Career Guide

Building a great career

No excuses – greatness comes to anyone who is willing to invest in their future

As we look ahead of 2018, some will be starting their careers and others will be looking for a change that truly fits their abilities and interests.

Although this is an important step in everyone’s journey, many scratch their heads as they ask themselves: What’s the best way to build a great career?

In Malaysia, most of us will know what it’s like to go into a new restaurant and pore over the menu. With choices aplenty – it’s no wonder we often plead with the staff for “one more minute, please”. So many options and so little time!

Yesterday no more

Yet, for many people, careers begin with relatively little thought. In our younger years, our parents are usually the primary advocates of careers they believe will stand us in good stead. Given our own lack of knowledge of what’s out there, we are mostly content to follow their advice.

However, in his book, No Fears, No Excuses: What You Need to do to Have a Great Career, Professor of Economics Larry Smith (University of Waterloo) argues that the strategies deployed by our grandparents and parents no longer apply to today’s world.

In his thought-provoking book – which followed his highly-acclaimed TED Talk – he outlines the steps that are necessary to build a great career. Smith believes there is no such thing as a “good” career and that we are bound to fall way short of fulfilling our potential if we try to apply yesterday’s approach to tomorrow’s world.

As a result, we place ourselves in danger of becoming expendable commodities rather than successful innovators and pioneers.

While Smith’s book is peppered with hard truths, young people starting out in their careers and those looking for a change should be reading what he has to say.

He doesn’t argue that being a doctor or a lawyer can’t or won’t lead to a great career; however, if we remain rigid in our thinking, we’re more likely to end up in a career that’s not the best fit for us.

The advice offered by Smith comes through real-life examples he amassed from thousands of conversations he’s held with many of his students over the last 30 years. Almost every excuse and fear we can think of for not taking calculated risks to build a great career is examined thoroughly in his book.

What’s ‘career’ to you?

One of the reasons I came to read this book is because of the many questions I’ve received from young people who feel at a loss in building a career from which they can gain a sense of meaning, purpose, satisfaction, and, to a degree, security.

It’s possible to build such a career, but it does take time and work. While it may seem easier to follow conventional paths and hope for the best, it can be quite a gamble given how much time we spend at work over the course of our lives, and how much our lives will change over the years.

In our parents’ time, job security and financial stability were paramount, and these are still important factors to consider when building a career.

However, there are many more factors to take into account today – not least of all the consideration that job security is no longer what it used to be. So, we have to think of ways to become as agile and adaptable as possible if we want to give ourselves the best chances for success in the future.

Here are some of Smith’s thoughts, along with what I believe is the key lesson from each insight.

1. Threats vs opportunities

“When I was a kid, ... cars froze up in the winter, and long-distance calls were so expensive they were made only for emergencies. Television, jet airplanes, mainframe computers, personal computers, organ transplants, genetic engineering, DNA testing, in-vitro fertilization, computer animation, and the Internet arrived in my lifetime. But why do you think I’m telling you this?”

Lesson: To be stuck in conventional ways of thinking is a recipe for disaster. We have to look ahead and consider the challenges and opportunities of the future, rather than fixate only on what’s going on today.

The world changes faster that we can imagine. If you had described WhatsApp to a young Smith, he would have thought it the stuff of incredible fantasy. Yet, today, we take it for granted that we can video call anyone in the world at the press of a button and for free.

2. Matter of approach and perspective

“The strategy most often employed is this: Get an education. More competition? Get more education. More competition? Get some relevant experience. More competition? Get even more experience. But everyone else is adding experience at the same rate. Believing you can advance your career solely by celebrating another birthday does not seem a very sophisticated strategy for the twenty-first century.”

Lesson: You have to find ways to stand out from the crowd. Some questions to ask yourself include: What challenges exist that others haven’t spotted and how might I help to solve them?

What knowledge and skills will be relevant over the next 10–20 years, and how can I make the best use of my time to learn them? What assumptions do I have concerning my career – do I question myself and my approaches often enough?

Some might ask, “What happens if everyone follows the same advice?”

The truth is, most people probably won’t and therefore, just by looking at things differently or trying a new approach, you’ll already have created an edge over others.

3. Confront your fear

“If you are horribly shy, if the thought of talking to strangers terrifies you, the first thing I’m compelled to tell you is that you must overcome your shyness if you are to succeed. The second thing is that, in the absence of people to talk to, you must read about how other people have found their way.”

Lesson: You have to know what holds you back and then confront it. Fear loses its power the moment we decide to face it. Not only do we learn by doing, but we also overcome by doing.

There are many examples throughout history of great leaders who overcame personal adversity on their road to success. To learn from their stories is one of the greatest investments we can make in ourselves to be encouraged, comforted, inspired, and empowered.

4. Be prepared for eventualities

“There are many people who say they do not need a plan. Why? Because their career is on track to success. With no problem, they assume there is no need to plan. Of course, this just assumes that nothing bad will ever happen to you. Lurking behind this assertion, I suspect, is the superstition that, if you plan for a disaster, a disaster will indeed happen. Therefore, if you make a will, you’ll be dead by the end of the week.”

Lesson: Life is never the smooth sail we hope it might be. Sometimes, we can be de-railed and forced to change course; it’s simply a part of life. Those who can anticipate and plan for potential obstacles will not only find themselves better prepared should difficulties arise, they will also be more equipped to rise above the challenges they face.

5. Anticipate challenges

“I hate conventional thought. It sits—lurks, even—in the background, and it shapes your ideas without revealing itself explicitly, thus making it extremely powerful. I see it as a villain in the night, determined to subvert human talent. Again and again, I’ve seen this villain waste people’s potential. Toe the line; Follow the leader; If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it—all are examples of conventional thought hiding within clichés. Of course, conventional ideas do change over time, but progress is slow. And in the time it usually takes to change them, we are collectively set back. A year wasted is a year lost forever, never to be regained. And as the drumbeat of competition increases, conventional thought lags behind reality by ever greater degrees.”

Lesson: In their early days, SpaceX and Tesla projects were all met with derision and ridicule. “It’s not possible,” went the clarion call of conventional thinkers. Elon Musk proved them all wrong.

Today’s world demands that we be innovative in our thinking for tomorrow, to not only look for creative solutions to existing problems, but also to anticipate and solve problems before they arise.

6. Beyond just a job

“We don’t expect to work at a job we love, and so we don’t seek it. Rather, most people expect to work to make a living, preferring a decent, stable income and good working conditions. That is where the bar is. And if it’s good enough for most, it should be good enough for you. This is the standard and conventional form of thinking. Know it. Be aware of it. And fight it tooth and nail, because it’s all utter crap. ... it simply isn’t the way of the future. You can’t accept the low bar because your work and the marketplace won’t accept it of you.”

Lesson: The marketplace is increasingly demanding. Setting the bar high for ourselves isn’t just about building a career that we personally find fulfilling – it’s about meeting the demands that we will inevitably face in the future.

If you don’t love what you do, if you don’t find meaning in it then, as Smith argues, you set yourself up to be an expendable commodity. One of the key reasons why it’s important to build a career based on passion is because, when you love what you do, your work ceases to be work, and everyone benefits from the intensity, determination, commitment and effort you bring to what you do every day.

In conclusion

What does it mean to have a great career?

“You are looking for your destiny; you are looking for your life’s work; you are looking for the arena in which you will do battle; you are looking for your personal pathway to accomplishment; you are looking for the realization of your talent; you are looking for the epitaph on your tombstone. That is what a great career is.”

- Roshan Thiran is the Founder & CEO of Leaderonomics – a social enterprise working to transform lives through leadership development. Connect with Roshan on Facebook and Twitter for more insights into business, personal development, and leadership. To share your career journey with us, write in to

This article is available at, where you can download the PDF version.