The career secret

What every successful person you know did in their 20s (and maybe 30s) that they never talk about.

One commonality between people who are successful in their 30s and beyond is that they have a passion for continuous learning. They’re always reading, meeting new people and are hungry to learn more.

These, coincidentally, are the same people who started their careers in roles (and on salaries) you’d probably laugh at. After all, why would you take a haircut on your salary when you’re in your 20s?

  • Why be a personal assistant to a lawyer when you could start RIGHT NOW as a paralegal?
  • Why join a startup as employee #25 when you could launch your own startup RIGHT NOW?
  • Why join Chipotle as a trainee manager when you could get a comfortable job as an accountant RIGHT NOW?

The simple answer is that they optimized the early part of their career to maximize their chance of learning, not salary.

They found a great boss who mentored them for 1, 2, 5 or even 7 years. They built a network around them of incredibly smart, hard working people. And they sacrificed a higher salary in pursuit of building a knowledge base that would serve as a foundation for the rest of their career.

As a result, they were able to absorb 10 years of real-world knowledge and experience in just a few short years, primarily by learning everything they could from their boss, who also acted as their mentor.

They potentially did this multiple times in their 20s and maybe into their 30s. They knew it would pay off in the end.

They understood that the most valuable form of currency when they were starting out was knowledge, not dollars. And they delayed gratification knowing they would be rewarded for doing what 99% of people wouldn’t — feeding their “knowledge bank” before feeding their wallet.

In their 30s, they started “cashing in” on that huge bank of knowledge they’d been building over the last 10 years.

They happened upon an idea that excited them, tapped into their network and used their reputation as a hard worker to build a team that got behind their vision.

They used their savings to bootstrap a company from nothing to something. They made mistakes, but keep trying and kept pushing forward.

After 10 years of sacrifice and relentless learning, they’d become an “overnight success” in the eyes of their friends, family and the media.

They must’ve “gotten lucky”, most people say.

They know things could be different for their friends, too, when they see them working long hours for a measly salary in their 30s and 40s.

They think back to most Friday and Saturday nights in their 20s, which they spent at home reading and learning, while their friends were out partying and doing what most people in their 20s do.

They wonder why their friends did things “backwards”, when they too could’ve sacrificed their nights out and a few nice things in their 20s to live a successful life on their own terms into their 30s and beyond.

“They” are most successful people I know.

This is their story and you don’t hear about it because it’s not interesting. It’s not fun. It’s reality and it’s based on hard work, learning and delayed gratification.

These are the three principles we need to teach out kids. They’re also the guiding principles every person who has ever achieved anything of merit will swear by when you ask them what’s responsible for their success.

The career secret is this:

When you’re getting started, always prioritize learning over salary. Find a great boss who will mentor you. 10 years from now you’ll thank yourself for making the sacrifice.
  • If you’re not learning and dramatically building up your knowledge base in your current job, find another one
  • If your boss is an asshole and doesn’t mentor you, find another one
  • If you’re prioritizing your current lifestyle over your future success, well, maybe read this post again — or not

How I applied this philosophy in my life:

  • I took a job in a fruit shop when I was 14 because the owner taught me the ins-and-outs of running a business that turns over $1M/year
  • I managed a Burger King (and ~20 staff) when I was 15 so I could learn how to manage people that were older than me
  • I took a job at Pizza Hut when I was 16 because I got to run the place from 5:30am until 8am when everyone else turned up
  • I took a job at a computer hardware repair company when I was 17 so I could learn about Novell and Windows NT on the job and get paid for it
  • I took a job at a PC retailer that wanted to sell online, so I could build their online store while learning ASP and SQL Server — this eventually led me to start Bigcommerce in 2009, which today employees 500 people and has well over 100,000 paying customers

Thanks to David Cancel for coming up with the name of this post.

Get my new book “SANE: How To Build Your Business Rapidly Without Going Insane” at 📚