Original question from Quora:

What is some career advice that people usually learn too late in life?

My Answer:

In terms of your career, what you think is valuable and important vs what is actually valued are two very different things. The most important thing you can do in your career is build relationships and pay attention to what gets rewarded.

To get to a high level in any career, you need to be good at what you do. So, get good, like really freaking good at what you do. Spend a lot of time practicing, learning, and improving your skill.

However, at some point skill in your chosen field isn’t the best differentiator. Unless you are the very best in the world at what you do, after a certain level of technical mastery, you will no longer be rewarded.

For example, in the software field, I am a very good developer. I’ve got to the senior software engineer level. But, if I want to go higher, I need a second or third skill set. Those skills are relationship and communication skills like management, sales, writing, speaking, and so on.

A lot of very good software developers will hit a ceiling in their career because they don’t improve improve their skills outside of the technical arena and they don’t become the best in the world at what they do. Thus, they won’t get paid a premium beyond any other senior level developer.

To get to the highest level in any career, it’s competitive. You have to win on dimensions that don’t seem like what should be rewarded. Basically, it’s a sales problem and you better get good at selling yourself.

The old saying, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is very true, but part of why it’s so true is people like to promote people they know, like, and trust. If you become friends with your boss or your boss’s friends, it’s easier for them to promote you over someone else.

The other thing to consider is that the higher you get in your career, the more you are paid for who you are than what you do.

For example, Hillary Clinton gets paid like $225,000 per speech she gives to giant corporations, trade groups, etc. If I gave the same speech, maybe I’d get paid $500 or $1,000 or maybe nothing at all.

As it turns out, her rate has almost nothing to do with the content of her speeches. It has everything to do with who she is. Maybe they are trying to buy influence with her. Maybe they just want the connections she has. Who knows.

But, it doesn’t matter how good Hillary Clinton is at giving a speech. Her value is in her name, her connections, her influence. Her name is worth $225,000 per gig not her talent.

To build up the name, she worked hard, hustled a lot, married the right guy, and dealt with a lot of difficult things. It obviously wasn’t easy. Now, she is running for president and millions of people around the world know her name.

She can live off her name for the rest of her life if she chooses. She will never practice law again. I’m pretty sure they don’t teach that lesson in business school or law school.


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