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Are You Working In Your Career or On Your Career?

As you may know, over the past four years Scott Young and I developed an online course about career mastery called Top Performer. It teaches you how to apply the rules of deliberate practice and depth to systematically get ahead in your professional life. We’re planning on opening the course to new students next week. In anticipation for this next launch, Scott and I wanted to share a series of articles on interesting lessons we’ve learned about career mastery from the previous sessions of the course.

Below is the first such lesson. It was written by Scott. To avoid cluttering the blog, the subsequent lessons, and information about when/how to sign up for Top Performer next week, will be sent only to our email lists. If you’re interested, sign up for my email list in the box in the righthand column of my blog.

Take it away Scott…

A Common Complaint

One of the most common complaints Cal and I heard when working on Top Performer is that people feel stuck in their careers. They’re working hard, but they don’t know why they’re not getting ahead.

Sound familiar?

It turns out a big reason people get stuck has to do with a small distinction people rarely make when pursuing professional advancement: the difference between knowledge and meta-knowledge.


Doing well in your career requires two crucial factors: first, you need to be able to do your work well. This requires knowledge. If you’re a programmer, you need to master the languages you work with. If you’re an entrepreneur, you need to know your market and how to serve them. If you’re a lawyer, you need to have a rich knowledge of the law.

However, this is only the first factor. The second is meta-knowledge.

Meta-knowledge is knowledge about how your career works. For example, which skills matter, and which you should ignore, and how best  demonstrate your talent in your particular industry, and so on.

This second factor is often invisible and many people can go their entire careers without getting a very good picture of how people succeed beyond their current station.

One of Cal and my students from Top Performer, Chris L., didn’t even realize that he was missing it, telling us: “I was frustrated specifically because I thought I was doing a good job, and I see people who I don’t think are doing a good job and they’re getting ahead of me. I work hard, but nothing happens.”

He had knowledge but didn’t realize he was missing meta-knowledge.

How Do You Get Meta-Knowledge?

Figuring out how your field really works isn’t easy, but it can make a huge difference. Instead of guessing, you can know with confidence which skills are worth investing in and which are not. You can know which positions are stepping stones and which are dead-ends.

The main route to meta-knowledge is good, old fashioned research. This kind of research rarely comes from school or books, it instead comes from other people.

Talking to people who are ahead of you in your career and comparing them to people who aren’t is often a very successful strategy to isolate which skills and assets you need to develop. Ask yourself: what is the successful group doing different than the comparable group that is falling short? The answer is often different than you might at first guess.

An important, but counter-intuitive, strategy we found essential in this style of research is to avoid simply asking people for advice. When you ask for advice, you’ll often get vague, unhelpful answers. Instead, you need to observe what the top performers in your field are actually doing differently. Act like a journalist not a protege. This can often yield surprising insights about what actually matters to move forward.

In Top Performer, Cal and I worked hard to develop a system of doing research geared towards accomplishing exactly this goal — extracting useful meta-knowledge about what matters in your career and avoiding the usual fluff and platitudes like “work hard” or “have good communication skills.”

Put another way, treat this information gathering step with respect: it’s non-trivial to get right.

(For an example of this type of meta-knowledge acquisition in action, see Cal’s post about his systematic efforts to understand what really matters for obtaining academic tenure at a research university.)

(Photo of and by Rachel Maddow)

15 thoughts on “Are You Working In Your Career or On Your Career?”

  1. I can’t wait to learn more about the course. I read “Deep Work” and “So Good…” recently which were very helpful.

    And great picture of Rachel Maddow! Would never have realized it was her.

  2. Wow wonderful tips!

    It is brilliant that you and Scott split the areas of knowledge into “knowledge” and “meta-knowledge”. Some people I have spoken to initially disliked this kind of splitting. They may say that it is purposely making things complicated for them.

    So they may just think of it as “knowledge for work”.

    But without knowing it, when pursuing “knowledge for work”, all of us have subconscious preferences. When facing a book shelf full of books, why do we pick one up and not another? Why this book and not that? The tricky part is that there are so many reasons for that. So if someone insists on asking us that question, we may just give one reason which is a convincing reason (the book is too thick) and ignore the possibility that under the surface other reasons exist also (maybe I dislike the feeling side of things and prefer a more mathematical-sounding title?)

    Segregating knowledge like this helps us suddenly see very clearly if all the time we have been, for some reason, single-pointedly pursuing a specific class of knowledge or avoiding one.

    Acquiring and interpreting meta knowledge requires different habits and skills, as you had said. And it almost resembles gossip. Of course there are differences. The gossip goes around telling everybody all the bad things about everyone. The top performer simply keeps the bad things to himself and let the bad news stop when they reach him. But not wanting to be seen as someone who mixes with the gossips may be preventing people from gaining meta-knowlege. This is one of the possible reasons.

    Indeed, I agree that we should not ask the elites in our office directly for knowledge. It activates a different part of their memory.

    Just like last time I was asking someone how she does emotional detox. After a scenario that makes her very frustrated how does she throw the emotions away. Then she told me that we should reflect on our role as saints coming on Earth to solve problems. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

    Except that many of us are not at that level and that advice is not timely.

    Besides, she seemed to be doing something different. She would appear to get back at the person without getting back at the person. For example, bringing chocolates to office and sharing them with people and just nice the chocolates would run out before she gets to the “other person”. And she would say in a loud voice, “Oops sorry, you are not in luck today.” (The loud voice allows for emotional release and inside she could secretly be laughing to herself that the “other person” was excluded from the good stuff.)

    Sounds almost like BDSM where emotions are released in an intense manner but in a controlled environment.

    So I don’t know whether she herself is practising the method of reflecting ourselves as saints. And I don’t know how effective it is for her also. I know it does work for some people but it takes some mental training and cultivation before we can actually benefit sufficiently from them.

      • Dear Corey,

        You are very smart, and you have high expectations.

        Unfortunately I apologize that I am unable to fulfill your high expectations as yet. For one, I cannot read your mind and do not know the true questions that you have with regard to my post.

        I only ask that you treat yourself kindly. Give yourself more buffer time each day for pondering and not rush through your work or study and allow yourself to bask in the bliss after doing a difficult task. When you treat yourself kindly, you will treat others kindly. The same tends to be true for the opposite.

        Corey, the downside of high expectations sometimes is that the expectations may be too narrow. In the sense that an alternative of equal or better quality could show up but one is unable to appreciate and benefit from the alternative due to fixation on a certain expected outcome.

        It seems to me that you have unique perspectives also. You may want to start your own blog and tell us about it.

        Bliss to the 19th of January 2017!

  3. A new reader here. Its amazing how you put that across. And yeah you are right. But it also comes down to passion. I read an article somewhere, cbs news I guess, can’t remember very well. But it talk about student choosing a career based on skills and then learning the skills of the job. Which resonates with what you have said here: “solate which skills and assets you need to develop”

  4. Happy new year, certainly there should be a great distinction between working for and working on career,
    To me I believe working on your career gives a more precision on your mastery of the game. .. Quote” don’t give up until stop breathing pursue till the end.

  5. I totally agree with you on the fact that one should develop his skills and learn to check what he can achieve with those set of skills. A continuous up-gradation of your skill set is always required. For example, if you are a writer or author on should permanently learn more and more on online platforms like where you can display your work and learn more.

  6. Good article. I study at university and work in a job. I tried the tips described in the article in a study and at work. I highlighted the knowledge and skills that are a priority for my profession and began to actively study learning materials. I used this knowledge and skills in my work and a study. In the end, I started to do my work more effective and I got excellent academic performance. Therefore, you need to determine what knowledge and skills you need for work or study and start develop them! Thank you for the good article.

  7. Great article! It is rightly said that we should be equal to successful people. It is even possible to study their biography in order to understand how they act, what habits in themselves develop and how they cope with difficulties. For example, I am currently studying at an institute and at the same time working and it is imperative for me to be able to manage my time rationally.


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