Sean Johnson

Build an Intentional Life.

The Career Flywheel

In a previous post I wrote about the importance of “balance sheet” thinking vs. “income statement” thinking. The idea is to think of your career like an asset that pays dividends over time.

While most people think of their careers in terms of cash in – cash out (I work for 10 hours, you pay me for 10 hours), asset-based thinking realizes certain career investments will more than pay for themselves and are worth the delayed gratification.

When done well, your career stops looking like a ladder – slowly climbing rung after rung.

Instead it starts to look like a flywheel. Once you get it moving, it accelerates faster and faster. It might take a ton of momentum to get that first revolution going, but each subsequent revolution gets easier and easier.

It’s a very different way of thinking about your career, but one that can dramatically alter your career trajectory.

The Typical Career Progression

Payscale did a study looking at worker’s average lifetime earnings. They segmented their data out by gender, so I’m extrapolating a bit, but in general the typical career progression looks like this:

The typical career progression

(Note: Compensation is obviously not the only variable one should consider when making career decisions. But it can often be a pretty solid directional indicator of one’s progression in their career.

You typically will make around 60% more at 30 than you did when you started. And around 45 or so you top off at 110% of your initial salary when you started. From 45-65 you will typically have an extended plateau.

Given this, you can think your career as having two phases – the Growth Phase where you’re working to get increase your worth as much as you can, and the Harvesting Phase where you reap the benefits of all the hard work you put into the first phase.

The growth and harvesting phases of your career

The Career Flywheel

I would submit you have two objectives in manipulating this curve.

The first is to make the slope of the Growth Phase as steep as possible. In the event you do eventually plateau, your Harvesting phase will be much more lucrative.

Even better is to avoid the plateau altogether. To have generated such momentum that you blow right past where things taper for most people and just keep on growing.

This is what the Career Flywheel can do for you – maximize your ascent, and avoid the plateau.

The career flywheel

But how practically can you do this? How do you build your Career Flywheel?

I would submit there are four levers you can use to build your flywheel:

  • Mastery
  • Network
  • Brand
  • Wealth

Let’s explore how these can work for you.

Pursuing Mastery

Mastery is the foundational lever. It’s the one that’s available to anyone who decides to pursue it. It’s the process of becoming really good at something.

Good can mean many things. It can simply mean possessing knowledge of a particular domain. Anyone who commits to a discipline of reading and synthesizing can pursue this.

Tony Robbins used to say spending an hour a day reading about a topic would put you in the top 1% in the world in terms of expertise around that topic. This gets magnified if you pursue a systematic approach to remembering what you read.

But to really internalize a topic, it’s helpful to actually get experience with it. This isn’t always possible (I’m learning about quantum computing right now, even though practically I won’t be getting hands on experience.) But with most disciplines it is.

I don’t believe you should wait for your boss or organization to give you opportunities to practice. If they do, amazing. But in most cases you’ll need to submit to some form of self study.

A common approach in product design circles is to do a “design a day”. They’ll identify a design challenge (a login/registration dialog, for example), and attempt to design it. They’re typically using it as an opportunity to learn the UX of a particular interface, while also learning how to implement a particular design technique.

Go on Udemy or Coursera and look for courses in the domain you’re interested in. Either take the courses directly, or use them as an outline to build your own curriculum.

The other approach is do take on side projects. It’s one of the reasons I beat the drum around working for free so much. When you think of it as an investment in your career, you no longer are worried about how much money you’re making on the project. You’re worried about getting as many reps as possible in the shortest time possible. You’re focused on your portfolio of experience, not your checking account.

I believe anyone who seriously submits themselves to a discipline of reading one hour each day, coupled with completing at least one project a week will position themselves much more successfully for the rest of their career. They’ll be able to start charging more for what they do, and pursue projects with more visibility.

They will have built the first critical leg of their flywheel.

Building a Network

The second critical step is to build a network. A strong network is the primary mechanism people use to surface new opportunities. The best people don’t have to submit resumes to job sites. Because people come to them.

Some people feel like you can’t start building a network until you’re achieved mastery. While the kinds of opportunities you’ll see will certainly be more compelling and lucrative as you get better at what you do, you can start building your network immediately.

The secret is to focus on helping people. Go above and beyond what is typically expected to find out what people need and serve them.

The people who you aspire to be like – where do they hang out? What events do they attend?

Attend those events. Get to know them. Learn what they’re trying to accomplish in their career. Be listening for ways you can help. It could be sending them a book you’ve read related to a problem they’re trying to solve. It could be an introduction. It could be an offer to volunteer some of your time (another project for your portfolio!).

Don’t play the “collect business cards” game. Set a goal to get to know one person at each event well.

Take it to another level – who are the organizers of those events? Volunteer and get involved in those organizations, whatever that looks like. Say yes to all the crappy stuff no one else wants to do.

Don’t worry about what you’ll get out of all this help you’re providing. Don’t keep a tally. I promise it pays dividend far beyond what you invest in it. It just happens in scattershot, serendipitous, almost mystical ways.

If you want to put your networking process on steroids you can leverage the 5/25/150 networking strategy my buddy uses to systematically add value to his most important relationships. It’s not for the faint of heart. But after implementing it for several years, the guy has access to literally anybody he wants at any time.

Pursuing mastery and building a network put you in a position to start pursuing the third lever of your Career Flywheel.

Create a brand

One of the unfortunate misunderstandings of the Instagram generation is the belief that you build a brand first. While there are certainly examples of people who’ve done this, I would argue it’s the exception to the rule.

More importantly, it’s a brand built on a super shaky foundation. I’ve met dozens of people over the years who seem like they are competent, only to find out there’s nothing of substance underneath all their bombast.

The right order is to pursue mastery first. THEN start talking about it. Not the other way around.

What if you don’t have the expertise yet? Is there anything you can do?

The wrong answer is to attempt to convince people you’re good at things you aren’t, or that you’ve achieved a level of success you haven’t. Don’t rent the lambo and film yourself in your garage.

Instead, my buddy Nick Seguin suggests becoming known for competencies rather than skills early on.

If you develop a reputation for being hungry and curious (which you will have by now through your pursuit of mastery and your focus on helping your fledgling network), that in itself can be a great foundation for a brand.

Being known for curiosity and hustle will start to open doors for you, which will give you chances to improve your skills and meet interesting people, who will see your drive and want to introduce you to more opportunities. And so it goes.

Once you have mastery, by all means leverage it. There are plenty of people to follow to learn how to build your brand. Gary Vaynerchuk is a great one.

The rules are fairly simple. Get clarity on your message. Identify the channels that will be most effective at sharing your message. Be consistent about creating content around your message (it’s much easier to have ideas about what to talk about if you’ve already done the work of becoming an expert).

Write. Speak at events. Create video or audio. Take an idea and tailor it to as many mediums as make sense. Engage with your followers. Give, give, give. Ask occasionally, but focus on providing value.

But please, don’t get intoxicated by the temptation to shortcut the process. That guy toiled in the aisles of wine stores for years, learning how to sell and manage and grow a business before attempting to give anyone advice about how to do it themselves.

A great personal brand can be incredibly powerful. But focus on acquiring skills. Become great at them, then talk about it. In the meantime, simply be known for your work ethic, curiosity and character.

Avoid the Plateau: Reinvest wealth

Build the first three levers and you will dramatically alter the slope of the Growth Phase of your career. You will start having more lucrative, interesting opportunities more often.

You will start building wealth. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be “wealthy”. It simply means that you will have more resources than you did previously.

Leveraging Mastery, Network and Brand to change the slope of your growth phase

This is where many people go wrong. There is a huge tendency for people’s standard of living to increase as they make more money.

It’s okay to have some increases. But just like you want to make sure you’re investing a portion of that income into retirement, saving or investing accounts, you should reinvest as much as you can back into your career. Specifically, you can invest them into the first three components of your flywheel.

This is how you bust out of the plateau.

Reinvesting your wealth into your Career Flywheel will further increase and accelerate the slope of your Growth Phase. But even more important, it has the power to delay or even permanently eliminate the plateau that you typically see in a Harvesting phase.

Reinvest your wealth to delay the plateau of your harvesting phase

What are some examples of investments you can make?

Increasing Mastery:

  • Attend conferences or take higher level courses that might have been prohibitive before.
  • Hire a part time assistant to learn management skills and to free up your time to focus on learning.
  • Make capital investments to accelerate your skills – better gear, etc.
  • Acquire new skills you didn’t previously have.

Improving your Network

  • Identify higher level people that you’d love to add to your network. Figure out the conferences they attend and go to them.
  • Create a travel budget specifically for visiting cities where these folks live to get coffee or lunch.
  • Use the resources to help your network in ways that might have been prohibitive before.

Build Your Brand

  • Hire someone to help you scale the creation and distribution of content.
  • Submit speaker proposals to conferences, even if you have to pay to go to them.
  • Level up your website.
  • Get nicer cards or better clothes.
  • Be like Garyvee and get a videographer to follow you around all day :)

Building your Career flywheel

Start building mastery. At the same time begin to cultivate a better network. Once you actually have something interesting to say, begin to create a brand. And use the income generated from the increases in those areas to reinvest back into your career.

Most of all, be patient. Everyone’s in such a hurry to be successful immediately. As a result they flit from thing to thing, looking for the silver bullet that leads to immediate success. Life doesn’t work that way.

Your Career Flywheel isn’t a one year endeavor. Plan to spend your entire career investing in building it. And plan to constantly reinvest back into it as you start to level up.

Track your time each week. Set a goal to spend 5% or 10% or 20% of your time investing in your Career Flywheel. Get a buddy to hold yourself accountable if you need to.

Putting in the work isn’t glamorous. It isn’t always fun. It will be slow going in the beginning.

But over time you’ll build momentum. Your flywheel will start going faster and faster. Eventually the momentum will carry you with it.

In 10 years you’ll look back and be completely blown away by the progress you’ve made. And you’ll know the next 10 years will be even more incredible. Your job will become to learn how to hold on for dear life without blowing everything up.

You will have achieved runaway career growth.

Thanks to Jon Klinepeter, Nick Seguin, Adam Haun, and Jenny Poore for reading drafts of this article.

Popular Posts