Who Is Your Real Boss? Some Perspectives on Career Success

Let’s get this straight right out of the chute: your real boss is you.

“Yeah, right,” you might be saying to yourself. “Easy for you to say. You’re self-employed. I’ve got a boss that’s constantly breathing down my neck and a pile of ridiculous demands on my desk.”

Here’s the scoop: you’re making the choice to exchange the time and energy and ideas and patience you’re giving to that job in exchange for the money and the implied promise of more money in the future.

You could, quite easily, walk out that door and work as a gas station cashier or at some other job where you just turn your mind off for several hours, then walk away and just forget about the job when you leave. You’ll earn less money, but you’ll have a lot more energy and patience and ideas for yourself than what you hand over to the company.

“But I need this income!”

Then, in the end, it doesn’t really have much to do with your job, does it?

It comes back to your spending choices. In order to have that house, to have that car, to have that television, to have that furniture, to have that Netflix subscription, you’re trading in your energy and time and patience and ideas.

My belief is this: the people that succeed are the people who invest that energy and time and patience and thought a little differently.

What do I mean?

Option A Let’s say you go to work each day and leave it all on the table. When you leave work, you’re so drained you can barely make it home. You sit on the couch, vegetate for a while, eat dinner, vegetate a bit more, then hit the sack. Or perhaps you’re a parent and you leave work with just enough energy to get through your parental requirements in the evening.

Option B On the other hand, let’s say you go to work and intentionally keep half of your energy for yourself. You give the company 50% of the gas in your tank. After you leave, you spend that 50% improving yourself. You go to night classes. You go to the gym. You go to the library. You go to meetings of professional growth groups, like Toastmasters.

At first, in the workplace, Option A will be the winner. You’ll go to work, set an impressive standard, and produce well for your organization. Option B will look like a bit of a slacker in comparison.

Over time, though, the production of Option B will slowly catch up. The skills and growth that Option B is constantly bringing into your life makes the time you spend at work more productive than before. You know more people. You have more energy. You’ve learned more skills and acquired more knowledge. This all adds to your productivity at work.

At the same time, the production of Option A won’t really change too much. Yes, Option A will hone your specific work skills, but it will lead straight to burnout as well. When you go home at night an empty shell, it’s hard to recharge whatever it is that drives you to success at work.

Eventually, Option B will catch up to – and eventually surpass – Option A in the workplace. Because of the constant addition of skills, energy, contacts, and ideas, the 50% given by Option B will eventually add up to more than the 100% of Option A.

More importantly, Option B’s additional value is tied to the individual, not the company. The successes found through Option A are all tied to the company that the person is working for. The successes found through Option B, at least in part, are tied to the individual. They’re building a wonderful resume for themselves. They’re building a powerful collection of contacts.

The end result is that when Option B moves on to the next step in their career, they’ll be vastly more prepared to find their next step than Option A ever will be.

What’s the moral of the story?

The next time you think to yourself that you don’t possibly have the time or the energy or the focus to do something to improve yourself, rethink what you’re doing. An improved you is a better asset for the company you work for. Dial things back just a touch at work, giving yourself the energy and time you need to improve yourself. Because of that improvement, it won’t be long before the “dialed back” version of yourself is more valuable to the company than the “full bore” version of yourself.

Not only that, you’ll be more valuable as an asset, either to your organization or to another. This leads to greater earnings and more career freedom.

Grow yourself and your career will follow.

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  1. Thad Puckett says:

    Any possibility of using this as a guest post on a leadership blog I collaborate in?

  2. LeahGG says:

    this is great advice, except that when there’s a bunch of layoffs, the guy who’s giving it 50% is going to be out the door, while the guy who works nights and weekends will still have a job.

  3. Lex says:

    I agree with the idea behind this post and I’m trying to apply that to my life, except perhaps with more of a 75/25 ratio, and I do give 100 on some days.

  4. kjc says:

    @LeahGG: absolutely.

    Trent is very lucky that he was able to write blog posts and build a successful blog while working for a company, but he’s in fact the exception to the rule. There aren’t many occupations where you can show up at work and offer up a half hearted effort and have your behavior tolerated.

    How would you feel if a local police officer, a nurse tending to you in the hospital, the guy who plows snow for your town – the list could go on and on – decided that they were only going to give 50% to their jobs, so they could better develop themselves in their non-working hours. How about your kids’ teachers?

    Sorry, I’m not buying it. This is horrible advice – particularly during tough economic times – and directly contradicts this TSD post from 2008:

    “Do everything you can do at work as well as you possibly can. It’s much easier to just do the minimal job, but don’t just stop there. If you’re standing idle for a few minutes, help someone else out. People will start to notice this and you will be looked upon well by others – the ones who count. If you stand around doing nothing, you look like a waste of an organization’s resources. If you work hard, you look like something valuable.”

  5. Megan says:

    I just finished reading “First, Break All The Rules,” which talks about what great managers do differently to help their people succeed. It’s a fabulous book and I highly recommend it.

    One of the things they talk about in the book is that self-discovery leads to a healthy career. In fact it’s one of the only things that does. If you can figure out who you are, what your talents are, and where you best fit, you’ll have a much more successful, productive, and fulfilling career.

    @KJC Trent didn’t say 50% of your effort, just 50% of your energy. Don’t kill yourself getting things done at work. It’s not worth it, because a burnt out you will get just as laid off as a less productive you.

  6. kjc says:

    @Megan: Describe a teacher who gives 50% of her or his “energy.” Secondly, would you want this person teaching your kids?

  7. lurker carl says:

    Your employer expects 100% all day and every day, especially if you’re in business for yourself. If your job drains you that much each and every day, look for something less demanding.

  8. SEC Lawyer says:

    It’s probably true that you can give 50% and come out ahead if you are unfortunate enough to work at Dunder Mifflin in suburban Pittsburgh. Or if you are a government school teacher or other public union employee. But it won’t work in a competitive environment full of brainy, ambitious professionals. In such an environment, you need to give 100% simply to keep pace, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

  9. Jeanette says:

    Yes, it’s important to make time to improve yourself in terms of your viability for employment. However, as others have noted, at this time, you have to give far more than 100% of your energy and creativity and commitment to work today just to KEEP a job, let alone get ahead.

    Although I’m at the stage of life where I realize that jeopardizing your health for your job makes no sense, I also still believe that if you can’t fully engage and commit to the job you’ve been hired to do, well, maybe you should not be there. After years of work, I’m tired not just because I did my job full-tilt and then some, but because I had to cover for people who did not do THEIR jobs (holding back on both energy and committment) and affected the outcome of my work.

    Even today, there are plenty of work slackers of all ages and for all reasons. They make the workplace hell for those of us who go to work to DO THE JOB we’re hired to do. And incidentally, these slackers are folks who are ONLY focused on improving themselves and what’s in it for them.

    If you do your job well, you acquire skills and expertise. And experience. THAT is what makes you valuable and employable (although certainly not in all industries today, sadly). It’s not about my personal development at work. That comes by choosing, if I can, to do work I want to do. And if I’m very very lucky, for a company that I want to work for and that treats people professionally. (few and far between)

    We may be the “boss” of ourselves, but in business, it’s the person–client or owner–who signs the paycheck. That’s even more so today.

    Clever idea that does not hold water, Trent.

  10. moom says:

    For people in dead end jobs, Trent’s advice is good. For others they need to think about how the stuff they do on the job will advance their career. Make sure you have achievements that you can claim on a resume, make the contacts in the business that Trent is talking about making outside the business, develop skills that are transferable etc.

  11. Mel says:

    My boyfriend is a web developer, and I have definitely seen this at work in him.

    He used to go full-tilt at work, came home at 8 or 9pm, eat quickly then immediately sit down for a few more hours work from home. *Sometimes* we’d get a whole weekend day without him working. In a previous job he reduced himself to physical illness until his boss ordered he take a few days off. He had no energy or time for himself, let alone family and friends or even me. Important things went ignored for weeks or months because he just couldn’t face them – and that’s a huge problem when I can’t take up the slack because of a language barrier.

    In the last few months, he’s decided to throttle back a bit. He now comes home around 6 or so and does minimal work from home (dealing with some email, maybe a conference call due to time differences). Now, we have some time to spend together each evening, he’s able to deal with things he needs to, and he’s also able to spend time and energy on himself.

    And the best part? His whole attitude to work has improved, and that’s being noticed, in a very good way.

    He’s *not* slacking off, or leaving parts of his job undone. What he is doing is reserving something of himself for himself, so he doesn’t have the stress of a personal life that was, honestly, beginning to fall apart.

    Sorry for the long post, but I really think this isn’t about slacking off or doing a half-assed job. It’s about not letting your job become your whole life – because if that happens, you have no life. Trust me on that.

  12. Mary says:

    When I first read through this one, I thought, how timely! I’ve been asked to take on two MAJOR additional roles at work, and am trying to decide what the best choice is.

    As I read through the comments though, I was struck by how many people feel like that doesn’t work for them. And (as a teacher, incidentally) I often find myself putting in way too much time and effort–working 12 hours day, taking work home, coming in on Saturdays. Some of that does make me better at my job, but not when I end up burnt out. Balance is one of the toughest things to achieve, and I think that’s Trent’s real point here. Now if only I could figure out the solution to my dilemma…

  13. guinness416 says:

    Depends what you mean by 50% energy/effort I suppose. If you check your blackberry every night before you go to bed or if you’re a control freak who hasn’t learned to work smart and hates to delegate, then sure, back off. But being “that guy” who takes a long lunch to work out every day and rockets out the door at 5:01 every evening – no matter what deadlines the team is looking at – is likely to lead you to being on the outs with both your employer and your colleagues. Certainly in the field I work in, and anything remotely approaching the “competitive environment full of brainy, ambitious professionals” as is described above. I wouldn’t recommend that.

  14. kristine says:

    Mary:

    Plato said “Simplify the mechanics of everyday life.” I am also a teacher- I teach computer art- including filmmaking. What works for me is to alternate projects that I must grade on evenings/weekends, with projects I can occasionally grade in class. For instance- if the students are pitching a film treatment, they can pitch it to the whole class, get valuable feedback from other students, while I use my checklist of requirements and quality aspects to grade them on the spot. It is a more engaging learning experience for everyone, and the students love knowing right ten and there what their grades are.
    If your subject allows for presentations, you can throw some in to cut down on late night stacks of grading, to avoid burnout.

  15. kristine says:

    Opps- sorry about typos- my keyboard is on its last legs!

  16. valleycat1 says:

    Once again Trent sets up a false dichotomy with extremely biased examples that I’m not sure actually make the point he’s aiming for. If his last paragraph is his actual point (that anyone can find the time & energy to better their skills or to spend on something they enjoy), then the rest of the post is misleading.

    A boring job at the gas station can be just as draining emotionally & mentally as any other job. If your job is draining you to the point you don’t have anything left for yourself & your personal life, then you need to figure out what it is that’s out of balance & take steps to get back on track. I have done just that, remaining in the same job at the same company, having worked out a more balanced effort at the job & at home & being ‘better’ at both in the long run.

    & for #8 – SEC lawyer – those people with ‘secure’ government and union jobs are facing layoffs just like those in the private sector, and are not any more likely to be goofing off or skating through the day.

  17. Sara says:

    Sorry, but you’re living in a dream world if you think that someone who gives a 50% effort at work will eventually catch up to and surpass the person who gives 100%. There’s something to be said for saving some energy for yourself to improve your quality of life, but slacking off at work is not going to get you ahead at your job. From my experience in my own job, the gap actually widens over time because the people who give 100% get better at their jobs. This gap translates into thousands of dollars because the people who stand out get faster promotions and bigger raises than those who are known to do the bare minimum to get by.

  18. CorithMalin says:

    I’d say 50% is a lot to give to your job. You need 8 hours of sleep each night, so that’s 33.3% of the day. Then most places base your pay on an 8 hour day (I’m salary exempt so they expect a minimum of 40 hours but realize something is wrong when you’re putting in 55+ over an extended time). 8 hours of work is another 33.3% of your day. Factor in commuting time to and from work and you’re probably up an additional 1 hour (30 minutes each way). So really you should strive to give your job about 36% of yourself as that’s what they pay you for. Anything extra is a blessing for the company and should only be handed to them if it’s beneficial to both parties.

    As a business owner and worker I have no problem with people striving for this type of balance.

  19. LeahGG says:

    @CorithMalin: the question is more how much you give of your energy during those hours you are on the job. If you’re not giving it enough to shine (which varies job by job), then you’re at risk in the next batch of layoffs. When I worked half-heartedly at a job, even though I was very good at my job, it prevented me from getting a promotion that I needed, kept my salary from rising, and the only reason I even kept my job was that my skill set was close to irreplaceable.

    Now I work for myself. When I’m on the job, I’m 100% involved in the job. When I’m off, I make sure to be involved with the rest of my life.

  20. Gretchen says:

    I totally agree with ValleyCat. (esp. on the public sector layoffs!)

    Most people’s options aren’t slacker vs. total shell.

  21. Luke says:

    As someone facing burnout in a white-collar tech job, this article really spoke to me.

    As far as not giving 100% of *energy*: I would want a brain surgeon to use 100% of his skill, abilities, training, and efforts on the job. I want 100% of his focus when he’s dremmeling away at my coconut. BUT, if he’s been at work since 3am and only slept 5 hours last night because he is a workaholic who is giving his all every night for the past 5 years…well…he may be on the verge of burnout, and in that case I don’t want him anywhere near my head!

    Maybe that comparison made more sense to me before I typed it, but the point is that you can give your job 100% of a lot of things and still be a fantastic fireman, policeman, nurse, etc…but you don’t have to give it 100% of your *life* and energy.

  22. SEC Lawyer says:

    I knew that mentioning government school teachers and other government union employees would irk government school teachers and other government union employees. But I stand by what I said.

    It is true that some of them — for argument’s sake, I’ll fantasize that it’s “almost all of them” — work every bit as hard as Wall Street lawyers and investment bankers. That means they work 70 hours a week, travel 200,000 miles a year, go at it for 50 weeks out of 52, into their sixties. (Sound like any government employee YOU know, other than the few leaders? I didn’t think so….)

    Anyway, here’s what these hard-working government functionaries get for their efforts — nothing much.

    And here’s what the slackers among them get — nothing much.

    In 2011 and following, the slackers among the vast pool of government employees have slightly higher job insecurity than the hard-workers among them. But none of them have anything like the job insecurity of non-unionized, no-such-thing-as-tenure, 70-hours-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year workers have in (what government people call) “the private sector.”

    That’s the main reasons why slackers are drawn to so-called “public service,” along with the hard-working others there of course. It works for slackers because the union protects them from the consequences of their laziness.

    If I were in such a position, with no merit pay and no future, I guess I might spend my time planning a real life, too. The same would be true if I were stuck in Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, PA. It’s much better, however, never to enter either domain.

  23. Mary says:

    Thanks Kristine. I find one of my challenges is that I fill up all the time I make (with some new program, an involved instructional idea, etc). I need to spend more time on setting up what balance looks like and then stick to it–and probably coming up with some global view of what I have to grade would be a good first step. (And so I saying no to one of the two major opportunities I was just offered).

  24. kristine says:

    SEC Lawyer-

    “If I were in such a position, with no merit pay and no future, I guess I might spend my time planning a real life, too. The same would be true if I were stuck in Dunder Mifflin in Scranton, PA. It’s much better, however, never to enter either domain.”

    Wow. Way to derogate and demotivate committed professional hardworking teachers. Of which I am one. Teaching IS a life. I am also formerly creative director of the 2nd largest publishing company in the US, normally worked 14 hour days, working and deadline stress on the weekends, barely taking any time off. And I did not get laid off- i quit to teach, as I did not want my epitaph to say “Sales up 11%, absent wife and mother”. I left right before publsihing collapsed.

    Teaching is harder. It is more demanding. The “at office” hours may be less than yours, but we take our job home with us. Grading, planning, searching for better ways to get a point across. We care. I feel truly sorry for your ignorance. While I understand flying business class and sipping a cocktail while you read paperwork can be mind-boggling difficult (as I have done it), so is trying to control, enlighten, teach and simultaneoulsy ready 30 teenagers of diferring abilities and emotional maturity, for life after graduation. Then I do it again 4 more times that day, with 120 more kids. And I know them all by name, and face, and ability, and projects.

    All this with public disdain, and spending out of pocket for classroom supplies, and much less joh security than you imagine as staff sizes shrink.

    Perhaps you do not realize that the outcome of our job- as the people who collectively spend more time with these human-in-progress than the parents, will be a huge determinate of all that comes after. Work ethic, confidence, integrity, skills..and so on. What you deal everyday is a direct result of what came before.

    And when people ask me what I make for a living, I say “A difference.”

  25. SEC Lawyer says:

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    I agree with that part! Public disdain for government employees is certainly rising, approaching contempt, as their compensation packages (on average) rise even while those of us who pay their wages earn less and less. In Michigan, for example, average teacher pay has increased over the past two years even while average compensation in the so-called “private sector” has plummeted. It’s plummeted among those who haven’t been laid off, that is.

    The economy basically blew up two years ago, but no one would know that from the experience or rhetoric of school teachers whose unions’ strike threats assured them locked-in wage increases, gold-plated pensions and OPEBs.

    I’m sure there are plenty of hard-working teachers if you consider part-year work “hard.” (I don’t.)

    But it’s not the “hard-working” ones who cause the “public disdain” that you’ve noticed. It’s the lazy ones, the incompetent ones, who can’t be effectively disciplined (let alone fired) — it’s your comrades, in short, whom your union protects — the union you chose to join because you chose to work in a government school — the union you support with your dues (funded by my taxes).

    It is a plain fact that a government school teacher with tenure granted as early as age 30 cannot be fired during the next 20 or 25 years no matter how incompetent or lazy she may be (or become).

    I credit several schoolteachers with having a positive influence in my life. One in particular helped me get into the right college. Of note, she quit teaching shortly after my high school was unionized because, as she put it, “I became a teacher because it was a noble profession. Professionals don’t join unions.” Bingo.

  26. krisitne says:

    It is a common misconception that teachers work part-year. The summer is a needed mental break from classroom activity, but teaching activity continues throughout the summer in the form of learning or writing ewn curriculum for changed or added classes, preparing up-to-date lessons if you are in a rapidly progressing area, such as computers. And professional development.
    In NY, 175 hours every 5 years of professional development is now REQUIRED to keep one’s certification. The teacher pays for it. It is typically a college course every single year, not reimbursed. Pay increases reflect the added out-of-pocket costs in skyrocketing college or professional courses teachers are required to take to keep their jobs- thousands off the top. Most people are unaware of this very expensive job requirement.

    I have seen very little of the slacking you describe as I am in a blue ribbion district- many have PHDs, and enormous student loans to go along with them. I am sure it does exist.

    But as far as professionals not joining a union- the aim is not only to protect the teacher, but to protect the quality of education. A teacher constantly stressed out about possible job loss is not one who will comfort little Johnny very well, or keep their cool in a roomful of teenage antics. You want your teachers relaxed and confident when they are dealing with YOUR child.
    And it is also designed to prevent the hiring and firing of teachers based on political whims or nepotism of the board of ed or administration. It is meant to safeguard both the teachers, and the integrity of the instruction. I am glad it is not a cakewalk for backward districts to fire teachers who insist on continuing to teach evolution and the scientific method, and carbon dating as sound science, after the local political scene has gone fringe.

    CEOs have no union, yet they have extracted billions from the economic scene, and the average worker’s pay, that anyone, grossly disproportionate to performance, and still my tax dollars got to bail out the private sector. And I get NOTHING out of that.

  27. krisitne says:

    And before you cast stones- I am part time (no benefits), but I will be here 10 hours today to do grading and run a student meeting. And that is not unusual. Taking a break :)

  28. SEC Lawyer says:

    I think you and I live on different planets, krisitne.

    My children went to boarding school. Their teachers didn’t belong to any union and they weren’t afraid of being fired, nor have they been fired. They are paid less, not more, than government school teachers, but they made that choice deliberately because they prefer to work in what they consider to be a high-achieving environment populated by bright, motivated children, supportive parents and peer professionals.

    Your polemic about CEOs is odd. If you don’t like what they’re paid, then don’t buy their products. My problem with government schools and their union employees is that I am compelled by law to support them even if I judge their product inferior and in fact won’t use their product.

    The reason that you have the continuing education requirements that occupy your time is that your union has demanded and obtained a compensation schedule for you that is based on how many boxes can be checked off the “continuing education checklist” rather than student outcomes or any other performance measure. This is comparable to paying lawyers based on the number of classes that they take at night rather than the results that they obtain for clients. To say that such an input-oriented system “misses the point” does not begin to describe its dysfunction.

    As for the TARP bail-out: If you pay any attention, you will notice that taxpayers are about to earn a profit on those investments. That’s right — a profit. A year from now it will be clear that, far from costing you something, TARP actually earned you (and all of us) a profit.

    Seems to me this thread has gotten pretty far off-course. My basic point was that maybe people in dead-end jobs can afford to “mail it in” as blogger Trent advises but that no one else can do that (or should want to be in such a situation). Government employment at the “street” level, as in education, need not be dead-end, but sadly it often is dead-end, chiefly because the incentives are inadequate to motivate many of the best and brightest for long. If you are motivated to work in that environment, great. More power to you. We need more energy, not less, in your field of work. So have at it!

  29. Susan says:

    A lot of opinions here. My initial reaction was that I wish that someone provided (and I listened) to Trent’s advice when I was younger. As someone who always gave 100% and came home brain-dead for years and is now employed part-time at a dead-end job (partly of my own choice), I know the effort I put in was a mistake. I had the personality that I could not give less and couldn’t stand the “slackers” or the people at my workplace who were only out for themselves. I thought I was respected for my work ethic. Guess what? Some of the “slackers” I supervised and couldn’t motivate are still working and nobody helped me when I needed help getting another position. “Hard-Working” means nothing on today’s resumes. Tough lesson to learn! I DO agree though, that I wouldn’t want a dr, nurse, policeman, etc providing a service to me if they weren’t giving 100%.

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