I have an 8-year-old son who’s recently obsessed with earning money. More specifically, he wants his own iPhone, security/spy cameras for his room, and every nerf gun ever invented. Since his (incredibly evil and ungenerous) parents won’t buy all that for him, he’s decided he needs to get more money of his own.
But there’s only so much a child can earn from household chores, hawking lemonade, and delivering papers. Rather than show him how we can earn a little money right now, I’m more interested in teaching him to set himself up for a lifetime of enjoyment from a lucrative career.
Back in the day, that meant encouraging them to become doctors or lawyers or other old-timey professions that are historically well paying and stable. We don’t live in that world anymore, and even if we did it would be hard to convince them of that path when they see 20-year-old youtube stars buying “Lambos” from the cash they earn recording themselves goofing off in their parent’s McMansions. The social media generation has already ruined my son’s sense of hard work.
He found out that what he might earn from a year of chores, I earn in a single day, and flipped out at the unfairness. He wants a $100K+ salary without working. Geez, we’ve got a long road of life lessons to teach.
I’ve been reflecting on my own career to distil the fundamental lessons that I can pass on to my son, and I’ve been delighted to discover that the recipe for career success is so simple — anyone who can follow an episode of Paw Patrol (or whatever the hell it is they watch these days) can understand this formula.
These rules apply to anyone at any age, whether you’re 8, 18, or 28.
So here it is in all its simple glory. If you can find a single answer that satisfies these three questions, you’re well on your way to a lifetime of career success.
1. What do you enjoy doing?
Find a skill that doesn’t feel like hard work because you get so much enjoyment from doing it. It could be intellectual, emotional, or physical satisfaction. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you are to stick with it enough to satisfy question 2.
I enjoy collaborating with my clients to create impactful digital experiences.
2. What are you good at?
Find a skill that you excel at. Something you’ve got a natural gift for, or something you love enough to practice until you become a pro. You also need to get good at fringe skills that support it. For example, if you’re an artist, you’ll need to learn to market and sell your art too.
I’m good at combining strategy, design, and project management to uncover ideal design solutions efficiently. I’m also good at running a freelance business.
3. What offers significant value to others?
Find a skill that other people need, but they can’t or don’t want to do themselves. Your skill has value if it:
- Is difficult to master, therefore the average person won’t be able to do it as well as you.
- Is time-consuming, so people will pay you to do it for them because their time is too valuable to do it themselves.
- Is unappealing. They simply don’t like doing it so are happy to pay someone else to take on the job.
My skills are valuable because I’ve spent the past 18 years mastering my craft on real-world projects with measurable results.
4. (Optional bonus) What does the world need?
This isn’t always a necessity, but it can help strengthen your position.
Find a skill that the world desperately needs. Something fundamentally important. Timeless, not trendy. There are plenty of skills that can command good money but they don’t really add value to the world. Those skills won’t be in demand for long. If you’re building a career, make sure it’s a lasting one that will help advance our culture and civilization.
Two out of three ain't bad (but in this case it actually is)
Mark Twain famously said:
“Find a job you enjoy doing, and you will never have to work a day in your life.”
That may be true, but while you’re not working a day in your life you may also not be earning much money. Finding a job you enjoy doing only works if that job is also needed and valuable.
Just because you’re good at video games and you enjoy playing them, doesn’t mean you’ve got a lucrative career in it. That’s why the advice “follow your passion” can be so dangerous. A passion as a career is only useful if it’s also profitable.
Likewise, something valuable that you’re good at might not make a lasting career if you don’t also enjoy it. You may earn a lot of money but despise your work and burn out. Working hard on something you don’t care about is stress, while effort towards something you enjoy is fulfilling. The goal is to find a lucrative skill that you enjoy enough to stick with it for the long haul. The more you enjoy it, the more likely you’ll put in the effort to excel.
Or, if you enjoy doing something and it’s valuable to others, but you’re simply not that good at it, nobody will bother to pay you for your mediocrity.
You see, if your skill only satisfies two out of three sides of the equation, it can actually do more harm than good. You’ve got to find the balance of all three before you’re ready to build a career from it.
Get in the top 10% to start making the real money
This is where most people fall short. Finding the trifecta to those questions is the easy part. You’ve marked out the path, now you have to slog through it. If you thought this was a get rich quick scheme, you’re in for years of disappointment.
Let’s go back to the start. When you answered “what are you good at?”, who were you comparing “good” to? Are you good compared to your friends and family? Your peers or colleagues? Others in your town, city, state, country?
Are you just good, or are you great? Maybe even exceptional? Could you say you are better than 90% of the rest?
Being in the top 10% of your specialty is the goal for really, REALLY *making it* and turning your passion into a profitable career. Top 10%-ers are the ones who command envious amounts of money for the value they bring to their employers, clients, or customers.
Let me clarify this through a personal example:
I’m a designer, and I live in New Zealand. Am I in the top 10% of all designers in this country of 5 million people? Probably not.
The job definition and geographic area are both very broad, so let’s narrow things down more.
I’m a UX/UI designer, and I live in New Zealand. Now am I in the top 10% of my peers? We’re more specific, so maybe I am, but certainly not a shoo-in.
We still need more specificity.
I’m a freelance UX/UI designer, living in Auckland NZ. Now I can say with confidence that I’m in the top 10% at what I do.
You’ll recognise this as “finding your niche” (and here’s how I recommend you define yours). The smaller your niche gets, the easier it is to be in the top 10%. But if your niche needs to be tiny to propel you to the top, you won’t get enough work.
So what to do if you’re simply not in the top 10% in a reasonable niche?
The top 10% could include the value of combined skills, even if you're not the best at any of your individual specialties.
A personal example to illustrate this point:
I’m probably not in the top 10% of all UX designers in NZ. There are specialists who are way more experienced in research, user testing, etc. — I will never match their expertise.
I’m not in the top 10% of all UI designers in NZ either. Heaps of people from graphic design or branding backgrounds would be considered better pure visual designers than I am.
What makes me valuable — why I have countless satisfied clients and I can command high fees — is my combination of complementary skills. I can provide very good UX design, very good UI design, as well as very good project management and organizational skills. I’m good at my craft, but equally good at the professional soft skills that make me a confident and risk-free choice for my clients.
None of those skills on their one would put me in the top 10% of my niche. But when combined (into “Product Designer”) they are greater than the sum of their parts — and they make me a top 10%-er. Being “T-shaped” or a “specialised generalist” helps elevate your value.
Think outside the box to make non-traditional skills valuable
If even a combination of your complementary skills doesn’t push you into the top 10%, you may have to approach the equation from a different angle.
If selling your skills directly isn’t valuable enough, could training others in your skill offer a more lucrative opportunity?
Is there no local market or ecosystem to support selling your skills? You may have to create one!
Do you know your service is valuable, but it’s difficult to convince others? You may need to add new skills around marketing, storytelling, and sales to create the opportunity for a lucrative career.
Build your own business to get there faster
One problem I hear frequently is that people know what they want to be doing, but they can’t find a job that matches their needs. There aren’t enough employment opportunities or advancement paths that support the career direction these three questions provide.
The solution: create that job yourself.
Running your own business, even if you’re just a solo freelancer, can help you get on your path faster. It’s an opportunity to create the exact job that combines your strongest skills with the right customer niche, rather than waiting for someone else to offer you that dream position.
That’s exactly what I’ve done, and I’d never dream of being employed by someone else now that I’ve got a taste of that control.
I’m fortunate to have figured out my answer to these three questions years ago, and have spent nearly two decades building, adapting, and refining my career around what I enjoy, what I’m good at, and what’s valuable. I can honestly say that I enjoy nearly all of my job, so it feels like I’m hardly working at all.
Now it’s time to test my teaching and fathering skills. Will I be as successful passing this lesson on to my son? Can I help set him up for a career as enjoyable as mine? Only time will tell, but he’s still 8, and time’s on his side.