This article by Dorie Clark first appeared at Harvard Business Review.
For my first real job after graduate school, I earned $26,000 a year as a full-time reporter. It wasn’t a handsome salary — in fact, I could barely live on it — but I was getting paid to write. That’s more than I can say about how I spend much of my time these days. For the launch of my first book, Reinventing You, I spent six months writing scores of articles and blog posts for various outlets, and giving talks at universities, bookstores, and businesses — a great deal of it for free.
And yet, despite the irony that, in some ways, I’m still doing my old job but without a paycheck, I’m now making (depending on the year) up to 10x more than my old salary. As Internet theorist Doc Searls has described, instead of making money “from” writing, I’m now earning it “because of” the exposure it provides me and the related opportunities generated in public speaking, consulting, and teaching executive education. On one hand, I’m moving backward: blogging (oftentimes) for free is pretty lame for a former professional journalist who has been writing for nearly 15 years. On the other, I’m more successful professionally and financially than I’ve ever been. What I’ve discovered in this age of disruption is that for many of us, the reason we’re not moving forward as fast as we’d like is, ironically, our fear of going backward.
If you really want to move forward successfully in today’s economy, it’s important to think long-term. In his recent bestseller about the hotel industry, Heads in Beds, Jacob Tomsky writes about his early days doing valet parking and other unskilled jobs. Thanks to cash tips, the money was good — the advancement potential, not so much. When he was tapped for a management position, he had a difficult choice to make. He’d be earning less money in the immediate future, but his long-term career prospects would dramatically improve. He ultimately agreed to move into the white collar ranks, but his dilemma highlights an important point.
The kind of dramatic professional advancement we’d all like to see — big promotions, the opportunity to work on high-profile projects, or access to interesting opportunities — only come around when we’ve made an investment in our careers. And that investment almost always involves foregoing short-term gratification and, indeed, appearing to take a step backward.
When it comes to moving your career forward, it’s important to set aside your pride. In Reinventing You, I profiled a successful retired HR executive named Deborah Shah. She had decades of experience behind her. But when she became interested in political campaigns, she was willing to start at the bottom, where the campaign needed her. She made phone calls so reliably and effectively, they soon recognized her abilities and asked her to become a regional field director, launching a new career.
You also need to weigh the opportunity cost. A consultant friend of mine spent months building relationships, doing research, and preparing a proposal to work with the UN. It’s a slow process and — if the contract failed to come to fruition — would have to be viewed as a massive waste of time and money. She was perfectly aware that time spent chasing this contract was time she wasn’t spending on other new business development. But she was willing to take that risk, because she knew that being able to claim such a prestigious global entity as a client would dramatically elevate her firm’s reputation.
We hear all the time from innovation and startup gurus that we have to be “willing to embrace failure.” What that really means is you must be able to afford to fail. Failure is expensive — in time, reputation, and money. But over time, the willingness to take chances (that may fail) is an investment in your future success. If you want to move your career forward, a long-term orientation, a willingness to subsume your ego, and a clear understanding of the choices you’re making will help you advance, even if — temporarily — it appears you might be falling behind.