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You’re not building a career, you’re playing it

Success is always a product of two things: luck and effort. Nobody became successful because of sheer luck and zero effort. Nobody became successful because of sheer effort, and no luck.

Effort and luck

Remember, luck can come in many ways. My parents weren’t dirt-poor — luck. My parents weren’t rich — luck (I believe rich upbringing often leads to low motivation, high expectations and low tolerance of discomfort in life.) My parents nudged me to study — luck. I was born in a country that is neither dirt-poor, nor rich — luck. The country stopped being a totalitarian hell hole about the same time as I was entering elementary school — luck. My interests involved computers and programming from an early age — luck. I’m relatively healthy — luck. My kid is healthy — luck. I could go on and on.

That said, it’s not just luck, is it. I consider myself very lucky, but if I didn’t spend thousands of hours reading, programming and just plain working with computers as a teenager, I would be a lot less successful. I’m lucky, but if I didn’t spend my evenings and weekends working, I would not be where I am.

It’s not one, or the other. It’s both at the same time.

Don’t despair, though. Nobody is completely without luck, and you can increase your chances to get lucky by playing at more tables.

Building a career

There’s this assumption that a career is to be “built”. As if it was a wall, or a tower, which you gradually work on, and which slowly but surely grows.

Building

But that’s not what’s actually happening, and if you keep acting as if your career is to be built brick by brick, as if it’s a predictable linear growth, you’ll seriously limit your chances.

Embracing uncertainty

Whether you want it or not, you’re playing a lottery. Thankfully, it’s not a normal lottery (which is always stacked against you). In this lottery, you can actually come out on top. But it still involves placing bets, winning and losing.

Wheels of fortune

In your life, you’ll meet many risks, opportunities, downturns and upturns. Your job is to play them to the best of your ability.

Do your work well, get more of the same work

If you’re not careful, you can spend your life acting as if you’re “building” your career. That is to say, for example, you will focus on being a good employee. You will do the work assigned to you. Sometimes, you will go above and beyond, working overtime — but only on the things you are asked to deliver.

The result? You will gradually get better at what you are doing. You will get a raise. A promotion, even, once in a while. You will be less likely to be fired when the company hits a rough patch. So, it’s not a bad approach.

But you should never, ever expect a fast career growth with this approach.

Place bets

At any given time, there are thousands of things you could be doing. After work, you could be watching a TV series. You could be reading recipes. You could be knitting. You could be arguing with your friends about politics. You could be daydreaming about being famous. You could be adding those extra touches to a presentation that your boss asked you to prepare for her.

Whenever you’re in a position to choose, try to see it as an opportunity to place a bet.

  • Watching TV. High probability of being comforted and entertained. (We all need time to wind down.) No probability of any lasting impact.
  • Working on that presentation for your boss. Good probability of improving your career a tiny bit. Your current boss will like you a little more, at least for a while.
  • Working on a personal project. Very small probability that your career will be significantly shifted (project goes viral, or you get a much better job offer thanks to the project, or someone talented sees the project and wants to work with you). I list concrete examples from my own career later in this post.

The trick is to understand that nothing is certain. You’re throwing spaghetti at the wall, and seeing what sticks. You’ll find that most spaghetti don’t stick. Most of your bets will fail miserably. But you’ll learn through them. And you’ll at least have a tiny chance, with each new bet, that you’ll get lucky.

What to bet

Most often, you’re betting your free time and your energy.

  • Learning a new programming language is a bet that can cost you something like a hundred hours. Learning it well can cost you thousands of hours.
  • Starting a website will cost you hundreds of hours and at least a few bucks for hosting.
  • Starting a new company will cost you thousands of hours and thousands of dollars. It will also possibly cost you your salary, if you’re currently employed and planning to quit.

It’s up to you how much you want to risk. Different people will have different affinity to risk at different times.

Let’s say there’s an opportunity to move to a different country. There’s a sizable chance of an interesting turn in your career. But it also costs time and money to move, and you estimate there’s a 5% chance you’ll lose it all, and will have to come back with no money, no prospects, and no place to live.

If you’re a young person with no kids and no health issues, this sounds like a great bet to place. On the other hand, if you have 2 kids and a mortgage, those 5% seem pretty scary.

Examples from my life

  • As a teenager, I spent hundreds of hours learning Japanese. I knew that the chances that I’ll put Japanese to any good use, in Czechia, were slim. Years later, my knowledge of Japanese brought me a life-changing year in Japan.
  • One summer, I spent days and nights learning SEO and building my first big website. This work lead to my first full-time job a few months later.
  • The following year, I spent time each day just after work, when everyone was home, learning Ruby on Rails and building an online knowledge base about search engine marketing. That work later helped me land a job at Google.
  • At Google, as a low-level technical sales person, I spent evenings and weekends learning various technologies, which let me switch to a more technical and independent position.
  • In 2011, I started learning the Dart programming language, spending (once again) evenings and weekends building real things with it. Years later, this led me to the Dart team at Google, and to Silicon Valley.
  • I spent years thinking about time and the ways we people represent it. Pretty useless, right? Then I wrote a deceptively simple Twitter bot that currently has 420 thousand followers, and is probably, hilariously, the thing most people will know me for.

I want to be clear that for every successful example above, there were hundreds of failures. I tried to become a professional DJ, I tried to start a Pay-Per-Post business, I made music, I wrote beginnings of books, I built a Natural Language Generation weather app, I co-created a book recommendation engine, I built a self-organizing map of stars, I wrote fuzzy logic web analytics, I learned a lot of stuff that I will never use. If I knew none of these would pan out, I would have watched TV instead. But that’s the thing: you don’t ever know what’s going to work and what isn’t.

Play it safe

It takes courage to place bets like these, no matter if you’re young or old. Remember, nothing is certain. You could place a hundred bets and still get no results.

So, don’t expect things to go well. Be rather pessimistic. You should never be surprised that any particular bet was a failure. Don’t bet it all if you’re not ready to lose it all.

But, do play your career. Don’t just try to linearly build it. Don’t expect miracles to happen to you just because you’re diligent and hard-working. Do your job well. Make your boss happy. But also: place bets. Throw spaghetti at the wall. Play. Your. Career.