Get Ahead At Work: Be Selfish

As performance reviews loom on the horizon, it’s a great time for all of us to step back and ask ourselves:

How can I be a better employee?

A lot of the career advice out there will tell you how to communicate more effectively with co-workers, make your boss look good or provide unexpected value for the company. The experts tell you to focus on finding ways you can help others in order to help yourself. This will probably help you climb up the ladder a bit, gain some favor with folks at the office. Your boss will look good, your co-workers will look good and the company’s bottom line will look good. But what about you?

I suggest a more radical approach to career betterment. I propose we stop focusing so much on what we can do for others and more on what we can do for ourselves.

The 10,000-Hour Rule

Two blogs, Career Realism and The Writer’s Coin, have helped me reach this conclusion. The first post I read was from Career Realism, introducing me to the “10,000-Hour Rule.”

“Simply put, the 10,000 Hour Rule says no one gets to the top of their field unless they log at least 10,000 hours of practice. That’s right – 10,000 hours!”

Now 10,000 hours is a lot of hours to log. As one commentor on Career Realism pointed out, that’s roughly 5 to 6 years worth of work. As the blogger explains, that puts recent grads at a great disadvantage,

“One of the biggest complaints I hear from managers these days is the lack of ‘professionalism’ they see from recent college grads. The 10,000 Hour Rule explains why: most college grads today have not been required to work through high school and college in professional settings. Moreover, managers, parents, and even students themselves today are under the mistaken impression that college teaches this sort of thing. Over here at we say, ‘College teaches you everything EXCEPT how to get the job.’”

Ever had a superstar co-worker who was great at their job until they were promoted? It’s a common story. A salesman may be fantastic at landing deals but completely unprepared to deal with budgets, fighting co-workers or incorrect timesheets. But what makes these workers successful at one role but not another? Experience–something that can only be acquired by doing it yourself.

But how do you gain professional skills if not on the job?

The Writer’s Coin, as the last part of a six part series on being a better worker, recommends doing something outside of work everyday. The blogger says,

“This one has less to do with work and what you do while you’re there than it does with having a nice balance in your life. In other words, it might just make you feel better when you’re at work if you’ve done something beforehand (or afterwards, if that’s your style—I just can’t get much together after work)….

The point of getting up early and doing something else is to make you feel like you’re life doesn’t just revolve around working. It also gives you time to get side projects off the ground, catch up on e-mail, read, etc….

I know, I know, getting up early is a nightmare for most people. You will get used to it. Trust me, I feel weird staying in bed past 5:30am now because I’ve been doing it for so long.”

Ultimately, having something else outside of work, whatever it may be, is likely to make you a happier person and a better employee.

And isn’t that what it’s all about?

The complimentary nature of these two posts gives us a prescription to becoming a more successful employee: make effective use of your time outside of work to do things you enjoy, which will in turn help make you more effective at work.

For example, if you are trying to get promoted into a management position but have no direct supervisory experience, you could continue to do a great job in sales and hope that the higher ups are willing to reward you for that work with an untested promotion. Or you could help yourself by volunteering to manage a group of phone operators during a pledge drive for a local charity.

One of the best managers I ever worked for spent his Spring afternoons coaching a high school softball team. He was accomplished at the technical aspects of his job, but I really think his willingness and ability to mentor the younger workers on his team is what made him such a great manager. His mentoring skills were gained in large part from his experience helping young athletes perform on the field.

By focusing on developing yourself, rather than on what you can do for your co-workers/boss/bottom line, you will accelerate promotions as well as enable yourself to succeed once you get to your next professional challenge.

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2 responses »

  1. You raise some interesting points, Jacqui. IMO, the best solution is a COMBINATION of the two themes: focusing on self-development AND helping your co-workers, boss, company.

    I think that happens somewhat naturally. For example, if you’re volunteering to coach a youth sports team, you’re learning how to get many people to cooperate and reach goals, and you’re (hopefully) feeling great doing that. When you’re feeling great, you’re more likely to not only enjoy your job more (as you point out), you’re more willing to do more than just your job–thus you’ll help your co-workers, boss, company (and using your newly developing skills learned through coaching).

    What you’re really saying is these two things go hand-in-hand, right? You don’t have to choose to be “selfish” INSTEAD of following the old “help people at work” advice…doing both will get results twice as fast.

    Great post!

  2. This is excellent advice.

    For many years, I struggled to make my place of work better in many regards. I became resentful when I realized that this wasn’t appreciated. If I could go back, I’d follow this advice, and just focus on learning the skills I wanted instead of wasting time on projects that didn’t really matter in the long run.

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