Look around and you will struggle to find a person who doesn’t want to get ahead in life.
Progress is wired in our genes. It’s the reason we’ve gone from living in caves to flying spaceships in a (relatively) short period of time.
Now, “getting ahead” is probably as bad of a goal as you can set for yourself.
It’s not specific, measurable, or even achievable.
There will always be someone “ahead” of you in some department – whether it’s looks, health, money, or simply youth.
In other words, disappointment is inevitable.
But does that mean you should stop trying altogether?
After all, even the financial independence movement is a form of getting ahead in life.
Being more intentional when it comes to spending.
Doing a better job of managing your money.
And ultimately, retiring early to enjoy more free time than most other people.
The problem, however, is that getting ahead is pretty damn tough. If it wasn’t, you wouldn’t be reading this article.
Today, let’s run through some thoughts and ideas on how you can make it easier.
After all, this blog is all about disregarding the status quo in order to live a better, richer life.
We will start with what I call the “basics” – and discuss how conventional advice may be wrong, or simply misleading.
Then, we can work our way up to some of the more creative / contentious ways.
They don’t get nearly as much airtime as they should.
However, take a good look around and you will realize that really successful people use them all the time to supercharge their progress.
Off we go.
#1: Work Harder
Ahh, the good old epitome of the American Dream.
Work hard enough, and prosperity will come, right?
While it certainly worked for me, it’s undeniable that this dream has been under attack for a long time. There’s clear evidence of a decline in social mobility over time.
The far bigger problem with this approach, however, is that working harder only goes so far.
In a shocking discovery by the Goldman juniors, the week has a limited number of hours in it.
If everyone else is willing to work 100 hours a week, working “harder” becomes nigh impossible.
It’s a bit like having a business that competes on price.
Sure, some folks do it extremely well. But it’s one of the hardest strategies to execute – and therefore comes with a very high failure rate.
To be absolutely clear – there are a LOT of people out there who could work far harder than they currently do.
But this strategy has its limits.
#2: Be Better
This is the other end of the spectrum.
Work smarter, not harder, and all that motivational stuff, which also happens to be complete dross mostly superficial.
We all think we are better than average. But society just doesn’t work like that.
Only half of us are smarter than average.
If you paid attention in your math class, you’ll know that only 50% of people can be better than average drivers.
The same applies to good looks, sense of humour, ahem, investing, and any other dimension we might look to differentiate ourselves on.
Turns out, the only thing we are all really good at is believing that we are better than most other people.
The good news is that you don’t have to be better than others at everything.
The key is to figure out one or two specific things that you can do better than most other people.
For some folks, the answer will be clear – a function of innate talent.
For most others, it will take a proper analysis of their existing abilities, passions, and unique superpowers to understand where their angle might lie.
Then, you need to layer on lots and lots of effort to develop, refine – and ultimately monetize your skills.
#3: Be Consistent
My biggest frustration with “conventional” advice on getting ahead is that it’s full of tips like “refuse excuses”, “make time”, “celebrate your wins” and so forth.
I’m sorry, but none of this stuff will ever get you ahead.
But the one piece of conventional advice that does ring true is the theme of consistency.
Too many people oscillate between flashes of hard, inspired work – followed by long stretches of dispersed focus and mediocre effort.
You need to be realistic – it will take significant time for your efforts to compound and bear fruit.
If there’s one thing you can do to improve your chances of success in life, it’s to give something a proper shot for an extended period of time.
Now, let’s get into some of the more interesting topics.
#4: Ride The Trend
As a freshly minted MBA associate, it certainly took me some time to find my stride in the investment banking industry.
Landing in a bulge bracket institution, I quickly realized all the good slots were taken.
Most popular groups, industries, and clients all had their “incumbents” – and plenty of others angling to get in.
Competing head-on against people with experience and contacts was pointless.
Instead, I chose a smallish (at the time) sector that nonetheless was picking up steam and appealed to me personally.
I quickly became the go-to guy for a couple of young, sharp managing directors who were riding the rising tide. As their fortunes swelled, so did mine.
In just a few short years, the sector grew so much that all of a sudden, there simply weren’t enough mid- and senior-level bankers with the requisite industry knowledge to go around.
Our small group became the hottest commodity in town, pretty much dictating our own pay raises and promotions.
Eventually, we all dispersed around the City, poached by various banks to lead their coverage efforts in what has now become a “highly strategic” industry.
The funny thing, of course, is that now everyone is lining up to work in our industry. But what people fail to understand is that by the time they progress up the ranks, the fortunes will change again.
The successful bankers of tomorrow are not the ones who are in the hottest sector today. Instead, they are the ones finding their place in small, fast-growing, and profitable niches.
Regardless of what you do, you’d be well-advised to do the same.
#5: Find Champions
It’s comforting to think that as long as you work hard, eventually someone will notice – and reward you for your efforts.
It’s also utterly wrong.
I can’t say this enough.
Many folks wax lyrical about the importance of finding mentors. I don’t disagree – mentorship is important.
But mentors typically tend to be older, with more time on their hands (which is why they become mentors in the first place).
What you need (in addition to mentors) are champions.
These are people with the organizational power to get you paid – and promoted.
To be abundantly clear – these people don’t have time or the burning desire to help you along. They are too busy climbing the greasy pole themselves.
What they should have, however, is an understanding that if you were to leave, their own lives will get much harder – slowing down or even jeopardizing their own progress.
That’s what matters. Not you, not your hard work, not your aspirations.
Add enough value. Make it clear enough that you are willing to pack your bags if you don’t get what you want.
You’ll be surprised at how previously unattainable things are suddenly within reach.
#6: Bend The Rules
Let’s finish off on a controversial note. But first, a little story.
When I was a teenager, I had a friend whose father was a very successful businessman.
Originally a doctor, he gave up medical practice relatively early on in order to start his own business.
It proved to be the right move and he scaled the business up very quickly, enabling the family to live a pretty lavish lifestyle.
Multiple houses, supercars, private jet charters – that sort of stuff.
It was all going swimmingly for about two decades. Then, it turned out that business acumen was not the only factor in the company’s success.
Apparently, my friend’s father also had a knack for falsifying receivables, and “convincing” friendly bank managers to extend financing against those fake receivables.
He managed to keep the pyramid scheme going for a long time before things finally collapsed.
Last time I checked, he has still got more than a decade to go in a federal penitentiary.
Now, I am not trying to set you up for a trip to Club Fed anytime soon.
But many folks are willing to take the risk.
Like engaging in “proxy” insider trading.
Or helping dodgy individuals ransack a poor country’s coffers – and subsequently refusing to face the consequences.
The point here isn’t that you should or should not engage in such activity.
But you also shouldn’t compare yourself to people who might. At best, it will leave you frustrated.
At worst, you could find your own moral compass pointing in the wrong direction.
A wise person once said:
“It’s important to be able to look in the mirror with a feeling of contentment”.
Nothing wrong with getting ahead. Just don’t let the end justify the means – and change who you are in the process.
There are plenty of better ways of getting ahead in life.
Good luck – and thank you for reading!
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Banker On FIRE is an M&A (mergers and acquisitions) investment banker. I am passionate about capital markets, behavioural economics, financial independence, and living the best life possible.
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6 thoughts on “How To Get Ahead In Life”
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Good stuff, I followed a champion all the way from entry level to running the company. I was as much responsible for his success as he was for mine. He was visionary and I could execute any plan faster and error free, it was a great partnership right up until he was fired and I was given his job.
Hah, I guess that happens too!
At some point, the student becomes the master…
Hi, any advice on how to have and phrase that awkward conversation with your manager, along the lines of “if I don’t get what I want, I’m leaving”. I suppose line up a new job is step one…
Line up a new job (that you are willing to take).
Then have a heart to heart with your manager along the lines of “I love this company and really want to stay BUT the other job is offering (a), (b), and (c) and I’ve got a family to look after / career aspirations etc etc. What do I do? ”
And then just listen to what he / she has to say.
Now, if you have a good relationship with your manager, you can have a softer conversation without lining up a new job.
Provided you are getting good feedback, you can be polite (but firm) in saying that you are very focused on your career development (and pay) and outline the direction you want to take your career in.
If you are polite and pragmatic about it, your manager shouldn’t take it the wrong way. But if he does, it’s a sign you are probably better off moving.
Thanks, looking forwards to implementing your advice ?.