You Only Need 3 Things for a Successful Career

Career SuccessWhat if I told you that you only need three things to have a successful career.  Only three.  Would you believe me?  Probably not.  Let’s try it anyway.  You need to be able to adapt; you need to be a learner; and you need to be self-reflective.  That’s it.  If you have those, you can have a successful career.  But, you say, what about finance skills, strategic skills, negotiation skills?  As long as you are a learner, you’ve got it covered.  What about  leadership skills, EQ, presentation skills?  If you are self-reflective and a learner, you’ve got it covered.  What about managing change? Mergers and acquisitions? Financial crisis?  If you are adaptive and a learner, you’ve got it covered.  You see where I’m going with this, right?

A Life Long Learner

To have a successful career these days, you must be a life long learner.  A Bachelors or an M.B.A. won’t do it.  You can/will learn very important things in the process of getting those degrees.  Certainly they aren’t a waste of time.  They aren’t necessary to having a successful career (Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates), nor are they a be all, end all.  Maybe in the wayback days a degree was enough, but not any more.

If you got out of college more than 5 years ago, you didn’t do marketing with social media.  Your IT skills didn’t include any ‘clouds.’  LinkedIn wasn’t  used to recruit employees.  Nobody ever heard of a TARP.  Iphone  apps weren’t a business, to say nothing of iPads.  They weren’t reading XRays for your hospital in India. You see the point.  You HAVE to keep learning.  If you approach your career as a learner, then the problems that arise are just opportunities to learn.  They aren’t overwhelming barriers.  If you have the belief that you can figure it out, you can.  If you’re a learner, you know you can.

Be Adaptive

All of us at one time or another get stuck in our rut.  Your career can’t be a rut, though.  Does anybody remember what happened when the housing bubble popped?  When mortgages cratered, construction stopped, and unemployment started growing?  If you were lucky enough to be unaffected, you may not be next time.  If you were affected, you came out better if you were adaptive.  Things are speeding up quite a bit.  Unadaptive people will be run over by the next crisis.  The new book, The Start-up of You: Adapt to the Future, Invest in Yourself, and Transform Your Career, by Hoffman and Casnocha, recommends that you do ABZ planning.  This can apply to either your career or your company.  Plan A is based on your competitive advantage and you iterate the plan, making moderate changes as necessary.  Plan B is a pivot, changing either the goal or the route, as necessary.  And Plan Z is your safety net, your fallback if all else fails–how you keep a roof over your head and food on the table if other plans don’t work.

When you are dealing with the ups and downs of life in a corporation, flexibility is essential.  Reorgs, company sales, downsizings, new projects, killed projects happen constantly.   You need to be in what Hoffman and Cosnocha call “constant beta.”  Nothing is end state–it is always a work in progress.  If you can have this mindset, you’ll be ready for anything that comes.


Being self-aware through self-reflection is like having a personal level tool.  It will help you figure out that things are out of kilter and help you figure out what exactly needs to be redirected.  Self-reflection is  essential  for being able to manage the only tool you have fully in your control for a successful career–yourself.   Howard Gardner, an expert on developmental psychology noted “it is important that the leader find the time and the means for reflecting, for assuming distance from the battle or the mission,” in his book,  Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership.  You learn as much though self reflection as through any other method–if you take the time to do it.


Filed under Career Development, Career Goals, Executive Development, Personal Change, Success

4 responses to “You Only Need 3 Things for a Successful Career

  1. Jeff Crigler

    Well I mostly agree as far as skills are concerned. But what this leaves out is character. My rebutted question for Jo is: what are the three essential character traits? I can conceive of a real “looser” that is perpetually self reflective… Adaptive (…whatever man…) and even leading all the wrong things… But always learning.

    So these skills are undoubtably necessary but not sufficient without certain character traits and moral values no?

    • Jeff, I appreciate the challenge.

      When you are a genuine learner, you are incorporating those learnings into who and what you are. The Center for Creative Leadership has identified three types of learning–cognitive (reading, mostly), doing and learning from others. They have also researched the differences between people who succeed no matter what you put in front of them and those who throw themselves against the same wall in the same place everytime, repeatedly failing in the same way. The difference is that the consistently successful people learn in all three ways, most of us learn in two ways, and those who regularly fail learn in only one, rigid way.

      Someone who is adaptive–really adaptive–doesn’t just say “whatever” and let it all flow around him. That is a person is who non-adaptive in a particular way. A person who is adaptive takes what is thrown at him and keeps trying things till it is dealt with–there is a persistence to being adaptive that is perhaps not captured in my original post.

      Self-reflection is not self-absorption. It is looking at the experience of you in the situation and identifying what worked, what didn’t work, what was your fault, what you could have done better and learning from it. For the next time.

      I don’t think you’re going to like what I say next. I’ve thought long and hard about it and I can’t think of a particular set of character traits that are required for a successful career. I don’t like that answer, and that doesn’t mean that I would always like someone with a successful career with traits i don’t admire. It doesn’t mean that I would be willing to work for them. But I don’t think there are specific character traits required for a successful career.

      That isn’t true for a successful life, or to be a successful leader. Although I don’t like that answer, I can point to people with bad traits and people with good traits with successful careers.

      Other opinions?

      • Jeff Crigler

        hmmm. I will need to noodle on this. I guess then this boils down to the effects of traits/habits v. character and the meaning of each. Isn’t the difference between saying “whatever” and going with the flow adaptive behavior? If so then isn’t the character quality one of steadfastness or persistence that makes adaptiveness a successful trait? If a person “adapts” through surrender… for lack of character… that would not seem to me to be a successful trait.

  2. Jeff,

    I don’t see someone saying “whatever” and surrendering as adapting. I see that as being like a leaf that floats on the water and goes wherever the flow goes. Adaptivity to me is someone who makes a log into a steerable boat and goes where they’re trying to go. This is someone who figures out how to do it despite being told “no” rather than someone who takes “no” for an answer.

    I do agree that persistence is a very valuable asset for a successful career. While I think if is possible to be successful without persistence if you’re lucky, it is highly unlikely.

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