Mar 30

The Career Success Guide

10 principles to help you navigate the challenges of your early career

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Today at a Glance:

  • Whether you’re just starting—or building—your career, you’ve undoubtedly faced new challenges that no textbook or classroom could have prepared you for. Early career years can be quite painful and anxiety-inducing. You face a completely new world with no map—no guide to help you navigate the uncharted terrain.

  • Today’s piece provides that guide—a simple set of core principles that you can turn to and rely on as you start and build your career.

  • If you prefer a printable, evergreen format that you can refer to in future, I turned this into a beautiful e-book, which you can buy here. It includes several additional principles and visualizations not in the newsletter version.


The Career Success Guide

Visualization Credit: @drex_jpg

Whether you’re just starting—or building—your career, you’ve undoubtedly faced new challenges that no textbook or classroom could have prepared you for.

Early career years can be quite painful and anxiety-inducing. You face a completely new world with no map—no guide to help you navigate the uncharted terrain…

So today, I’d like to provide that guide—a simple set of core principles that you can turn to and rely on as you start and build your career.

All of the principles contained herein were developed and earned through my own experience, generally through failures or missteps. My hope is that by providing this in writing, you can avoid those same mistakes and accelerate your path.

If you prefer a printable, evergreen format that you can refer to in future, I turned this into a beautiful e-book, which you can buy here. It also includes several additional principles and visualizations not in the newsletter version.

With that context in mind, let’s dive right in: The Career Success Guide—10 principles to help you navigate the challenges of your early career…


Build a Personal Board of Advisors

The general logic here is simple.

If you treat your career lifecycle as a company...

  • You start as a high-growth startup

  • You grow into a bigger business

  • You IPO and are a public company

At each phase, you're faced with a variety of difficult and new decisions and challenges.

Traditionally, people have turned to "mentorship" to navigate the uncharted waters they encounter at each stage. But "mentorship" feels very formal. It carries a connotation of a fixed cadence and time commitment. From the mentor's perspective, it feels like a big commitment.

Furthermore, having one formal mentor often falls short from a utility standpoint. Your mentor may not have encountered the challenge you're facing—they may not have a "map" that you can leverage to navigate the terrain. They may not be available when you need to make an important decision.

Instead, build a Personal Board of Advisors. Companies have boards—ideally comprised of individuals from varying backgrounds and arenas. The board isn't involved in the day-to-day, but provides advice on strategy, key decisions, and challenges.

Your Personal Board of Advisors is a group of 5-10 individuals.

Important features:

  • Unbiased (not family)

  • Diverse experiences and backgrounds

  • Willing to provide raw feedback

Over time, you can add and subtract from your board. The members don't need to know each other or that they are on your board. Informality is a feature, not a bug.

As you encounter challenges, key decisions, or inflection points in your career, these are the people that you can reliably turn to for grounded perspectives, feedback, and advice.


Swallow the Frog for Your Boss

The “frog” is a difficult or annoying task your boss doesn’t want to do. But their frog is your opportunity!

It presents one of the single greatest hacks to getting ahead early in your career:

  1. Observe your boss.

  2. Figure out what they hate doing.

  3. Teach yourself to do it.

  4. Take it off their plate (i.e. swallow the frog!).

Swallowing the frog for your boss is a clear way to add value, put up a win, and build momentum.


Create a Decentralized Growth Tribe

Having a decentralized friend group to learn from and grow with is a legitimate competitive advantage.

The features of a decentralized friend group:

  • Unconnected to other groups

  • Different backgrounds

  • Range of experience sets

  • Novel perspectives

Interacting with this group will expose you to new ideas, industries, and opportunities. It will materially expand your luck surface area.

Think of it as your Growth Tribe. It’s a huge value unlock.

Sahil Personal Note: It took me 7 years to realize the value of this and find my decentralized growth tribe. That tribe led to me taking new opportunities and making decisions that have fundamentally changed the trajectory of my life. I cannot recommend this highly enough. And importantly, in the Digital Age, you can find these groups “in the cloud”—physical proximity is no longer a requirement.


Learn to Sell

Naval Ravikant famously said that in order to be successful, you either need to learn how to build or you need to learn how to sell.

I agree, but I also know that most of us aren't technically-gifted—so we should just learn to sell.

Selling doesn’t mean going into software or technology sales (though that can be a lucrative career path for the right person!).

Selling means learning to tell a compelling, convincing story. That story doesn’t have to be about a product your company is building.

The more you progress in any field, the more of your job becomes sales:

  • You sell yourself when you want a company to hire you.

  • You sell your idea when you want investors to back you.

  • You sell your vision when you want customers to pay you.

  • You sell your culture when you want employees to join you.

There are very few guarantees in life, but this one is real: If you can sell, you'll always make it.


Prioritize Experience, Not Salary

Prioritizing salary is one of the biggest mistakes I see young people making early in their careers. The obsession with making “six figures” at your first job is misguided and short-term thinking at its finest.

The reality: a 10x better foundation-building experience compounds much more effectively than that extra $10K in salary.

You should always be compensated fairly, but remember that not all compensation is monetary.

Think long-term. What are the opportunities, experiences, and relationships that are going to build the strongest foundation for your future?

Non-linear outcomes are the goal. An extra $10K per year won’t create them. A 10x better foundation-building experience actually might…


Avoid the Comparison Trap

Early in your career, it's tempting to compare yourself and your progress to those around you.

  • This person made X dollars last year.

  • That person got Forbes 30 Under 30.

  • So and so has already started 5 companies and dined with the Queen of England on 17 occasions.

Ok, maybe that last one is a bit of hyperbole…

The desire to compare ourselves to others is natural, but also dangerous. Learn to turn it off. Focus on what you can control and on optimizing your happiness.

Sahil Personal Note: I’ve only recently figured this one out. I spent the early part of my career constantly comparing myself to others and beating myself up over my slow progress. It turns out that my big acceleration took about 8 years to kick in. Sometimes it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. Get off the comparison spiral and turn inward. Impatient with actions, patient with results.


Find Your Zone of Genius

Your Zone of Genius is where your interests, passions and skills align.

Early in your career, your goal should simply be to identify it.

Once you do, you can stop playing *their* games and start playing *yours*. It allows you to play games you're uniquely well-suited to win.

Sahil Personal Note: It took me about 8 years to identify my Zone of Genius. The trap is the Zone of Excellence—the area where you are highly-competent but don’t have a passion or energy for the work. You’ll be patted on the back and told you are great, which can be intoxicating and build momentum around this work, but it’s not where you want to land. Be wary of the Zone of Excellence and stay the course to find your Zone of Genius.


Own Your Mistakes

Fact: When you're starting out, you're going to suck at most things. There’s legitimately no way around it.

I remember reading and listening to every piece of educational material about private equity before starting my first job. I thought it would prepare me so that I could hit the ground running. Then I showed up on the first day and got punched in the mouth (metaphorically, of course!).

Most jobs are apprenticeship-oriented. You have to learn by following and doing. Accordingly, you're going to make mistakes—and that's ok.

What's not ok:

  • Not owning your mistakes.

  • Making the same mistake twice.

When you screw up, own it. Then build a system so it never happens again.


Get In "The Room"

In every company, there are certain rooms where the big stuff happens.

  • The important negotiations.

  • The critical decisions.

  • The conflicts and debates.

Identify these rooms and find a way to be in there. Sometimes it can be as simple as offering to take notes and send around action items.

Once you get in the room, sit quietly, listen, and observe. It will be an insanely high leverage learning experience.


Build "T-Shaped" Knowledge

T-Shaped knowledge has breadth & depth.

  • Breadth allows you to be thoughtful and constructive across a range of business areas. It allows you to know enough “to be dangerous” on a variety of topics. It gives you the freedom to contextualize broadly.

  • Depth allows you to be world-class in a specific area of expertise. It is built through hard, task-specific effort over time.

The most successful people have both.

As you get started, make sure you are building breadth and depth. Breadth makes you an asset to any organization—depth makes you critical to your one organization.


There you have it. The Career Success Guide—10 core principles to help you navigate the challenges of your early career.

I hope you enjoyed this piece, as it was many years in the making! If you found it useful, please share it with others in your network who would find value in it.

And as mentioned, if you prefer a printable, evergreen format that you can refer to in future, I turned this into a beautiful e-book, which you can buy here. It includes several additional principles and visualizations not in the newsletter version and it’s a great way to support this newsletter as I continue to build.

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