In the hierarchical economy, young people contemplate the ladder of success and how to climb it. They collect college degrees, accreditations and skill certificates that they believe will accelerate their upward progress, or give them a start on a higher rung, or at least get them an interview with a higher-up who may become a mentor and career advisor. The mindset is all about climbing, often over others. This hierarchical mindset is not conducive to collaboration.
In the new, networked and highly interconnected Individual Economy, “How can I climb?” is the wrong question. The first question is, “Who Am I?” It helps you to understand your own uniqueness. “Who Am I?” is not about so-called strengths and weaknesses, it’s about confidently finding your own uniqueness.
What’s the purpose of finding uniqueness? It’s to answer a further set of questions: “Where do I fit in?” and “How can I contribute?” In a networked economy, success is not the result of climbing up a vertical hierarchical ladder by doing what you are told to do by higher-ups. It’s a process of providing useful services horizontally to other nodes in the network, and receiving commensurate benefits in return. The individual may be an employee, or a contractor, or an individual contributor to a project who enters to perform a service and exits when the task is completed. In all cases it’s a horizontal exchange of a needed service from a uniquely qualified provider. The more the individual demonstrates excellence as a service provider to other nodes, the greater the demand for service. It’s a positive feedback loop that can advance you through life.
Tyler Bonin illustrates this principle with a beautiful example from his personal experience. His advice is impeccable: don’t feel entitled, ask how you can contribute.
Every commencement season, thousands of graduates are treated to something I call “standard keynote language.” Everyone can recognize these tiny, easily digestible nuggets of wisdom: “Don’t be afraid to take risks,” or “Be courageous.” And the classic: “Follow your passion.” This is sound, albeit clichéd, advice. What would I recommend? “Mop your way to success.”
A mop, used for cleaning floors, isn’t a magical tool for success. Rather, it is a reminder that there should be no
When I was a student at Duke, I worked in a retail store. Many of my co-workers were also college students, some in graduate school, and one was on her way to dental school. Many of my colleagues hated mopping, which required going into the haven of filth that was the public bathroom. I had plenty of practice in this area as a former Marine Corps private, so I always volunteered for the job.
My managers noticed. They named me employee of the month and promoted me to management for the holiday rush—a small success at a small store. I learned that a sense of entitlement is a burden. People who believe themselves above something, or entitled to something more because of past achievements, will find that new opportunities slip away.
I volunteered for the necessary task, signaling my work ethic and dedication to the organization. I simply wanted to do my job as best as possible. Perhaps I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was emulating senior Marines who would roll up their sleeves and get dirty when the job required it.
I have met countless others who tell similar stories. A successful consultant told me that after graduating from a top-tier university, he spent a year piecing together tedious part-time jobs while volunteering at startups—only to prove himself. As competitive as the U.S. economy is, efforts like this are only becoming more common.
This may seem unfair considering the hurdles young graduates face today. Older generations didn’t have to deal with the dehumanization of the hiring process through automated résumé-parsing software. And the levels of experience required for entry-level jobs seem only to increase. The generations that pushed for college education for all never struggled with these obstacles. It’s an unfair but natural product of the evolving economy.
Certainly there is a time to be bold, but there is also a time for humility. A task once considered beneath you could actually be the key to your success. Do the job nobody wants, because, believe it or not, somebody appreciates it. Volunteer to learn and to provide value to others. Find a dream job by first doing the rote tasks in that field, without complaint. Pick up a mop.
Mr. Bonin teaches high-school economics and history in Raleigh, N.C.
This article appeared in the print edition of The Wall Street Journal on May 29, 2018.