How to be happy at work - lessons learned from "Career superpowers" book

In this article, I share the lessons I learned from James Whittaker’s book “Career Superpowers: Succeeding on Purpose.”

First of all, we have to separate jobs from careers. A job is something that gets you paid right now. Career is bigger. It is more than just a job. The job pays the bills, career gets you successful.

In the first chapter of the book, James Whittaker promises that “This book is for people who want more. It is for people who want to be involved in something they find intensely interesting; something, perhaps, that is bigger than themselves and that will expand their world and provide a deeper meaning for their life.”

I have to admit that such an introduction sounds just like another self-help book written by someone whose only achievement is publishing that book. Not in this case.

James Whittaker comes from rural Kentucky. His family was working in mines, farms, and any other place that happened to have a vacant position. When he was a child, his future did not look bright, yet, somehow, he managed to have a pretty impressive career. His successes started with employment at the FBI. Then he got a Ph.D. at the Florida Institute of Technology and joined Microsoft as an engineer. After that, he became an engineering director at Google, working on Google Chrome. Finally, he returned to Microsoft as a distinguished engineer. Recently, he left Microsoft again and starter working on his projects.

I totally can take career advice from someone like James Whittaker.

What does not work

Before we even start, we have to deal with harmful myths about a successful career. It may be shocking, but things like education, intelligence, experience are not enough. As James says, those are the things that “get you in the game. They don’t help you win the game.”

Are you smart? Cool. Everybody you work with is smart. Do you know how to code? Awesome. So does everybody else. After all, it is a prerequisite to get a job as a programmer.

Do you have ten years of experience? Is it still relevant? Does it even matter today? Will the things you know matter tomorrow?

Do you have a college degree? Unless you go deep in algorithms and math, then you can build a career on top of your degree. There are not many people who want to do it. If you don’t want to focus on that, your degree will help you get the first job. After that, it is pretty much useless.

What else does not work?

You can’t rely on your manager. Your manager is concerned with only one career, and it is not yours. What about the company you are working for? James has a harsh answer: “The company does not care if you are successful. They like you to be because keeping you is cheaper than replacing you with someone new.”

All of that is good news! Seriously! Because all that you need is yourself.



Career superpowers

James Whittaker describes nine attributes or activities that significantly improve your career. He calls them “career superpowers.” Those are the things you do daily and the things you must become.

He suggests running your career like a business. What do companies do when something works well and brings a lot of money? They double down on that! What do they do when something loses money? They stop doing that!

Why do we even need to be told that? A five-year-old child should know about it. Yet here we are. We know about it, but we don’t change our behavior at all.

So what are the superpowers? Let me tell you about four of them. If you want to learn all of them, read James’ book.

Ambition

He starts the book with the most essential superpower, which is not optional: ambition.

What?! Does he suggest that the reader is not ambitious? What kind of advice is that?

According to the author, ambition is the thing you do on purpose. It tells you where you are going, not just where you are. Ambition is the answer to the infamous question: “What do you want to do in five years?” It may be a secret. You don’t have to tell anyone what you want to do, but you should be aware of the direction you want to go.

James gives the reader a homework. We are supposed to think about the reason why we work at the company where we work. What does the job provide us besides the money? Does it help us get to the goal we want to reach? It does not need to directly lead you to the target. After all, if you are planning to achieve it in five years, you will probably change the job along the way. Does your current job help you get the next one?

Specialize

The author advises to stop pretending to be good at everything, find the skill you are good at, and double down.

The skill you choose must solve a critical problem. Do the executives worry about it at night? Great! If you can master it and solve their problems, they will throw bags of money at you.

Moreover, being really good at something gives you identity. You are either a great engineer or just an engineer. How many well-known programmers can you recall? Do you remember what they do? It is probably only one or two things. How often do you talk about someone and can’t recall their name, so instead, you say something like, “That Akka-guy” or “The author of that book?”

The only problem with specialization is the fact that you may be disappointed with the choice you have to make. Often, the best specialty is at a level below you or at a level you consider to be below you.

It happened to me. I really wanted to be a data scientist. If you look at the articles on this blog, you will see how much time I spent learning. When I finally reached the goal, I was disappointed. The only data science job I managed to get was at a tiny startup. I even didn’t like what they were making, and I didn’t believe they could survive another year.

Moreover, I realized that what I really liked to do is data engineering. It gives me the satisfaction of getting the job done. What I make either works or does not work. It is easy to tell whether I finished my work. In addition to that, I can still do machine learning. It is perfect.

Is it enough to have one specialization? Unfortunately not. We must be careful because the specialties expire. Would it still matter if you were the world’s best Windows Phone programmer? What happened to expert Delphi programmers?

At my first IT-related job, I was working as a network administrator and office IT support. I even attended training for Novell Netware administrators. Have you ever heard about Netware? It is an operating system that was discontinued ten years ago. Of course, I don’t mention any of that on my CV. It does not matter anymore. To be honest, I did not matter ten years ago, either.

Be passionate

“Don’t follow your dreams, your dreams are probably stupid.” - James Whittaker

We must find passion in our careers. There must be a part of the job that you can be passionate about.

In the past, I worked with someone who was repeatedly telling us that he does not like what the company is making, but he loves how we are doing it. Being passionate about the way we develop software made him one of the best developers in the company.

There is one more thing we can learn from my colleague. Don’t tell anyone that you hate some parts of your job or the product you are making. He was respected by all coders, but that was not enough to get promoted.

James Whittaker recommends keeping passion close to yourself. It should be as personal as possible. It is better to be passionate about your contribution than the product or the whole company. It is not about being selfish. This simply makes your passion actionable.

Just don’t complain about the things you don’t like. In fact, you can use them to your advantage. Probably, the things that are making you unhappy are making other people miserable too. If you make them go away, you will make yourself famous and have more time to work on the stuff you like.

Storytelling

James Whittaker is an expert storyteller. He claims that it is one of the career superpowers because you don’t make yourself successful. Other people make you successful, and you must be able to communicate with them. The best way to communicate is to tell a story. People remember stories. The ability to get your story in someone else’s head is a superpower.

So what is your story? Can you tell who you are? What is your role? What are you working on? There must be something that makes you unique. Do you know what it is? Can you tell it to other people?

We hate that question, don’t we? Are we supposed to prepare an “elevator pitch?” It seems we should do that and you better make it enjoyable.

What is next?

There are five more superpowers: learning, reinvention, creativity, charisma, and leadership. To learn about them, you should read the book.


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Bartosz Mikulski
Bartosz Mikulski * data/machine learning engineer * conference speaker * co-founder of Software Craftsmanship Poznan & Poznan Scala User Group