Harvard Business Review
Flagship magazine, books, and digital content and tools about smart management thinking.Follow this author
A great deal of career advice, while given with the best of intentions, is often not based on verified evidence and is anecdotal, hackneyed, contradictory, or outdated. We now have more clear evidence of what constitutes good advice in terms of which mindsets to hold while navigating one’s career. According to the evidence, some is powerful and effective, some is at best unhelpful, whereas some is downright bad. The authors break down which of the four most common career mindsets relates to objective career success, subjective career success, and employee job outcomes.
There’s no shortage of advice on how to thrive in a career today, especially during this time of transition to new (or old) ways of working. Whether you’re beginning your career or wondering if it’s time to make a move to a new company or industry, how can you know which advice is actually worth taking?
After decades of research on how to be successful in contemporary careers, researchers have identified the four most common pieces of advice people consider necessary to have a successful career. To figure out how worthwhile each piece of advice actually is, we conducted a meta-analysis of all available field studies since 2006 that had examined how each one relates to various career outcomes, totaling 175 independent samples of over 63,000 people around the world in various career stages and occupations. This allowed us to spot population-level patterns for each piece of advice and determine which are likely to be the most rewarding and which should be approached with caution. We did this by breaking down how each of the four pieces of advice relates to:
Here are those four most common pieces of advice and what the data says about how useful they are for finding success in today’s jobs.
This piece of advice requires a self-directed mindset, which means a person assumes full responsibility for their own career path and development, rather than relying primarily on their employer. Compared to the other three pieces of advice, this one has the most positive effect overall. We also found it to be across-the-board beneficial for all outcomes considered — people who hold a self-directed mindset are more likely to experience both greater objective and subjective career success compared to those who don’t.
Additionally, people who take full ownership of their own careers are more likely to have greater morale (i.e., higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment), higher job performance ratings, and lower withdrawal behaviors (e.g., turnover intentions) in their current job. Thus, the advice to proactively develop your own skillsets and “pack your own parachute” is the most helpful of the four types for both the employee and employer.
Recommendation: Someone lacking a self-directed mindset assumes their career development will be taken care of by others, such as their current employer. While this may have worked in the past, it’s no longer the case today. This is due in part to the need for companies to adapt quickly to changing technologies and increased competition caused by globalization. That requires employees to be on their feet to acquire the new knowledge and skillsets sought after by 21st century organizations.
Therefore, we recommend that you take control of your own development by proactively finding training opportunities to increase and strengthen your repertoire of knowledge, skills, and abilities. You could do so by attending training courses related to your career. Additionally, given the increases to employee morale, performance, and lower withdrawal that this mindset brings, you could mention how it’s in your company’s best interests to promote your growth. The key is to be proactive about your ongoing learning and professional development. Follow Elon Musk’s advice to his employees: “Constantly think about how you could do things better and challenge yourself” to improve.
Seeking out professional relationships outside of your own organization or industry requires having a “boundaryless” mindset. While these individuals have greater objective and subjective career success, they’re more likely to withdraw from their current employer, which could have negative effects on the perception of whether or not they should be hired. Overall, although a boundaryless mindset is beneficial to your career success, it is at a rate considerably lower than being self-directed. That is, its beneficial effects are relatively weaker on most career outcomes than being self-directed is to those outcomes.
Recommendation: Consider building a broader social network outside of your departmental, organizational, or industry silos. You may do this by inviting people outside your direct work group to lunch, volunteering in your community, cultivating non-work hobbies, or attending events or conferences outside your immediate network or area of expertise. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt echoed this advice: “Say yes to meet new friends.” However, when deciding which advice to prioritize, we recommend focusing your attention first on being self-directed, as it carries more bang for your buck in terms of how you use your energy.
Being values-driven means a person makes career moves based primarily on their deeply held personal values and approaches their career solely from the view of “pursuing their passion.” Many people, as part of the Great Resignation, are looking for careers that align first and foremost with their values. However, our findings suggest this advice should be approached with caution, as it’s likely to result in smaller, incremental “meaningful life” dividends than people think they’re investing in. The results show this mindset doesn’t really matter — its relationship to objective success is statistically no different from zero, and it has the relatively weakest relationship to subjective success.
Recommendation: Proceed with caution in solely following your passion. Many people adopt this mindset expecting a strategic trade-off: They’re trading the allure of money and prestige to secure greater happiness. However, this trade-off may be overestimated. What typically happens is people with this mindset are slightly happier, but not to any practically substantial degree. Thus, instead of focusing solely on passion, realize that any given job requires not only meaningfulness, but also competence. We recommend considering The Muse founder Kathryn Minshew’s advice that while “each of us has the opportunity to find work that is aligned with our passions…the idea of a ‘perfect job’ is a myth.”
A person who is constantly seeking out opportunities to make their next career move and change jobs — regardless of the quality of their current job — has a mobility mindset. Results show that this does not lead to greater objective career success and is consistently detrimental to subjective career success. Employees with this mindset also have lower morale and performance and are more likely to leave their current job, making them costly — and potentially unattractive — to employers.
Thus, while it may be especially tempting right now to be on the lookout for the next opportunity, being ready to “bail” at any moment is summarily bad advice for one’s success in current and future jobs. In fact, the negative effect of the mobility mindset on subjective career success is about one-third the strength of the positive effect the self-directed mindset has on it. Additionally, the detrimental effect of being mobility-minded is nearly equal to the combined positive effects of all other mindsets on a person’s psychological well-being.
Recommendation: Do not be too eager to “jump” jobs, but focus on excelling at your current job. Being mobility-minded leads to a “grass is greener” mentality and can earn you a reputation of being unreliable. These findings may be particularly relevant in the context of the Great Resignation, a time when workers — particularly Generation Z and Millennials — are actively searching for new jobs and quitting their current jobs en masse. While the connection to being mobility-minded and the Great Resignation remains as yet unclear, to the degree that a connection exists, we would recommend individuals cautiously consider the implications that fostering such a mindset may have on their future career outcomes.