Part I: The Invincible Career Path

Part I: The Invincible Career Path

Chapter List

Rule 1: Do Not Map Out Your Career
Rule 2: Discover Your Talents Early, and Discard Your Fantasies Immediately
Rule 3: Maintain Pervasive Professional Flexibility
Rule 4: Get Lucky
Rule 5: Promote the Organization, Not Yourself
Rule 6: Connections Get You a First Chance, but Never a Second One
Rule 7: When You Suffer a Setback, Come Clean and Bounce Back
Rule 8: Learn to Take a Punch
Rule 9: Work is a Member of the Family
Rule 10: Find a Job that You Look Forward to Every Day

Part Overview

The first step to becoming a professional with staying power is to understand how top executives plan their careers. I studied their answers to questions like, How early did you know what you wanted to be in life? How focused were you on particular career goals? How big a role did luck play in your success? How did you know when to make your move? How have you handled failures or setbacks? Here are the fascinating answers that invincible executives gave to these and other questions about their career paths.

Rule 1: Do Not Map Out Your Career


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When you were starting your career, did you have a "career plan"?

Yes: 5 percent

No: 95 percent

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In 1982, I met a supremely confident, arrogant, and highly intelligent young student at Harvard Law School. His name was Gary. One day at dinner, Gary lectured me on the keys to professional success. He said that the way to guarantee a great career was early planning and unbridled focus on specific goals. He then proceeded to announce that he would be on the prestigious Harvard Law Review by the end of the school year. He said that within twelve years, he would become a Republican senator from his home state of Kansas, just like his idol Senator Bob Dole. Gary said that within twenty-five years, he would "make a run" for the presidency. "You have got to know what you want and then go get it, Tom," he said, using words echoed by so many present-day gurus. He spoke with convincing conviction.

And sure enough, a few years later, Gary did "make a run." A run for the border. He had just jumped bail on federal drug and gun trafficking charges. It seems that when his law practice did not immediately get him the wealth and glory that he sought, he turned to smuggling cocaine from Colombia. Eventually, the authorities apprehended him and he spent several years in prison. The man who had planned to be the symbol of our Stars and Stripes settled for the stripes. His sense of personal conviction resulted in a criminal conviction. What happened there?

The Problem of Focus

Gary was too focused. Invincible executives are not. During my many interviews of dozens of extremely successful people, one point that immediately hit me between the eyes is that invincible executives, while highly ambitious, rarely had specific, long-term career plans. Even more interesting, most believe that an intense focus on specific career goals is counterproductive to success.

I had a fascinating discussion on this issue with Gary's idol, Senator Bob Dole—a man who has lived most of Gary's dream. Senator Dole started out as anything but invincible. He suffered a permanent disability in World War II. He fought back from his health problems, and by the 1950s he had become a prominent local Kansas politician. After the senior U.S. senator from Kansas retired, Dole ran for U.S. Senate and won. Eventually, he became the Senate majority leader. Then he had a couple of setbacks. He ran for president in 1996 as the Republican nominee and lost. He also fought and beat prostate cancer. However, despite these setbacks, Senator Dole immediately resurrected his career as a major charitable fund-raiser, bestselling author, good-humored spokes-person for a series of high-profile products, and the effervescent husband of his high-flying political wife, Elizabeth. Senator Dole is a person who, despite serious health problems and political setbacks, has always seemed to emerge on top. At seventy-nine, he remains as well known and as popular as ever. This soldier has not faded away.

Like so many other successful people with whom I discussed the issue, Senator Dole told me right up front that he never had a career plan. After World War II, he was something of a local hero in Russell, Kansas, and that inspired him to try to make something of his life. Yes, he had ambition. But there was never a map; he never sat down and said, "This is what I want to be." He did not think much about becoming a U.S. senator when he was a state senator. And he did not think much about the presidency until President Ford picked him as his running mate in 1976.

"I think it was almost an accident that I got into politics," says Senator Dole. And once he got into it, he did not have a "step-by-step process" to get him to the top. Senator Dole believes that saying "I am going to be this or that" is just not the way success works. Success is simply not a "mappable quality." His words were echoed by former Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, who told me that, when he was a young state legislator in Wyoming, he recalls a group of aspiring politicians who all said they would be governors or U.S. senators some day. Simpson, however, never said anything of the sort. As for those who did make these statements, "none of them made it," Simpson said. "They disappeared." Anyone with the arrogance to tell others what he or she will be in a decade is setting himself or herself up for a fall, according to Senator Simpson.