“I find the harder I work, the more luck I seem to have.” – Thomas Jefferson
I can’t be the only one who finds my luck looks a little bit like standing on the other side of Dirty Harry’s Model 29. Ask me if I’m feeling lucky, and I’m probably pretty quick to say – nope. Now, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t gotten more than my share of lucky hits through the years – I was born into a great family, with two supportive parents, enjoyed the privilege of a college education and stair stepped my way into a variety of career opportunities. I’ve never been unemployed. I’ve never been without a home. My career lattice has been full of opportunities. I’m probably a lot luckier than I think I am.
Like most terms, ‘luck’ is loaded – one person’s luck is just another’s success, fluke, advantage, or providence. Luck is what you make it, and it may also be how you define it.
But whether you feel like a loser today or like you’ve just stumbled into the leprechaun gold of a cleared career, there are steps that all of us can take to improve our career odds, help to land a better job, or find ourselves happier in the ones we have.
1. Always Keep Learning.
I launched a career with the Department of Army after attending a forum on Capitol Hill where an Army public affairs officer spoke. It was the first time I’d heard of the career path, and it set me into a trajectory that was rewarding and challenging – but one that I never would have heard about in my campus career center. You’ve heard about the hidden job market, and it’s one of the key reasons the ClearanceJobs site is built as a marketplace versus a job board. Careers today are much less transactional than they were previously, a career trajectory much less linear. Many people may wonder how to find those ‘hidden’ jobs that don’t appear on a career site – dedicating yourself to professional development is the key to doing that. Not only will you tap into new job opportunities, you’ll tap into entire career paths you wouldn’t have considered otherwise.
Obviously the pandemic has killed in person career events, but the beauty of everything going virtual is that you can attend events well outside your usual wheelhouse easier than ever. Yes, you’ll have to get more aggressive in your networking to make these events count, but they’re often easier than ever to attend. And even if an event seems like a bar too far, there has never been a better time to pick up a good book.
2. Make Sure At Least Some People Like You.
You don’t need to be likable to build a great career. There are books built around why jerks succeed at the office and how the arrogant can get ahead. The rise of Silicon Valley has made this more reality than legend – if the emphasis is on the technology and the success, what does it matter whether or not you have a personality? This is better on screen than in real life, however, and behind every creative genius today’s college graduate is trying to emulate are hundreds of people whose career success has been driven by their likeability. Not everyone has to like you. And don’t be a brown-noser (nobody likes that guy anyway). But if you stare around your office and see nothing but a sea of people who hate you or worse – are indifferent toward you – grab your shamrocks and find yourself another job. You’re not going to get far in the one you’re in.
When it comes to your security clearance, we’ve actually written about how if you have a security violation, having employees and supervisors willing to stick up to you and vouch for you can make the difference between keeping and losing your clearance. Policy is policy, but character references count – and if you can’t get any, your career will suffer.
3. Always be ready to rebound.
If your career hasn’t skunked you yet, just wait – someday it will. Maybe it will be the promotion you won’t get. Maybe it’s the boss who makes you lose your mind. Maybe it’s a coworker who is a perpetual thorn in your side. Maybe it’s a period of unemployment, or salary stagnation, or you encounter a major personal challenge that makes just getting through a work day a true struggle. It sounds trite (but, give me a break, you’re reading an article about luck) – you can’t hit the career mountains unless you work your way up from the valleys. Author and pundit David Brooks wrote an entire book about the concept called, The Second Mountain. The book referred to the shift from being self and individual focused to hitting that second stage of life where community and passion become more important than individual achievement. But the same thoughts and lessons apply – few of us will spend an entire career or lifetime scaling the same mountain. Even those of us lucky to reach the top of one mountain usually find ourselves skidding down the other side. When you find yourself Princess Bride, ‘as you wishing’ your way down the mossy knoll of a career failure, trust that you will have another shot – if you can manage to pick yourself up and walk across the Fire Swamp first. And as David Brooks points out, having mastered that first mountain gives you the clarity and perspective to hit the second. You don’t get do overs. You get do-betters. And that’s the best shot at good luck your career may get.