Three Approaches to Building a Successful Career
A Guide for 20-Somethings in the Workforce
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Three Approaches to Building a Successful Career
"90% of you will do what is expected of you as opposed to what you want to do"
I heard those words last week while watching a talk that Vinod Khosla, a billionaire venture capitalist and a Stanford MBA, gave at the Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2015.
As he said those words, I paused the video and just lay in bed thinking: "what is it that I actually want to do?" Now you see why last week, I wrote about purpose?
We young Africans are often painfully familiar with having our parents and extended relatives shove down our throats their expectations around the kinds of schools we should go to, the kind of course we should major in, the kind of jobs we should pursue, and even the kind of romantic partners we should have.
It's a lot.
We spend so many years assimilating the expectations of others that we end up forgetting who we were or what we wanted to do with our lives before others started telling us who to be and what to do. So we spend our whole lives trying to remember.
But even as we try to remember, we don't have the luxury of time to plant our butts in the ground and twiddle our thumbs. We still have to build our careers regardless. Our lifestyles won't fund themselves 😭
How can 22-year-old Arinze build an authentic career that is poised to help him lead a successful and impactful life? How can other early 20-somethings do the same?
I sat with this question for a few days this week until I finally found some guidance.
Reflecting on Khosla's words and on the lives of some of the greatest people in the world, I identified three paths that we can take in our journeys towards building successful careers that stay true to what we want to do, not what others expect us to do.
I'll share my early thoughts on them with you now. Let me know what you think about them by leaving a comment or sending me an email.
Approaches for Crafting Your Career
1. Follow Your Natural Talents
…if your goal is to self-actualise
Growing up in an upper-class Muslim family, Aliko Dangote always had an entrepreneurial spirit. In primary school, he would buy cartons of sweets and sell them to his classmates and seniors just to make some more money on the side.
When deciding what to study at Al-Azhar University in Cairo, it was no surprise that Dangote chose to further his education in business to build on his natural competence in commerce. After graduating at 21, Dangote asked his uncle for a $3000 loan, which he used to build a business that at that time was generating $10,000 in daily net profits.
Forty-four years later, Dangote is now the wealthiest man in Africa and the wealthiest Black man. His business, Dangote Group, is also the largest conglomerate in Africa.
From very early on, Dangote (and those around him) identified his talent in business and he stuck with it. He spent his entire career honing his business talent as an entrepreneur and building new businesses within his vast Dangote Group empire.
He spent his early 20s building his business and, in the process, failing, learning, and improving. Although this was a period of experimentation for him, it was still very rooted in what he wanted to do—building profitable businesses 💸.
We all have unique abilities and talents in things that come to us more easily than they do for others. It could be anything: drawing, taking photos, writing code, singing, analysing business models, designing outfits, etc.
Whatever it is, once we identify it, we must follow it.
Following our talents allows us to reach the pinnacle of self-actualisation as we consistently get better at our craft and, by default, live out our fullest potential.
The challenge is that we often get swayed to go against our natural talents to follow things that are more 'lucrative'. But if we can, we must resist the pressure to take up jobs simply because they're more stable or more prestigious.
We must leverage our talents to pursue what we want, however unconventional it may seem to us or to others.
While Dangote's story shows that a successful career often lies at the end of the path of our natural talents, it's not the only path.
2. Follow Big Trends
…if your goal is to be at the vanguard of big global shifts
In July 1994, Cadabra, Inc. was born. A few months later, it was rebranded to Amazon.com because a lawyer once misheard the company's name as 'cadaver'. We thank heavens for that lawyer 😂.
This company was set up after a quintessential nerd, Jeff Bezos, read a report about the future of the internet that highlighted the potential of web commerce. According to the report, web commerce was projected to have a growth rate of 2,300%.
Young Bezos knew he had to get on that train fast! He quickly quit his posh job on Wall Street and started building his e-commerce company from his garage.
Obviously, Bezos' parents weren't very excited about their son quitting a more stable, high-paying job for a riskier pet project in an untested industry. But they eventually came around; to the tune of a $250,000 investment in Amazon.
Bezos was trying to catch a big wave—the rise of the internet. He saw the potential at the same time that most people did, but he went after it with more fervour and intentionality than most people.
He knew he wanted to be among the class of people who would shape this shiny new technology that seemed to be taking over the world. And he succeeded! Today, he is one of the wealthiest men in the world and Amazon is one of the leading global tech companies.
Vinod Khosla, in his talk at Stanford Graduate School of Business, went on to offer some advice to young people that summarises Bezos’ strategy. He said:
"discover the edges of where things are happening and changing. Know that you don't know. And really change the world."
In our world today, there are big trends that are emerging: big data, artificial intelligence, blockchain, cryptocurrency, 3D printing, etc. These have the potential to completely disrupt how we think about the world.
We may not have rich parents who can invest $250,000 in our startup, but we can make the decision to align ourselves with some of these big trends that are poised to govern the majority of the 21st century. We can put in the effort to study them extensively and identify how best we can apply them to solve problems for people, for businesses, and for society.
By doing so, we inevitably position ourselves to become valuable professionals or leading entrepreneurs who come up with new solutions that, in their own way, contribute towards changing lives, changing organisations, or changing the world.
3. Follow Big Problems
…if your goal is to make the world a better place
During her time as an investment banker at JP Morgan Chase (then, Chase Bank), 25-year-old Jacqueline Novogratz found herself in Kigali, Rwanda. There, she observed that banks did not lend to poor people, despite them being the people who often need loans the most.
Having worked with philanthropy organisations such as the Rockefeller Foundation in the past, Novogratz started bubbling with different ideas of how to solve the problem for poor communities in Rwanda. She was drawn to solve this problem that seemed to be ignored by people who had the power to make a difference.
She then quit her job and moved to Rwanda to tackle the problem herself, armed with nothing more than her skills and her good intentions. In 1987, together with a group of local women, she created Duterimbere, the first microfinance bank in Rwanda that was tailored specifically to the country's poor.
Following that, Novogratz, armed with an MBA from Stanford, founded Acumen Fund in 2001 to provide patient capital to social entrepreneurs who were building businesses that used innovative products and business models to tackle global poverty.
Today, Novogratz, through Acumen Fund, has invested over $126 million in 120+ companies that have changed the lives of over 250 million people across 14 countries.
As of January 2021, there are so many problems plaguing the world: climate change, misinformation, algorithmic misjudgements, cybercrime, economic inequality, unemployment, and so on.
If we're uncertain about leaning into our natural talents or can't seem to find a big trend worth pursuing, we can always identify one of the big problems in the world and dedicate our career towards solving it.
That way, we would be setting ourselves up for a kind of career that transforms the lives of thousands or millions of people.
Novogratz built her career around using finance as an instrument for social good. She spent her early 20s understanding the inner workings of finance. It is with that knowledge that she was able to build one of the most revolutionary impact-oriented businesses in the world.
The headline of this week's piece speaks about a 'successful' career. But I never defined what kind of career qualifies as that. That was intentional.
There is no monolithic definition of a 'successful' career. Success means different things to different people. Only we can define to ourselves what success means to us.
The most important thing is that regardless of what kind of career we choose to pursue, it is one that is built around our own interests and desires, not around the expectations of others.
We will always be tempted to pursue shinier careers that provide us with more stability, fatter bank accounts, or greater prestige. However, we must not be afraid to do pursue what may seem unconventional simply because other people consider our goals a bit too ridiculous or outlandish.
From Khosla's quote, that 10% of people who do what they want instead of what is expected of them are the ones who end up truly successful.
I want to be part of that 10%. I bet you do too.
This piece is a skeleton of my early thoughts on how we can achieve that by following our talents, following big trends, or solving big problems.
But if we can find a career that allows us to follow all three paths, that is the kind of magic that you and I must pursue with all the energy of our youth.