I’m excited to have Sid Jha—writer of Sunday Snapshots and recent graduate of my alma mater, Northwestern University—joining us this week for a collaborative post. Sid publishes his newsletter later today, so there’s still time to subscribe so you can get it in your inbox.
I met Sid nearly three years ago after he cold emailed me around Thanksgiving 2017 (more on that email in a bit). We’ve done a nice job staying in touch ever since. In turn, our relationship has blossomed. Sid has helped me think through what it takes to write a great newsletter and grow my audience (he’s just crossed the 1-year mark of consistent weekly writing). I’ve helped Sid untangle his professional thoughts by acting as a sounding board to help him frame and make important career decisions.
Today, it’s only fitting that Sid and I are teaming up to write this week’s post about career growth, networking, and professional development. We hope you enjoy it.
Now, today’s grid:
Before we jump in, let’s acknowledge the obvious: knowing how to build a career that’s meaningful and successful is tough. Often, it’s because we don’t understand what’s the next best action to take. There are so many things we could be doing. The tricky part is deciding which one is most valuable and worthy of our time?
Sid and I don’t claim to have all the answers. Even as we write this, we’re confident we could be better at professional development. It’s an ever-evolving skill—especially as the technologies and activities that fuel growth change often and rapidly.
That said, through our experiences writing online, networking, coaching our friends, going to events, and engaging actively and meaningfully on social media, we’re excited to share our view on how to prioritize your time for professional gain.
When you’re thinking about career growth, there are three things you should strive to achieve in any activity you choose:
Alignment — Does the activity help you achieve your “five year plan?”
Focus — Does the activity help you better identify your long-term career goals?
Growth — Does the activity help you improve?
Before you partake in any project to help advance your career, ask yourself if doing so provides alignment, focus, or growth. If not, go no further and try a different path.
On the x-axis, we have time commitment. This is the amount of time spent per career building activity. Is it as simple as having a 30-minute conversation with someone you don’t know? Is it as intense as creating an online writing or design portfolio?
On the y-axis, we have scalability. This is the expected potential reach of your career building activity. Are trying to reach a niche, but powerful audience? Do your efforts lead to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people knowing your name or your viewing your work?
Understanding the Grid
Every quadrant on this grid can help you grow your career. Full stop. There’s a common misconception that great professional development takes a lot of time and requires a large network. That’s a fallacy.
Here are some trademark examples of people who are bad at professional development:
Someone who spends lots of time and reaps minimal rewards
Someone who isn’t meeting new people every month
Someone who appears as if they’re trying too hard to impress, aka #ProfessionalTeachersPets
Someone who isn’t learning, growing, or thinking in new ways
None of these are directly caused by having a small network or not enough time. While there are numerous ways in which you can grow your career via your current role, today we’re focusing solely on opportunities that exist outside of your day job.
Your career building activity requires a large time commitment and has a potentially large audience. Finding success in this quadrant requires dedicated consistency. That’s because online publishing—through any medium—has a snowball effect. The more you hit publish, the larger your impact should grow. When you have a collection of content to your name, it has a positive psychological effect on anyone who discovers your work. It demonstrates your ability to prioritize, think creatively, and build something from scratch. It introduces you to new people, ideas, and opportunities as you showcase your skills.
There simply is no excuse to not get started. Everyone is knowledgeable about something, and startup costs nowadays are near zero. There are an assortment of technologies such as Substack, Medium, Sounder, Anchor, Carrd, Notion to leverage. These tools can have you start writing a newsletter, crafting a portfolio, or recording a podcast in mere minutes. This pays dividends down the road. When applying to a new job, a hiring manager now has 10x+ more material to make a decision compared to someone without online content. Plus, it can unlock plenty of opportunities. David Perell said it best:
Common Examples: Podcasts, Newsletters, Articles, Blog Posts, Video, Creative Portfolios
Your career building activity requires a large time commitment and has a relatively small audience. Your work in this quadrant is usually seen by just a handful of people. This makes the endeavor high risk and high reward. Think about times in which you worked over the weekend on an interview project for a new job opportunity or an article for a trade journal. Success is out of your control. You simply aren’t sure if your effort will be rewarded. You can only do your best and hope the intended audience receives your work well. By betting on yourself, you’re putting yourself in a position to win. In certain cases where you have the chance to impress a decision maker—someone who has the ability to hire you or unlock a closed door—go all in. These types of people can transform your growth trajectory from one that’s linear in shape to exponential. While not every activity in this quadrant will yield success, the ones that do will be key pivot points in your career. While your entire professional development strategy should not be composed of only professional bets, having one to three per year gives yourself a chance to strike gold.
Common Examples: Interview Projects, Articles in Law Reviews or Trade Journals, Online Classes, Patents, Graduate School Applications
Your career building activity requires a small time commitment and has a potentially large audience. This is the lightning rod approach to career development. These activities are low risk, low probably of success, but high reward. Finding success in this quadrant demands iterative work. While no individual effort here takes that long to complete, it can take a long time of trying to be viral, before something actually clicks. Be the karate kid—wax on, wax off.
Just this week, a friend of mine, Jeff Eisenband, struck gold on Twitter. It took just nine words for him to go viral:
Within 24 hours, athletes, teams, and journalists had shared their most boring moments. With viral content, you don’t know what will become a hit and what will be a flop, the trick is tinkering and trying new things every day. Put yourself in an opportunity to win. The result for Jeff—a moment of Twitter fame and hundreds of new followers added to his account. You can’t make Attempted Virality the only thing you do to grow your career, but mixing this into your strategy can create moments where you leap frog your competition.
Common Examples: Funny Tweets, Summarizing Books/Podcasts/Articles, Breaking News on Social Media
Your career building activity requires a small time commitment and has a relatively small audience. In the eyes of college students, there’s no event more anxiety-provoking than a career fair. They’re awkward. They’re competitive. However, they’re incredibly powerful if you go in with a clear set of goals. Instead of aimlessly walking in circles and being afraid to talk to anyone (we’ve both been there), go in with a strategy. Here are two we’ve used: Don’t leave the event until you’ve met three new people or have a conversation with one person who works at a target company. Once you’ve reached your goal, you’re allowed to leave. It’s that simple. Next time you go to a similar event, set your goals higher. Can you meet five new people rather than just three? The idea is to grow your network to grow your mindset. Open new doors for yourself by introducing new points of view into your life. With technology, it’s easier than ever to do this—you don’t even need to leave your home. Check out Meetup or Axios Events to find online (or in-person) networking events. Use services like LunchClub to set up 1:1 conversations. Don’t be afraid to email or direct message people on Twitter or LinkedIn to set up a 30-minute conversation. That’s how Sid and I got connected. He sent this cold email:
There are so many things Sid did right here to make me respond:
He had a great subject line with something (two things) we both had in common: data science and Northwestern.
He optimized for mobile. The email was six sentences total. Brief + Respectful = Reply.
He was direct. I had a clear understanding of what Sid was trying to achieve both by emailing me and during our potential conversation.
He was respectful. He acknowledged I have other priorities and even thanked me for opening his email at all.
Never underestimate the power of a 15 to 30-minute conversation. While they aren’t widely scalable, they have led to interviews, job offers, products recommendations, decision-making frameworks, and a ton of friendships.
Common Examples: Career Fairs, Networking Events, Industry Lectures, 1:1 Conversations
There are three shortcomings with this grid:
It ignores the “bottom of the funnel.” Much of what we’ve discussed today is about how to grow the “top of the funnel,” or drive people to your professional brand. What is missing here is what to do when these activities are successful. How do you nurture new relationships? The oversimplified answer: send update emails every six months—that’s how Sid and I have stayed in touch (with each other) and other professionals in our network.
It assumes you need others to advance your career. Not every person has the same career growth aspirations, which would make this grid obsolete. Some professions require lots of guidance. Others are more self-sufficient. Nevertheless, if you find yourself confused about what to do next, asking others who have come before you is always a good idea.
It assumes you’re in the first act of your career. These tips are most effective if you are still defining your career goals, ambitions, and vision. As you progress in your career, the marginal impact of each of these tips will decrease. Rather than using the entire grid, your' best strategy could be using just one quadrant.
Do you think about career development differently? There are so many ways to build new relationships and expand your thinking. Using this grid is just one way to help organize the numerous ways we can spend our time for professional gain. Please reach out if you’d like to share your approach. We’d love to hear from you.
Life’s only as confusing as you let it be,
Ross & Sid
If you enjoyed today’s Gridology post, please consider forwarding it to your friends, family or colleagues. If you want more from Sid, please subscribe to his newsletter or give him a follow on Twitter. As always, please reply back to this note if you have any feedback or any ideas for a post.