeping my job to ensure an income. Whatever the reasons, you have made me think!

  9. Thom Singer
    Thom Singer says:


    I have had a lot of jobs. I have had huge successes (superstar) and some mediocre experiences. Some changes were my choice because of a better offer, some were because a company went out of business. I recently made a move to a local growing company whom I have admired greatly for years. This company has hired me as a whole person, not just someone to fill an opening. It was an amazing experience to have a potential employer see my strengths and design a job around me that will bring us both greater success.

    Some might say “wow, he changed jobs again, what is that about”…. but one local business woman said that I was smarter than most…. and that I climb the “business lattice” instead of the “business ladder”. The lattice gives you opportunity to move up and down or sideways (or at an angle) depending on the situation. This was a great comment.

    You advice in this post is very good. Some might take pot shots at you, but you are right. A person who is stuck on a ladder can only see the choices of up and down, but the future of the work force is to design your own path to success…and your points in the full post on InformationWeek really hit home, as that is what has lead me to my personal successes.


  10. Darren
    Darren says:

    I usually love your posts and agree with you–I’ve even done most of your suggestions without any other reason than they were right for me at the time. But, this time, I agree with a caveat. I think these suggestions only makes you a “superstar” if your boss (or future boss) thinks the same way.

    By the way, I’ve posted before and have gotten comments back from you. I’m a stay-at-home dad who has started a business and related blog that I’d be glad to share if you’re interested.

    * * * * * *

    A good place to share a URL is in the comment form — I, for one, almost always click on those to see who’s commenting…


  11. Shefaly
    Shefaly says:

    Penelope, interesting post as usual.

    “Actions” are all we can control and indeed sometimes they give us an illusion of control. A lot depends on the “reaction” one gets from the employer or potential employers. My experience – albeit mainly in the UK and Europe – shows that:

    1. Many employers would rather bet on a safe person with no gaps, no spectacular ‘individuality’ and definitely only understated, if at all, signs of creativity and independent thought. Than on a superstar maverick whom the line manager cannot wait to “put in his/ her place”.

    2. The context is important. Those who try this experiment in different cultural settings from their own are in for a shock. Fancy hearing “I just cannot believe you have all that experience”? Yes, me neither. I would strongly suggest one does not try this “have a gap on your resume” thing in the UK. Employers here exhort people to explain every gap…

    As the caveat said, the UK and Europe react differently. That said many people have told me that I am ideally suited to the Valley.

    So here is an experiment I wish to make.

    Once I submit the PhD thesis, and while I wait for my viva and defence to be scheduled, I will get on a plane and go to California and test all these suggestions out. That should help.

    PS: Of course I am happy to run my “curriculum vitae” by you (in my case it really is a story of life, not just a bio data) to see if the hypothesised difference in cultural responses is really valid…

  12. Yvette
    Yvette says:

    Hey Darren: A lot of us read the comments. Yes, please post your blog URL. (please, please) I have a stay-at-home husband / Dad (dad to my daughter). He works part-time to avoid going crazy, but it’s worked for us, for various reasons. Thank you!

  13. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Since when are gaps good? Are you only saying this because you personally have gaps on your resume and you’re trying to justify it?

    Gaps are never a good thing. It shows that either you couldn’t find anything, or you found something but it was so beneath you that you were too embarassed to put it on your resume.

    Of course, if you’re doing volunteer work/school etc.. then a gap would be acceptable.. but then that wouldn’t exactly be a gap.

    Even if you’re “finding yourself” what the hell are you DOING during that gap? Makes no sense.

    • Bob Suruncle
      Bob Suruncle says:

      Hello Kathy, You are the type of uncreative, blase middle manager that no one would want to work for. If you cannot see how a gap, a rest period, a sabbatical to improve one’s career, studies, family, etc are good for human-beings, then you probably only want to hire robots. That seems to be the type of person who ships intellectual jobs overseas, until you get fired for exposing corporate IP secrets to the black market via one of your low cost overseas employees. Good luck with your continued mistreatment of your employees. Just remember… the people above you will only let you abuse people and your high department turn-over as long as the work gets done. After a while they get tired of the constant complaints against you and you get fired.

  14. Phil
    Phil says:

    Gaps in a resume without a REALLY good reason are interview killers. Employers could care a less if you have been adventure scuba diving while searching for that next great job, so don’t think they will think you are an interesting person and will hire you. When I hire someone, besides their experience, I want someone who has no attendance issues and doesn’t show signs they are afraid to work or too good to work. When you have gaps in your resume you are showing that you had a job you don’t want to use on a resume(most likely you were fired or nearly fired) or you just didn’t feel the need to work inbetween jobs. That is fine if you are working in a niche market where gaps are expected, but most people do not work in that type of field. I would much rather see you being a manager of some office and then working at Home Depot for 3 months inbetween your next higher level position, because that shows to me you are a go getter and a hard worker…someone I want to work for me. Blase attitudes don’t cut it in the real work world. Encouraging gaps is keeping the welfare system attitude thriving…I’m too good for “that” job, so I just won’t work. Coming from someone who works in the real world, trust me when I say that gaps in resumes are not a good thing. You should spend your interview selling yourself and experience, not explaining why you were not working for 3-6 months between your last jobs.

  15. Cara
    Cara says:

    I just wanted to let Joe Fusco know that the term “Fight For Margin” hit me like a two-by-four. YES! That’s the perfect term for what I’ve been trying to do, but couldn’t describe. Thank you!

  16. Phil
    Phil says:

    Since you didnt have your Yahoo Finance article from yesterday about Criticism listed on your blog I wanted to comment real quick. Two of your paragraphs really stuck out…

    “Sometimes my columns get criticized for not addressing people who have been at the same company for upwards of 20 years. However, my goal has never been to write for such people.

    Anyone who stays at a job that long probably relies on their company for career happiness rather than taking responsibility for it themselves.”

    So working at a job for 20 years means your have not taken responsibility for yourself…that you are really unhappy deep down. Just because the trend now is to job hop, doesn’t mean that someone who has been with a company for an extended period of time is a sheep who can’t think on their own. You are right in saying that your columns are not geared toward “those” people. Your columns are geared toward self centered Generation Y’ers who instead of having a good work ethic, feel they are entitled to whatever they want to do and that policies should change for them. I am sorry, but your sheep need to wake up to realize they are heeding bad advice and that one season of 6 Pro VB tournaments and a few sporadic jobs of a couple years each doesn’t make you an authority on anything but how not to keep a job.

  17. Scott328
    Scott328 says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Interesting post. While you make some great points I think each of these ways to make you a ‘Superstar’ is contextual or situational.

    Having one ‘gap’ on your resume, whether to think or just take a break/spend time with family, etc can be OK, but too many gaps or a gap for too much time could be perilous to the career.

    On turning down promotions, I can certainly see where that may apply sometimes, but in my experience if I like and trust my boss, then I’ve really put my career in his/her hands and if they’ve offered me a new position I’ve almost always taken it. Turning down promotions is fine when you’re just starting out, but if you really want to build a career eventually you have to move up. And those small raises come handy when it comes to buying the house, investing for the kids college etc.

    As for cutting corners to make time for the gym, I just can’t see that that’s a recipe for work success.

    Finally, love the starting a blog idea. It’s a great release and a phenomenal way build your community.

    Best of luck in your new venture.

  18. wedgedgravy
    wedgedgravy says:


    Once again, you have amazed me. In the real world, if you pass up a promotion, you will very likely never be offered another one. Where do you get this information you write about?

    Let me retitle this column:

    If you want to be lame at work and have trouble finding another job for the rest of your life, take my advice.

    How do you get paid for the garbage you put on here.

  19. JJ
    JJ says:

    Penelope, thanks for the interesting post.

    I think it depends on the company you work for. I have been at my current company for 7 years. During that time, I have said “no” to offers that were not good for my career, and “yes” to offers that were good for my career. I think I have come out ahead.

    The first was when my boss wanted to decrease his number of direct reports and tried to make one of my peers my supervisor. This proposed new supervisor was incompetent, and there was no way I was going to risk my career by working for this person. So I said, “no way”, my boss said “okay”. Remarkably, my relationship with by boss improved, and I avoided a career landmine.

    The second was when my boss wanted me to take on a struggling employee as a direct report, but would not make accommodations in my workload to ensure that I could properly manage the person. It was another setup for failure. So again, I said no, and there were no negative repercussions.

    After that, I created and proposed a position in my department with a much higher level of responsibility, which would capitalize on my skills and talents. The director agreed, so I am now reporting to her, working at a higher level in the department in a job I like, and making a lot more money.

    Since, then, my previous boss’s position has been offered to me, and I again said “no”. (My peers were astonished by my resolve on this and thought I was crazy.) It was yet nother sure setup for failure, would have been a lot more stressful than my current position, and would not have lined up with my career goals. My director was not happy about it at first, but seems to have gotten over it. She hopefully sees that it would not have been a good move for the company, her, or me.

    Sorry for the long comment, but I wanted to illustrate that it is possible to take this kind of control and still be successful. Of course, it depends on your company’s tolerance for this type of assertive behavior.

    It also helps that I am considered a “superstar” employee because of the quality work that I do. I was also willing to lose my job if necessary when each one of these situations came up. That would have been better than accepting the “promotions” that were not in line with my personal needs and career trajectory.

  20. Eddie Baki
    Eddie Baki says:

    I am not convinced that cutting corners at work, starting a blog and hiring a resume writer is the best way in the long term. Short term. Sure you can fool some people, but in the long run it is your product and productivity that counts and not your blog or resume.

    * * * * * *
    I love this comment becuase you get right to the heart of things: What, exactly, are you being productive FOR? What is the end goal? If you are not being productive at work in order to be a star performer at your work, then what else is there? So in fact, this article is all about productivity. This is the stuff that will make your time pay off.


  21. Nathan M
    Nathan M says:

    I dont know about the rest of you but I would never in a million years turn down a promotion, if they want to pay me more then I will take it with a smile on my face.

  22. Marisa
    Marisa says:

    It’s funny that experts say that gaps in resume are not ok. But the way that they are selfmade and well explained for your own research they could probably make you stronger applicant.

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    top mistakes says:

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