This is the Best Career (Life) Advice I Ever Got

Any fool can learn by experience, the saying goes. It’s vastly preferable to learn from the experiences of others.

This is what mentors are for.

They’ve been where you’ve been.

They’ve done what you’ve done.

They’ve made mistakes that you don’t have to make.

This is what books do also. They allow you to benefit from the experiences of others–successful and not-so-successful, happy and deeply broken people alike.

My whole life I’ve sought out that kind of advice, explicit and deduced. I’ve benefited from being pointed in the right direction and warned when I was heading in the wrong direction. I’ve picked up lessons in the books that I’ve read–I’ve highlighted and printed out passages of advice that I’ve tried to live by.

I’ve tried to do this in all aspects of life, but in today’s article, I wanted to talk specifically about the best career advice I’ve gotten.

1. Credit is Worthless

One of my first real jobs was as an assistant for a powerful movie producer. He was one of those guys in LA who had a lot of influence but you could hardly find out anything about him–his IMDB page was scant, he was never in the press, and he didn’t have some fancy title. I asked about this once and he told me that if ever offered the choice between credit and money, only an idiot takes the credit. He was talking specifically about the movie business which has a lot of inflated titles and credits on projects, which egotistical people gravitate towards as compensation. Why do you need to be recognized? he was telling me.

I took this in a couple of ways that shaped my career. First off, I understood quickly and early that my job as an assistant—and later in other positions—was to do work that others could take credit for. (This is a law in the 48 Laws of Power). My job was to be a source of ideas and problem-solving that I could surface to my boss so that they could surface to their boss or clients. This might seem thankless, but it’s actually a powerful place to be if you do it right. (Make others dependent on you is another law of power). I would later come to call this “the canvas strategy”, which I write about in Ego is the Enemy. You find canvases for them to paint on. You clear the path for them…and as a result, influence the direction they go.

At all my jobs, I focused on coming up with ideas for projects and on working on as many projects as possible. I wanted to learn. I wanted to see how things worked. I made sure no one saw me as a threat–on the contrary, that they saw me as someone who was a team player, who worked hard for others (and the business) to succeed. All the while, I was getting what really mattered to me.

Later, it was thinking this way that made me a successful ghostwriter. Most of my fans don’t even know that I have written many books for other people, re-written and edited others. In fact, my first couple of appearances on the New York Times bestseller lists were for projects like this. The reason people don’t know about this is that not only do I not talk about it, but I never put my name on them. When it came to collaborating, it was always a breeze because the books were not about me–I saw my job as helping them make their book, not that we were making our book. It also gave me a leg up in negotiations with the agents and publishers because I didn’t use my leverage to discuss where my name would appear or how big it might be, I asked for my percentage instead.

I don’t do many projects like this anymore, but the books I worked on helped set me up financially. I also learned so much. I have way more ‘reps’ than the average author and many of the painful lessons I have learned about publishing happened when I was not the person on stage.

I’m so glad I learned this early. Forget credit. If you want to get ahead, think about somebody other than yourself.

2. Seize The Alive Time

I’ve talked many times about how when I was stuck at American Apparel and dreaming about leaving to become a writer, Robert Greene gave me his amazing advice about “Alive Time vs Dead Time.” Dead Time is when you’re sitting around waiting for things to happen to you, and Alive Time is when you’re in control, making every second count, improving, learning, and growing. But perhaps the reason this advice landed so much is that shortly after I had that conversation over lunch with him, I had dinner in Downtown Los Angeles (I remember it was at Wurstkuche in the Arts District) with Ben Smith, an early Google and YouTube executive. He had just left Google to start his own company and I asked him what he wished he’d done differently in the time before he left. I wished I’d used my Google email address more, he said. Meaning, he wished he’d taken full advantage of the unique status/reputation of Google at that time. He wished he’d taken more meetings, reached out to more people, agreed to speak at more events and attended more conferences. He wished he’d built his network more when he was in a position of demand.

Having dropped out of college myself a few years earlier, I immediately knew what he’d meant. While I was a student, I had all these opportunities to go to office hours with important professors and participate in subsidized activities. People were eager to help me out. But the moment I left, I became just another face in the crowd. Worse, I was their competition. People like to help students out. Now? Now I was on my own.

So, taking Robert’s advice about Alive Time and Ben’s advice about using my business card, I spent a good chunk of my last year at American Apparel inviting everyone I could to come tour the factory. I jumped at every chance to travel for work. I took on extra projects. I sponsored events. I developed relationships inside the company and with people who wanted stuff from the company. It seems crazy, but I am still benefiting from that work today. (That’s how I’d met Ben in the first place).

If it wasn’t for this advice, I might have spent my last days at American Apparel thinking, This is just a job, this is just a crappy couple of months, I just have to wait it out and get through it. I could have chosen Dead Time unknowingly, wishing for better circumstances and ignoring the opportunities right in front of me. I would’ve been much worse off.

In life and in your career, you have to be the driver of your own advancement. When conditions aren’t ideal, you can’t just sit around waiting for things to happen. If you do that, they never will. There is always something you can learn, always some opportunity to take advantage of.

We have to choose to make every moment a moment of Alive Time. We have to decide to be present, to make the most of whatever is in front of us.

Open your eyes. Open your ears. Open your mind. Find the advantage.

3. Build Your Own Platform

I’ve been fired. I’ve had projects and ideas not work. I’ve never been canceled, but I’ve been seriously criticized. I get that these things keep people up at night…but they don’t need to. Because there is a way to insulate yourself from it: Build a platform.

When I was working as a research assistant to Robert Greene for The 50th Law, he had me read a bunch about Eleanor Roosevelt. I was struck by how she entered the White House as First Lady–it was with a magazine column that asked readers to write in to her. She didn’t want to become isolated by her husband’s success. She also didn’t want to be dependent on him. She built a massive audience as a writer and thinker and public figure–and this was an incredible form of power for her to have at that time.

In fact, the only person comparable really was Winston Churchill. Most people are unaware that Churchill made his living as a writer. He published more than ten million words in his lifetime across hundreds of publications and published works. Between 1931 and 1939–when he was stuck in the so-called political wilderness–Winston Churchill published 11 books, 400+ articles, and delivered more than 350 speeches. The result of this was an enormous worldwide platform that allowed Churchill not only to survive financially but wield influence that kept him relevant and guided policy and opinion across the globe. Under ordinary circumstances, a politician would have been powerless when pushed out of office or driven to the fringes by political enemies. But Churchill’s extensive platform—based on his editorial contacts, extraordinary gift with words, and relentless energy—saved his career…and as a result, the free world.

My first editor gave me similar advice. You don’t want to be dependent on PR and publicity to sell your books, she said. You need to have a direct connection to your audience. I’d already been doing that with my Reading List Email, but The Daily Stoic, which I launched in 2016, had meant that every day I talk to my readers–who now number more than one million. I talk to them on Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and TikTok and YouTube and on our podcast. If any one of these channels were to ban me or go under, that would suck, but I’d be fine. Another example, if Amazon or Barnes and Noble closed, I’d be fine. I own my own bookstore! My editor was telling me to be like Eleanor Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. To have power outside the system as an insurance policy.

We talk today about ‘cancel culture’, but this is mostly a problem for people who have things that can be taken from them, who rely on ‘permission’ and ‘greenlights’ to make their work. If you have developed an independent platform, you have an insurance policy. You have security. Not just against what other people might do to you, but also against changes in the trends or the marketplace.

Whether you’re an entrepreneur or an author or a filmmaker or journalist, it doesn’t matter. You should build a platform.

To do work without it is to be at the mercy of too much that’s outside of your control. To a creative person, to a free thinker, that is death. Having a megaphone that we own? That we can use when we need it? I’ll tell you having a platform–my reading list newsletter for instance–helped me in negotiations on the ghostwriting projects, for sure. Would my bookstore have succeeded if I was wholly dependent on walk-up traffic in the small town where it’s located? I don’t think so!

At some point, you’re going to have something you need to communicate to the world, you’re going to need distribution…and when you need it, it will be too late to start building.

So don’t wait. Build your platform now.

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