A Recipe for Career Success

Dec 7, 2017

While coaching, we look at the aspirational role models that people have and try to help them goals and possible actions. From a career-building perspective, let us look at two case studies. One is historically acclaimed as a great success and the other is a contemporary Icon.

Abraham Lincoln

Born into poverty, Lincoln was faced with defeat throughout his life. He lost eight elections, twice failed in business and suffered a nervous breakdown. He could have quit many times – but he didn’t and because he didn’t quit, he became one of the greatest presidents in the history of the United States.


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Abraham Lincoln was the 16th President of U.S.A and he is best known for abolition of slavery. He also kept the Union together despite stiff opposition. He became President in 1860 at the age of 51. By that time, he had endured hardships, disappointments and many failures. At a young age, his family lost their home. He started a business and failed in it. This was in his early thirties. He ran for many offices like state legislature and Congress and lost most of them. He persevered and ultimately occupied the highest office in his own country. He also overcame personal tragedies like loss of his mother at a young age, loss of his eleven-year-old son. He also fought mental depression. He exemplified the quality of resilience. He got up to fight and continue his journey, every time that he was down. He did not give up. His actions showed that he took self-responsibility and did not let the circumstances dictate the course of his career and life.

Elon Musk

Elon Musk grew up in South Africa. He stayed there until he was 17, when he was faced with the decision of whether to attend compulsory military service. He left South Africa and went to Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. To be close to the cutting edge of technology, he transferred to the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, earning degrees in physics and business. To maintain his stay, permit in U.S he studied applied physics at Stanford. He decided to go on deferment realising that academic life wasn’t what he wanted.

Musk joined up with his brother and another friend founded a startup, Zip2, which sold to AltaVista for $307 million in 1999. Musk got rich with the Zip2 acquisition, but he wanted to have a bigger impact. So, he started in on another idea: taking financial services online in ways that banks wouldn’t imagine possible. PayPal was born. He famously went on to first invest in Tesla and then take over its management. He then started Space X. A lifelong autodidact, Musk taught himself rocket science. And by hiring the best in the astronomical business, he got SpaceX off the ground. He has taught himself automotive engineering, rocket science, and solar design.

Factors necessary for career success

Both Musk and Lincoln were very intelligent men. Hence intelligence matters. Domain or subject matter intelligence is also definitely important as are Emotional Intelligence and Conversational Intelligence. When we look at these (and other) real-life examples closely, we realize that there are other, less obvious, critical factors for success.

  1.  Grit: Grit is being passionate and, more importantly, persevering. Passion helps you take risk and become resilient. It helps one overlook the negative sides.
  2.  Resilience: As illustrated above, Lincoln had unimaginable degree of disappointments and failures. He is also documented to have issues with depression and mental health ailments which he overcame.
  3.  Openness: Lincoln deliberated a great deal before making decisions. At the same time, he sought out the views of others. This included even those who had opposing views. This helped him ensure that a wide range of perspectives were included in the data and interpretations that he used for making decisions. Once he had all the elements, he took firm decisions and owned up to them. The lesson from this is that it can be tempting to avoid information that might not fit into our world view. Look for dissenting, contrary opinion and listen to a wide range of opinions and consider inconvenient facts.
  4.  Self-driven accountability: Self-driven accountability implies self-learning. Elon Musk taught himself rocket science. And by hiring the best in the space business, he got SpaceX off the ground. He has also taught himself automotive engineering and solar design. Lincoln did not have much formal education. He was a self-taught lawyer who learnt by borrowing books from his friends. Lincoln not only practised law, but was highly respected for his legal acumen. It is said that initially, in the early part of the war, he was an absolute novice in military matters and warfare. He turned out to be as shrewd and adept in leading the war.

A career is not a sprint, it is a long-distance race. Remember these factors as you continue on your professional journey.

Gayatri Krishnamurthy
Gayatri Krishnamurthy

Gayatri Krishnamurthy

Gayatri has over 30 years’ experience in Human Resources and organisation consulting. Her last corporate role was that of a profit centre head for the Bangalore centre of Mafoi management Consultants (Now known as Randstad). She set up the centre and turned it profitable in a short span of 3 months. Prior to that, she worked with CMC Limited for 5 years as a core member of their Learning and Development team and with John Brown Engineering India as a senior member of their Personnel team. Gayatri is a qualified and accredited as Professional Certified Coach (PCC) by International Coach Federation (ICF). Apart from her decades long coaching practice, she has authored white papers on Coaching and supervised coaches. The level of executives coached have ranged from CEOs, profit centre heads, senior managers including several women leaders and management fresh graduates. She is certified as Senior Practitioner (SP) European Mentoring and Coaching Council (EMCC). She has mentored coaches and conducted sessions on coaching skills to aspiring coaches and practising managers.

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