How to Get Ahead on Your Career Path

You’re on your ideal career path, but how can you earn more responsibility and more money?

Back in 2000, I was working at a small non-profit organization focused on drug policy reform. My boss and I wanted to run a campaign to highlight the shocking number of low-level, non-violent drug offenders languishing in America’s prisons and jails. We wanted to get the public’s attention.

One problem: we only had $5,000.

But even if we didn’t have a lot of money, we could leverage three important facts about the year 2000. First, it was a “jubilee year” – a religious tradition promoting mercy and second chances. Second, that year the U.S. hit a milestone of two million individuals incarcerated. And, third, it was the last year of Bill Clinton’s presidency, and on their way out of office U.S. presidents usually grant clemency to some deserving offenders.

We launched a campaign called the Coalition for Jubilee Clemency, appealing to religious leaders across the country to sign a letter to President Clinton asking him to grant clemency to low-level, nonviolent drug offenders in federal prison. Dorothy Gaines, a widow and mother of three whose boyfriend stashed drugs in her house and then snitched on her to get his own sentence reduced, served as the poster person for our campaign. Hundreds of religious leaders – including President Bill Clinton’s pastor – signed the letter.

Iin mid-December 2000, after the debacle of the presidential election finally settled down, we went public with our sign-on letter. It quickly earned media attention. (To my chagrin, in my first major media quote, I was identified as “Chap” instead of “Chad”?!) A few days before Christmas, I was driving home for the holiday and received an excited phone call from my boss: “President Clinton just granted clemency to Dorothy Gaines!” After serving six years of a 20-year mandatory minimum sentence, Dorothy was a free woman. We couldn’t believe it.

Then something else happened that I hadn’t expected: I started getting job offers.

It turns out the best way to get ahead in your career is: getting things done. Indeed, David Allen sparked an entire cottage industry with his “Getting Things Done” time-management method. But even more important is getting the right things done.

To be more successful, most people believe they simply have to work harder. For example, working 20% more hours might, at best, make you 20% more productive. But the real gains in productivity – the increases of 100, 200, or 300% that earn you a lot more responsibility and money – come less from your ability to work hard and more from your ability to work on the right things.

What are the “right things”?

The right things are those activities that create the most value. But too often, especially when we’re charting our own course, we mistakenly measure value by how hard we’re working. The harder we work on something, the more we value it. It’s called the “labor theory of value” and it’s easily debunked:

You can work very hard digging a hole and then filling it back in, over and over again, but that doesn’t benefit anyone.

Instead, if we want to succeed, we have to measure value by how much we’re benefiting others. The more we benefit others, the faster our career progresses. To stay focused on getting the right things done, there are three principles I find particularly helpful.

The first is “resourcefulness, not resources.” Resources are always limited – there’s not enough time, not enough money, not enough whatever. This is viewed as a problem. But the real problem is focusing too much on resources, as doing so tends to limit our thinking and to discourage us. Instead, we should focus on resourcefulness. While resources are limited, resourcefulness – or human ingenuity – is unlimited.

Oddly, an abundance of resources can actually make us complacent; whereas scarcity often drives innovation and progress. This is why so many large companies are upended by small start-ups.

The second principle is “the 80/20 Rule,” also known as the Pareto Principle, which shows that 80% of success in almost any endeavor is derived from only 20% of the effort. Investing our limited resources always involves making trade-offs – if you’re working on one thing, then you’re not working on something else. The trick, then, is to focus your limited time and money, as much as possible, on the 20% of effort that will drive more of the desired outcome. But, too often, people focus too much on the 80% of tasks that are much less valuable.

The last principle is what economists call “a division of labor based on comparative advantage.” Geeky jargon aside, it means focusing your efforts as much as possible on where you can add the most value – on your relative strengths – while working with others who have complementary strengths. Don’t waste your scarce time doing things that others can do much better than you can.

Most of us spend a lot of time and energy obsessing over how to get ahead in our career. Ironically, we often do so at the expense of the one thing that will actually make a difference: focusing on our current work and getting things done — the right things done. When we do, others begin to notice.

Chad Thevenot is executive director at the Institute for Humane Studies and a member of the AFF Advisory Board. This article originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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