scorecardThe 2 most important things you need to learn in your first few jobs to advance your career faster
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The 2 most important things you need to learn in your first few jobs to advance your career faster

Henry Blodget   

The 2 most important things you need to learn in your first few jobs to advance your career faster
Careers4 min read
  • Yes, it's helpful to develop "job skills."
  • But what really matters early in your career is learning 1) what you're naturally good at, and 2) what you most like and want to do.

One common piece of advice for people early in their careers is to learn… skills.

Skills are certainly helpful.

Considering how expensive school is and how much time we devote to it, in fact, it's remarkable how few actual job skills most of us learn while we're there.

But in my experience, skills are not the most important things you should try to learn in your first few jobs.

The most important things you should try to learn are:

  1. What you're naturally good at (relative to others)

  2. What you enjoy doing

If you can figure out those two things — and then work your way into a job that takes advantage of them — you will give yourself a huge edge in building the life and career that you want.

What you're naturally good at

We're all gifted at some things and lousy at others. These differences are often visible early. For example, in school, some of us are gifted (or distinctly not gifted) at sports, or music, or math, or languages, or art, or acting, or communicating.

Some of us are extroverts and love socializing and working in groups. Others are introverts and prefer to work or play alone. Some of us love competition and games. Others find them stressful. Some of us enjoy presenting to groups. Others hate it. Etc.

When we're gifted at something, it comes easily relative to other things we try to learn — and more easily than it does for our peers. It sometimes comes so easily, in fact, that we may not even notice that we're gifted at it. And we may often be confused about why other people are struggling with it.

It is much easier to succeed at something — to become great at it — if you have a natural gift for it. This is in part because it's more fun to do things that you're good at and get praised for than to do things you suck at, so you'll spend more time doing them.

What you enjoy doing

You will likely spend a third of your adult life working. So it will help tremendously to figure out what kind of work you like (or even love) to do.

Figuring this out will give you an edge over all the other people who do what you do but don't like doing it. We all would much rather spend our time doing things we like to do than things we don't. So if your job includes a lot of activities that are fun for you and work for others, you'll likely be more motivated and enthusiastic and eager to devote more time to them.

This doesn't mean, of course, that you won't have to work at it. Talent alone isn't worth much. In fact, of the two key "inputs" in any competitive endeavor — talent and effort — effort is more important. This is the theory underlying the "10,000-hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in "Outliers: The Story of Success."

The more time you spend doing something, the better you'll get at it.

The success formula

It's possible to do well by sheer talent or effort alone. It's also possible to succeed in endeavors you don't like by forcing yourself to do them.

But the most common and simplest formula for success is this:

Do something you're naturally good at that you like doing.

That probably sounds obvious.

But here's the tricky part.

Often, early in our careers, when we haven't done a bunch of different jobs, we don't know yet what we're naturally good at or what we enjoy doing.

So, through trial and error, we have to figure that out.

And then we have to work our way into a job and career that takes advantage of both.

Try and err… and then iterate

It took me about seven years of working to figure out what I was relatively good at and enjoyed doing. And I learned some of it by accident.

Yes, some things were obvious early:

In grade school, for example, I was good at gym, English, and science and lousy at French. I was so bad at French that other kids used to make fun of me. "Hey, Henri, what's this?" they would say, pointing to a picture of a cat. "Le chat," I would say, and they would burst into laughter. My ear and accent were so bad I couldn't hear that I was saying not "le" but "lerrrrr." Pretty soon, even my French teacher had a nickname for me: "Lerrrr."

As you can imagine — because I was routinely humiliated while trying to speak it — I didn't enjoy French. And I'm extremely lucky that I haven't had to make my living with it!

I was better at math, but by no means talented. But I loved reading and telling stories and playing sports and games. Relatively speaking, those came naturally, and I was good at them.

Later, during my early work life, through trial and error, I figured out that I was relatively good at and enjoyed jobs that combined "reading, writing, speaking, and teaching." This helped narrow my choices. (Among other things, it revealed why I didn't like — and was bad at — an early production-assistant job at CNN). And then, while preparing to take the GRE and GMAT, I also realized that I was relatively good at and enjoyed analysis.

Once I found my way into a job that combined all of those skills — reading, writing, speaking, teaching, and analysis — and an industry that celebrated and rewarded competition (Wall Street), my career took off.