I envy people just getting started in their careers.
I envy people with no skills, no experience, and nothing to offer.
Because they have more room to learn and grow than somebody whose time is already valuable and already being used up.
You can create a machine that brings opportunities your way when you’re at this stage of your career. Machines are nice. Machines work. You set them up, you maintain them, and they do their jobs. The Opportunity Machine is a system and way of thinking for your career that, when properly set up and maintained, will bring new opportunities your way. You won’t have to scramble to find growth — growth will just happen.
The other day, I had the opportunity to be the closing keynote for the Going Deep Summit in Pittsburgh, PA.
During my talk, I spoke a little about my experience helping young people get started in their careers, starting my career myself, bringing on apprentices and mentees, and, perhaps more importantly, helping Very Busy People take things off their plates and become more effective.
When you’re young and you have few skills and experience, your time isn’t worth all that much. What are the highest-value things you can do and what happens if they don’t get done? You can study, you can go to your service job, and you can enjoy leisure time, that’s about it. If you don’t spend your time wisely, little happens. You may get a slap on the wrist or feel bad for wasting your time, but the world doesn’t end.
As you get older and more experienced, you take on new responsibilities. Your time becomes more valuable. You take these on either as a function of your skill or as a function of necessity. You may be the best person at managing a team of leaders, or the best person to develop a specific kind of product, or highly skilled in a specific trade or craft. Or, you may simply have people counting on you — family members, friends, creditors, or employees. If you don’t spend your time wisely, bad things happen. The product doesn’t launch. The meetings don’t happen. The inventory doesn’t sell. Your family goes hungry. Your house is repossessed. The bill collectors start calling.
The value of finding skilled mentors and advisors enters here. If you’re in the first group of people — people whose time isn’t all that important or valuable — you have an opportunity in front of you. The people in the second category — the Very Busy People — have to get tasks done. They know that some tasks are more valuable than others and require more skill, so they focus on those tasks. These are the managerial, skilled, and technical tasks. But their to-do list goes on for days and there are always items on it that need to get done.
For the low-time-value person, picking up the low-value items from the Very Busy Person’s list is still a value-add.
Imagine a young person who wants to become an artist. They find an artist who is successful in feeding themselves and marketing their art. They figure that, given that this person is relatively successful, their time is valuable and they probably don’t get everything done every day that they’d like to get done.
Instead of just reading about how to become a successful artist, they can email them and learn from that person directly.
Do Real Outreach
And instead of sending an email that just says, “let me help you!” (which is terrible, please don’t do that), they can reach out to that person and say, “based on what I know about successful artists like yourself, you could benefit from having a presence on this form of media/doing outreach for events/[something based on minimal Internet research].” I have put together a set of twelve high-performing email scripts available through this website at the bottom of the page.
Even if the aspiring artist is wrong in what they think the successful artist needs, the fact that they did some research and took the time to put together a clear proposal of what they can do is promising. Often, they’ll get a reply with an opportunity.
Now, instead of just reading about being an artist, they can learn directly from somebody already succeeding at the trade.
Apply this to most non-professional (i.e., Law, Medicine) career tracks and it works beautifully.
Why? It takes a value-added approach to career development. The value-added approach starts with humility in knowing that you don’t have a lot to offer but also confidence in being competent enough to find value.
Just the other day before my keynote, I was reading John Carlton’s book, The Entrepreneur’s Guide to Getting Your Shit Together on recommendation from a friend. Serendipitously enough, Carlton correctly notes that most incompetent people do not know they are incompetent. They think they are and are offended and shocked when they get negative feedback from their friends, peers, and managers. The good news for the young person with few skills is that this applies to a lot of people. A lot of people are incompetent. They cannot deliver on basic tasks. They cannot hit basic deadlines. They cannot admit when they are wrong and humble themselves to asking for help when necessary.
It does not take skill to be competent. It takes patience, time, and a desire to learn.
Competent people are worth their weight in gold. In my own career, I quickly ascended through the possibilities in front of me because I was competent. Once I got to the point where my time was too valuable to get done everything I wanted to accomplish, I searched high and low for an ultra-competent person. I found her and she is my go-to recommendation to anybody looking for somebody to get stuff done. I will cash in all of the social currency I’ve developed with other people for her and ultra-competent people like her.
Ascend Your Network
I’ll take that huge risk on her because she’s proven herself to me to not be a liability. I know that when I introduce her to somebody busier and more important than myself, she won’t embarrass me.
Not everybody is like that and well-connected people know this. They know that they cannot and will not do most introductions that people request of them because those people either have not proven their competence (or lack of being a liability) or they know that those people are liabilities.
If you are competent, though, you can quickly grow a world-class network by absorbing the connections of the Very Busy Person whose time you save and value you create.
As you pick up more skills and experience working for the first Very Busy Person you reached out to, you can specialize and focus more on what you want to do. Maybe the first person you started with no longer provides you with the opportunity you need to grow, so now you can do the same as above and leverage the skills and experience you gained with the first person to find a new mentor or advisor.
To steal a phrase from James Altucher, you upgrade mentors. If you never upgrade mentors, you aren’t growing.
There will always be people who are more specialized than you in some area you want to grow into or know more than you in that area. You will always be able to take something off their plates. The best people to start with are those who are successful enough to have full plates but not so successful to have butlers and armies of personal assistants.
This is the Opportunity Machine. Leverage your lack of experience and skills as an opportunity to take learning experiences off the plates of people more experienced and busier than yourself.
A Word of Caution!
There are really four types of people in the world and they’re all subsets of our two categories from earlier (people whose time is valuable and people whose time is not valuable).
Remember what I said about competence and that competence is hard to come by? Incompetence is not hard to come by. There are plenty of people who have low time value and are incompetent. There are plenty of people who have high time value and are incompetent.
If you’re a person with low time value and you end up working with somebody with high time value who is incompetent, you’re working with a Debt Slave. Debt Slaves have to get everything done because they sacrificed the future for the present. They may have literal debt and are fighting off creditors constantly. They may have social debt and live under fear of retribution. They may have health debt and are constantly ill and stressed out.
Avoid working with these people when you can. Beyond simply having fewer opportunities that really provide you with growth, they are poor models for how to think about the future. Remember that investment is sacrificing the present for the future. You need not be a pauper to succeed but do not learn from the Debt Slave how to get ahead.
The person to look for is the Very Busy Person (VBP). This person can be difficult to get in touch with but is the person who generally has their life together but can still value more help. They may have debt but they are no slave to their debt. Debt is a tool to them. They have skills and their time is valued.
Hawk your competency jealously. Do not become the lazy bum. There are plenty of people whose time is not valuable and are incompetent. The best they can do is just scraping by and they fail to hit (or even set!) deadlines.
Try to keep yourself in the position of the Opportunity Machine as long as you can. As you grow and succeed, you’ll transition over to being your own VBP, but when you aspire to hit continually larger-goals, you find relatively bigger VBPs. There will always be a bigger fish than you in some area of your life, humble yourself and search for opportunity.
Go Get It
Stop reading and go set up your own opportunity machine:
Figure out what you want to do. I have some sentence-completion exercises here that tend to help if you’re stuck at this point.
Find people doing it successfully. Find mentors, advisors, and coaches. If you can, work with the first and hire the third.
Reach out to them. Writing great emails can increase the likelihood you succeed. I also have some tested scripts available here.
Propose real solutions. Even if they don’t bite on those specific solutions, they’ll appreciate your persistence and specificity.
Be competent. Hit your deadlines. Reply to messages quickly. And be honest when you fail (as we all ultimately do).
Repeat. You’ll accrue social currency with this person as you take tasks off their plate. You can use this social currency to follow the same steps with people they know.
This piece was originally published at TheStartup.