THERE is no shortage of books claiming to reveal the secret truth behind successful careers. Then there are all the podcasts, TED talks, late-night motivational speakers and your relatives’ sage advice.

The bottom line of most of these advice-givers? A successful career requires managing the person in the mirror – overcoming your tendencies and habits that can undermine efforts to find happiness at work. Read on to see what professors and researchers suggest for managing different situations, whether you want to improve your situation at work, if you suspect changes are coming down, or if you are making a go of it in the gig economy.

Build a Strong Foundation

There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career that you should be aware of whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement. There are some key fundamentals of building a successful career, whether you are just starting out, or are closing in on retirement. And they apply to all walks of life – if you are a butcher, a baker or a computer systems analyst. Fair warning, the following tried-and-true strategies will have little impact on what you do every day. They will not necessarily help you meet an assignment due by Friday morning, or complete a to-do list.

Instead, they are foundations that will give you a solid base on which to build a successful career that can withstand unexpected changes. These ideas will also help you put work and career in proper perspective, because there is a lot more to life beyond the daily grind.

The value of networking

There’s no getting around it: networking has an awful reputation. It conjures up images of self-absorbed corporate ladder-climbers whose main interest is, “What’s in it for me?” But there is almost unanimous agreement among researchers that building and nurturing relationships with people – current and former colleagues and people we respect in the business – provides a strong medium for a vibrant career and a cushion for when the unplanned happens.

Networking basics

The good news is that you already enjoy the benefits of networks, both formal and informal. Think of the people you work with every day, the people you’ll ask, “Why isn’t the printer working?” or “Have you tried the new coffee place down the street?” Think of this as your local network. Then think of co-workers you run into on a regular basis; these are people you have a working relationship with and know well enough to have an occasional conversation. You might call them your outer circle.

Networks provide a connection with fellow workers, an emotional link with someone who knows us. But they also provide a source of information or business intel – about your department, your business or your industry. In fact, it is often the distant links in your networks that provide the most value – such as helping you find a job. The sociologist Mark Granovetter makes a distinction between strong ties (close friends, family, co-workers) and weak ties (former classmates, ex-colleagues, people we know but not well). Your goal is to attend to these different relationships the way you might attend to a garden. They require some nurturing, some giving in order to receive. In other words, pay attention and put in some time.

How to get it started

If you sense your networking muscles need some exercise, here are a few ways to get started. In all these cases, you will often have to be the initiator. So get used to that idea.

  • Start small. When you run into a former co-worker at your place of business, say more than a quick hello. Try to take a moment and find out how they are doing. Jobs and responsibilities are always changing, and, quite frankly, it’s nice when someone takes a sincere interest in our lives.
  • Take a leap. Invite folks to drinks after work, or to join you in a company-sponsored volunteer effort. The thing here is just getting to know people a bit better beyond working hours.
  • Use social media. Social media is rightly maligned for so many reasons, but there’s no doubt it can be an effective career tool. Some social mediums can provide an effective and relatively painless way to reach out to people you know, especially those who have changed jobs. Think of a colleague or classmate you’ve lost touch with, and make contact with a simple “what’s new?” message. Relate a little (no more than a few sentences) on what you’ve been up to, and ask how they’ve been doing. The thing to avoid here is sounding, well, needy or creepy – that just confirms the worst stereotypes of networks.
  • Just be sincere. You are trying to re-establish connections with some old co-workers. And don’t take it personally if you don’t hear back; if your colleague wants to write back, he or she will.
  • Keep your profiles up to date. Whatever your feelings about social media, an outdated profile isn’t doing you any good.

Networking alone is not enough

The kind of networking described here is a slow and steady expansion of your social contacts in your company and industry. It has emotional benefits and it improves your business savvy.But it won’t instantly land job-seekers an interview with a CEO, or the chance to pitch a start-up idea to venture capitalists. Not that it can’t. Your friend from college might just know someone who knows someone, but often when we hear about people who have got a big break, it’s because they created something that got some notice.

In a recent essay, Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton School, urged that doing impressive work may be as important as networking skills: “In life, it certainly helps to know the right people. But how hard they go to bat for you, how far they stick their necks out for you, depend on what you have to offer. Building a powerful network doesn’t require you to be an expert at networking. It just requires you to be an expert at something.”

Stay informed

Careers thrive when people keep up with changes in their fields. In every endeavour there is new technology, new “best practices,” changing regulations and previously unforeseen challenges. This applies to both the skilled mason and the architect of office towers. Most jobs fall into a pattern over time – or at least they seem to – but in fact they are changing in incremental ways.

We may fail to anticipate the changes around the corner. Staying on top of changes in your field can keep your career on track and vibrant. You may see an unexpected opportunity when a job opening is posted. Or it may tell you that it’s time to get out of our job, before it changes for the worse.
The goal here: Keep your head up, and avoid falling into a rut.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.

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