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The psychology of making huge career jumps

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Some observations on making huge career jumps, your friends, and your own psychology…

It’s easy to go through your career taking the same paths others did before you. But small, simple tweaks can make a huge difference in your lifetime.

One of my readers, Alexander, writes:

“I’m reviewing NIH grant proposals right now and seeing your tweets made me think of something that might interest you — doing the “expected” career progression instead of the one that makes sense. Typically, biologists who want to do research as a career go to grad school ($22K annual stipend; I did this part and learned a tremendous amount) for 5-6 years and then do a postdoctoral fellowship ($40K salary; ridiculously low wages for someone who is now a subject matter expert in their research area) for up to 6 more years before becoming assistant professors ($65-70K or so starting). I skipped that postdoc stage and I’m currently a 33-year-old “senior scientist” with my own research grants, etc (the normal age for that career point is about 42). Although there’s certainly the usual mix of luck and me maximizing my exposure to luck in my having leapfrogged that whole postdoc phase, the thing that I find really jarring is this:

When I talk to friends and acquaintances who are going through grad school now, they frequently don’t even want to entertain the possibility of making this kind of “jump” themselves. I’ve tried to pitch them on it, and been told, “It doesn’t work that way.” When I offer myself as proof, I’m told, “You’re a special case.”

I though that might interest you, given your appreciation for the psychology of success. I’ve personally found it a little tiring, although I have realized that the set of peers I chose to spend time with in grad school match my outlook, which makes sense — I picked positive, productive friends (who are now doing quite well in positions at consulting firms and major biotech companies). Still, I find it odd that people don’t like the idea of jumping ahead if it’s demonstrably possible.”

Few things I’ve noticed:

  • I used to hear friends complain about money, and I would rush to tell them what to do. Even when I knew the objective “right” answer, they never, ever listened to me. Instead, their eyes glazed over and they ignored me. Eventually I started resenting them for not listening (which is a ridiculous reaction on my part). After 1.5 years of this, I decided to implement what I called the Honey Pot Strategy, where I let the right people come to me, via this blog. It has been a miraculous change. People are smart: Only the right people come, and the wrong people realize this site isn’t for them, and leave (that’s why I don’t mind when people say they’re unsubscribing from this site). Read more: Bob Bly, the noted copywriter, writes about why he never gives unsolicited advice.
  • People feel comfortable putting others into buckets. “Oh, you study economics” or “Ah, you’re a product manager.” I do it. You do it. We all do. But when you start doing something “weird” like doing a side job, or earning $1,000 on the side, or even doing a free internship, people generally get uncomfortable. There are a variety of reasons for this, but the most important result is that it makes us question what we’re doing. Yet if you think about it, why would you care what people who are not doing what you want to do say? The reason, of course, is we are profoundly social, and our reference groups are broad. Even if I think your job sucks, you’re still my friend, and I’m still influenced by your judgment. In some of my advanced courses, I teach people how to deal with this.
  • Doing offbeat, “weird” things early in our careers can produce huge rewards. Witness this blog, my comedy blog “Things I Hate,” or even the “You have died of Dysentery” t-shirt that I created. None were created to make money. Yet each one played a pivotal role in opening up doors. The challenging thing about doing offbeat, weird things is that there’s potentially huge upside, but you don’t know for sure. In general, people don’t like doing things that don’t have a clear ROI, especially as they get older. That’s why people consistently ask, “Can you guarantee I’ll make $1,000 in Earn1k? How do you KNOW that taking people out to lunch will work?” You don’t know. Otherwise everyone would do it.


See how Jeff Bezos thinks about doing weird, offbeat things in his regret minimization framework.

I cover specific tactics in my writings on entrepreneurship, my entrepreneurship bookmarks, and my Earn1k course.

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  1. I had been looking for a new post! I really like this post…classic Ramit and, of course, thought provoking. We really are only bounded by what we think we can do. Thanks for the reminder 🙂

  2. How did alexander the scientist leapfrog the post-doc stage and go straight to assistant professor? I’m very curious as how he did so!

  3. Interesting blog post! The links were the best part. I may use a couple of these for an upcoming post. 😉 (Of course I will credit you.)

    Love Bezos. He really understood that he needed to take the leap. Most do not have the courage.


  4. It’s great that Alexander found something that works for him, but this post is misleading. It is highly unlikely he will *ever* get a tenure-track position. He’s not an assistant professor, he’s a research scientist. It’s very difficult to step outside of the traditional track of academia for a period of time and then get back on it later.

    Though it’s great that he’s earning a decent salary at 33, he’ll probably never be a tenured professor, and there are certain undeniable benefits that come from that (complete job security, respect). If he’s decided he doesn’t want that, it’s cool, but all those people spending 6 years on postdocs are working towards a very different goal than the one he obtained.

  5. A lot of people don’t want to get constructive advice from people who actually succeeded. They come up with ways to avoid being taught and led into the correct direction.

    I also know from personal experience that doing other things early in your life, outside the social norms, can lead to expertise in different fields – which become very handy in allowing you to make career jumps.

  6. Wow, I know biologists in their 5th year of Post Doc and I am really curious how Alexander made it…

  7. So right about putting people in buckets. Also, if you don’t fit the description of what people think that you should be doing with your life you make people uncomfortable and even hostile. Part of it is jealousy, and part of it is our crab-like nature to pull back others we think are getting “ahead” of us.

  8. Ramit asked me to pop by and comment. Briefly, I think I’ve benefited from being open-minded about career options; when I finished grad school I looked into several postdoc opportunities, interviewed with consulting firms, and just nosed around and ended up where I am now. I think it generalizes to ‘not assuming things need to happen in a certain way.’ By being open to more options, I’ve exposed myself to a lot more ‘good luck.’

    I applied for independent research grants (R01 and its NSF equivalents, if that’s not gibberish to you) starting at age thirty, with the encouragement of my boss. Note that part — I have benefited immensely from working around positive, encouraging people who will try to make things happen rather than say that they can’t. I know some postdocs get stuck with advisers who view the postdoc’s progression as a threat. It doesn’t make any real sense, but it happens.

    The first two tries tanked pretty badly, then I took a course on proposal writing and the third try stuck. I think in general, I’ve benefited from being willing to try things that may seem “beyond my current position.”

    And it’s best not to get stuck on the lingo here. I’m not a “senior scientist” in the sense it’s sometimes used at biotech companies to mean “engineering lead”, anymore than a faculty member at any typical research institute (say, Scripps) is. From what I’ve seen from other people who’ve taken this career track, if you do want to go for a university job later on, they don’t care whether you postdoc’ed or not — one of my colleagues just took a tenure-track academic position, and I know people from consulting firms who have gone on to academic jobs. They care if your professional history tells them you’ll make things happen.

    All things considered, this isn’t nearly so odd a career track. Think of Jane Goodall – she never did an undergraduate degree!

  9. Boy this is a breath of fresh air, I especially like the “Honey Pot Strategy” I get burnt out with my business and blog trying to win over people who just don’t seem to understand – often the old business model is if you keep hammering away you’ll get the client but I have always wondered if you really want the client you have to force into your point of view.

    Thanks for this!

  10. There’s nothing more that disappoints me than wasted potential.

    And something I’ve been slowly learning is what you talk about with the honey pot method. People don’t like to be told they’re making bad decisions if they didn’t ask for help. Completely understandable. And it’s been hard for me to ‘untrain’ myself to take action with my friends who I see are having problems. I’ve come to accept that most of them want to complain more than take action and now I use the honey pot method. It’s certainly made my life easier.