How to use career models, case studies and biographies

Earning the freedom to work where and how you choose is not as straightforward as ticking a few boxes on a checklist, nor is it about replicating the strategies of others who have gone before you. In an ever-changing world, there is no guarantee that what worked yesterday will work today.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy makes the point that all happy families are alike, but unhappy families are unhappy in their own way.

Traditional career advice seems to apply this same theory – there’s this idea that, like Tolstoy’s happy families, all successful careers follow the same pattern. If you can’t make it work it’s not because the formula is wrong; it’s because you must have messed it up in some way. If you want to be the next Steve Jobs or Warren Buffett, all you need to do is find out what they did, and then do the same thing. Simple. Or is it…?

Earning the freedom to work where and how you choose is not as straightforward as ticking a few boxes on a checklist, nor is it about replicating the strategies of others who have gone before you. In an ever-changing world, there is no guarantee that what worked yesterday will work today. That being said, the experiences of others can be a useful starting point when it comes to thinking about your own career. In this article, we explore how to read career success stories and use the lessons to build your career strategy around one of six patterns we present here, each of which has a specific set of prerequisites, rules, pros and cons.

The ‘magic formula’?

There’s a reason we enjoy a good success story – who doesn’t want to be told that, if they just follow a certain recipe, they too can be a billionaire software mogul? These half-truths fuel the myths surrounding most traditional career advice. They are not entirely false because the implied factors – namely; work hard, work smart, and spot an opportunity – no doubt all play a role. However, from this it does not naturally follow that the same person in different circumstances would have achieved the same results. Luck always plays a role, for starters, and stories often ignore or downplay this key ingredient.

Consider this: If you were born in 1984 in South Africa and enrolled in a business degree immediately after high-school, you would have been able to enter the financial services industry by the year 2006. You would have had just enough experience to be useful and already a full-time employee at the time the Great Financial Crisis hit in 2008/9. If your company issued share options, and you were somewhat above average in performance, there is a good chance you would have received those shares at all time market lows in the first half of 2009. Those shares would have increased in value five to ten times over the following three years (as the crisis came to an end) and, with only three years of work experience, would have given you the financial freedom to make a wide range of career choices!

If the same person was born in 1986, making the same career decisions, they would have had a good chance of starting work in the first half of 2008, only to be retrenched under “last in, first out” rules during the 2009/10 job cuts. Alternatively they would have had to settle for second-tier roles below their worth, as many employers had hiring freezes in place at the time. Did the 1984 babies cleverly choose their birth year with impeccable timing? Of course not.This example clearly demonstrates one of the many ways in which life can be fundamentally unfair. And as Bill Gates said, “it’s better to get used to it!”

Perhaps with a more positive outlook, the person born in 1986 would have experienced various other personal or professional benefits that the 1984 baby was shortchanged on. We are all born into a unique set of circumstances. Career success depends on identifying the opportunities within our particular circumstances, and making sure we have the skills to take advantage of these.

Pay attention to the failures, but learn the right lesson

There are various “motivational“ stories that do the rounds, for example how Oprah Winfrey was fired from her first job as a news anchor because she was “unfit for television”, how Michael Jordan didn’t make his high school basketball team, how Walt Disney was fired from a newspaper job for “lacking imagination and ideas”, or how both Thomas Edison and Albert Einstein were told by teachers that they were “too stupid to learn anything”. The point of these stories is, ostensibly, to prove that “failure” happens to anyone at some time or other.

However, a problem with the way failure is discussed in stories such as these, is that it’s all too often seen as inconsequential: a minor blip on the road to inevitable success. On the contrary, failure is important because it is the mother of learning. Developing the healthy habit of respecting failure, without self-flagellating or feeling depressed, is an important multiplier skill (we’ll discuss these further in part 4 of this series). Learning from the failures of others, although second to learning from your own failures, is a good start. When you read career stories, pay attention to the failures and think through how and why they happened, what practical lessons could be taken from these, and perhaps most importantly: how it would feel to be in that position and still be able to carry on. Failures are often the most neglected – yet best – part of a story! For a great book on this topic, read Nic Haralambous’ Do. Fail. Learn. Repeat. (see our review here).

Luck plays a major role, but you can be good at getting lucky

Of course, those that a) worked hard, b) had better skills and c) knew how to take advantage of good opportunities did better than the rest. For starters, you need to graduate with decent marks. Following from the previous example, those 1984 babies who never graduated had no chance of being lucky in the same way, even if presented with the same opportunities. Those born in 1986 had a good chance of spending their first years out of tertiary education without a job. Without these crucial early years of experience, their options were even further reduced going forward. Essentially the point is that luck and skill interact in unpredictable ways, some of which cannot be controlled, but one can nonetheless be better equipped to deal with. Simply put: those who were better prepared were better at getting lucky.

How to read success stories

When done right, there is a lot of value in reading success stories. For example, in this series, the idea is to read actively and critically, not just settling for the superficial “feel-good” motivation that comes from hearing inspiring stories with happy endings. Rather, treat these as something to help you learn how to think about your career.

It is no coincidence that case studies of career success reads like a decent story. Good stories, if you pay attention, all follow a generic structure. When reading such narratives, one is unpacking their structures to understand the theme.

Each time you read a career story, you will find that:

  • The hero of the story identifies a problem context.
  • They identify what needs to happen for the problem to be solved (the situation).
  • They check that they have (or can develop) the strengths required to solve the problem.
  • With the right strengths as well as a bit of luck, they (and you) might just be on the road to a great career.
  • The part that they must discern is the “terms and conditions” that apply – at what cost is this success achieved? And what speedbumps exist along the way?

When you think about it with the above framework, stories of successful people are good in that they help you:

  • recognise when you have been presented with an opportunity
  • find where to look for one
  • have some idea of what to expect

Here is an example:

  • Situation: big mergers are complex and require multidisciplinary skills – lawyers, accountants, tax experts, and strategy experts to name a few. A very limited number of people possess a combination of these skills, and those who do don’t always work well with others – often they only respect people who “speak their language.” If there was someone who could orchestrate these individuals and knew enough about each area to be able to get the best out of each of them, they would be of high value in such transactions.
  • Ticket to success: “I am good at joining the dots and have the ability to learn what is required to become an orchestrator for such a situation.”

(Side note: this is what Jesse Watson did to become one of the youngest equity partners at Webber Wentzel. To hear more about his career strategy, check out his interview for LifeCheq Exclusive).

In a sense, when you read the above story you are trying to understand this person’s career canvas and see what themes, or formulae for success, you can learn from it. It’s also important to understand the element of luck involved: Which waves did they ride? What twists of fate might be hidden in the story? Asking such questions helps you get better at thinking about and understanding what makes a good career.

Autobiographies of successful people can also be useful because they give us some ideas of various situation types. There are many themes that one can detect and the stories in these fit one of a set of patterns. Finding a story or pattern you identify with is a great way to organize how you think about your career and career moves. The pattern represents a way to play the career game. But here’s the thing: each pattern has its own rules and – as always – terms and conditions apply. For starters, you have to have the right strengths for that pattern (your ticket to the game) and secondly, you need to know where such a pattern works well and where it does not (i.e. what type of situation would this pattern work for).

Don’t count on knowing what exact pattern to follow just yet. What you want to do is train yourself to spot and understand these in other career stories, and to have this way of thinking shape how you consider your career strategy going forward. As your career advances, you’re likely to develop a stronger sense of which pattern resonates with you. It’s as if you are on the highway and there are many off-ramps coming along your journey. At some point you’ll need to take one and therefore you need to know where they all lead, but for now you can just enjoy the drive – so long as you’re actively thinking, reading and learning. There is still time – even if you feel you are far along on your career already, you still have many years ahead of you and many big decisions to make.

Choosing the pattern that works for you

Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, talks about different patterns that entrepreneurial companies follow to success. In the book The Startup of You, LinkedIn Co-founder Reid Hoffman explains how to use the lessons that have helped build successful startups as a way to think about your career. Clayton Christensen (author of the bestselling The Innovator’s Dilemma) makes a similar point in his later book How Will You Measure Your Life?.

Drucker’s framework, with some modification, fits quite well with how one thinks about career strategies in broad sense.

The following profiles outline the typical ‘ticket’, ‘situation’, and ‘terms and conditions’ that might apply to following the pattern in question. Take some time to read through the following, and without overthinking, see which one you resonate with most. This is likely the pattern that you would most easily follow in your career, the one that will naturally flow. These are not like horoscopes – you aren’t born with a pattern in your star sign. It’s quite possible (and maybe even likely) that you might change them as you go along, or that you might find more than one that you resonate with.

  1. The Baddest You are aiming to be one of the best in your world at something. You are the one to break new ground and go for the records. You operate in a world in which the dimensions of performance are well-known and the game is competitive. This is often what people imagine when they think of classic success – however it’s just one of many ways to play the game.
    • Ticket: You already have a knack for something (perhaps you have amazing programming skills or played provincial rugby as a teenager). Often a ticket doesn’t require just one strength but the right combination of two or three.
    • Situation: There is a clear need for this skill, and there is a clear way to tell who is better than whom. It doesn’t work if a popularity contest is a bigger factor than merit in this skill (unless you’re in politics).
    • Terms and conditions: If you aren’t near the top, you’re not likely to have a great career – games where “the baddest wins” tend to be winner-take-all games, for example competitive sports. If you’re not going to be a Springbok, play at provincial level or in a major league, you won’t make enough income as a rugby player to achieve financial freedom. You need to enjoy it enough to be willing to make sacrifices and do what it takes to get to the top – or is the person next to you willing to do more?
  2. The Creative/Inventor You enjoy focusing on your ability to produce unique and original creations for people. Success here is less about competition and more about expression. Each project or problem you tackle is different – you can be a creative in almost every area by being a good problem solver. You are paid for your style or approach to things, and someone else won’t do it quite like you do.
    • Ticket: You often hear the you have good taste or a good style with something and there is a group of people (excluding your mom – sorry!) who already like your work. You are good at coming up with novel ideas.
    • Situation: The people who are going to be paying you value differentiation and variety, and therefore there is room for many styles. No one is really ever categorically “the best” painter or musician. Styles come and go, everyone has their fan base, and there’s room for plenty.
    • Terms and conditions: Although there isn’t a definitive “best”, the same circumstances that create room for many creatives can also make the space crowded with variety. This is why successful creatives often have independent fan bases, or work as freelancers. If you can’t make it work independently then it’s down to your relationships with your main customer or employer and your ability to understand their tastes as opposed to being able to express your own unique style.
  3. The Perfecter You’re not the one to come up with an idea, but one of the first to recognise the potential in something and see what is missing for it to take off – as well as supply these missing pieces. You’re the Ray Croc of McDonalds who didn’t invent anything but saw what the McDonalds brothers were doing before they even did! He had a grand vision, bought it from them, and supplied the logistics, financing and supply chain infrastructure required to turn that single shop into a multinational powerhouse.
    • Ticket: Being a successful Perfecter requires you to: 1) expose yourself to many ideas, people and situations to find the raw material you need to work with and 2) be able to identify and supply whatever is missing to make something really work.
    • Situation: There is already a need, there’s already a working solution and people are willing to pay for that solution – BUT, for some reason, things have not quite worked out yet. Another person is required to bridge the gaps in order for it to come alive. Jesse Watson, as mentioned earlier, is a classic Perfecter. Perfecters spot the opportunity where no-one else saw it coming.
    • Terms and conditions: If you make the wrong call about what is missing or whether the opportunity can realistically take off, you’ll have little to show for it. Expect and learn to live with frustration whilst you tinker with various ideas. Ray Croc was 55 when he bought and begun expanding the McDonald’s chain after having tried a variety of other endeavors. In all likelihood you will also need to do a fair bit of trial and error. Keep in mind that the pieces you’re working with are not yet assembled for a reason.
  4. The Niche Operator
    • Ticket: You have specific knowledge of something that is important but not particularly interesting to your customers. It is something that you, for whatever reason, find intriguing – and is also not easy for others to figure out. This can range from manufacturing optimal sealants for coolant containers or noise cancelling algorithms in telephone systems. Because it’s “boring” to the masses, you won’t have a flood of new entrants into your field every year. Because it’s important, you won’t have trouble getting paid – they’d much rather pay you than have to worry about it themselves.
    • Situation: This problem already exists and is known to be an important issue (no one needs convincing that industrial coolant containers should be sealed properly). The people who have the problem can afford to pay to have it fixed, and there aren’t enough people to fix it.
    • Terms and Conditions: The greatest risk a Niche Operator faces is the threat of their niche disappearing. Suppose, for example, someone invented a new way of keeping engines cool, rendering coolants unnecessary. As a coolant sealing specialist, your “cheese” would be promptly relocated beyond your reach. You therefore need to plan for not only ensuring that you continue to be good at what you do, but also plan for the possibility that something unexpected can change your line of work as you know it. It is highly advised to keep abreast of trends that will affect your field – as well as to move onto a new niche well before any disruption hits you.
  5. The Repackager
    • Ticket: You have a knack for understanding how customers think about things that already exist around them. You can frame concepts in a way that motivates action. You’re the person in a meeting that can rephrase what someone just said, and it suddenly sounds refreshed. You are drawn to sales, marketing, and the psychology of the consumer.
    • Situation: A problem exists, it is known, and the solution exists too! However the best current solution still is not quite in the right form. There are no gaps that need to be filled, however the existing ‘gaps’ are in the wrong packaging. It’s knowing that households in rural areas will buy more Omo if it’s in smaller packets than if you try and sell a discounted bulk box, even if a textbook graduate says otherwise. You know how the customers think about their weekly budget and how they manage their money, and that it’s not necessarily the same as consumer behaviour in supermarkets. Another famous example is Gillette who sold their shavers at a loss, but charged for the blades and beat many other would-be competitors who had the same quality kit.
    • Terms and Conditions: Because you’re not inventing or perfecting, your scope for operating is quite a bit smaller. You need more elements lined up before you can be effective. It’s essential to have a solid network of people who supply whatever you can repackage directly to you, otherwise you need to work in a set up where everything else is working just fine. If you don’t have this network, aren’t in the right environment, or don’t hone your skills for understanding, framing and communicating, you’re likely to find yourself job hopping frequently whilst trying to find the right fit.
  6. The Maven
    • Ticket: You naturally gather people around you. You have your ear to the ground, you’re convincing as well as a good storyteller. You know how to get things done – even when what is needed isn’t exactly your skill set. You can quickly understand the situation and organise people to bring something to fruition.
    • Situation: there are many people that will benefit from knowing each other (or from having access to the right information flow). Both sides would benefit but are losing out because they haven’t found each other or made the right connection yet. You can make this connection – or are able to build the flow of information that allows for them to do this. Sometimes you can do this in a specific domain (headhunting in a niche industry, or as an investment banker or consultant where you need to have access to certain information), or you can do it across multiple domains that involve the same community or group of people.
    • Terms and conditions: You must constantly be investing in your network and various grapevines to stay relevant. If the connections you provide can exist without you, then no one will pay you for them. In addition, reputation is everything – this is true anywhere but doubly so here. Being a Maven is likely to be a long game, and it is unlikely you’ll be very mobile. However, once you are established, it is very difficult for someone to compete with you. A top tip going forward is to remain adaptable and stay ahead of trends.

The way to understand these various profiles is that not all careers have to follow such patterns, however the most successful ones generally do. There is plenty of room for careers that are good but not great. What is most important is that you’re getting enough of what you need from your career to have what you want from life. If you are not, then familiarising yourself with these patterns, as well as identifying what resonates most, is a way in which you can perhaps find more clarity and direction.

Wrapping up

Career models come in many forms; from what you read to people you meet or hear about. Remain open and curious. Ask people about their experiences and you’ll be surprised at how open they are to grabbing a coffee. One conversation over the course of half an hour could be the start of a wonderful career journey. What do you have to lose?

One of the most important takeaways from this series is that following the traditional model of career success is a thing of the past. Instead of following a cookie-cutter formula, it is important to familiarise yourself with various case studies of success, where people have learned from their failures and moved forward to carve their own paths. Part four of this series enables you, as the reader, to put all of this theory together to develop your own career strategy. This strategy is not a set of directions, but rather an overarching set of goals and preferences that will allow for movement between various pursuits and will stand the test of time.

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