Work is hard. Everyone wants to succeed but it is often difficult to know how to grow professionally. In my experience, the best way to excel in your workplace is to take decisive, proactive action whenever possible. In a world where everyone is always too busy, the willingness to consistently take action is a massive differentiator.
I took a circuitous route through my early-to-mid twenties, which meant that I graduated with an undergraduate degree slightly later than some of my peers. By the time I started my second tech job at Acorns, I was in my late twenties and eager to grow professionally. During my first week or two of onboarding, I was scheduled to have 1:1 meetings with several colleagues from a wide range of business functions (engineering, legal, management, etc).
One of my introductory meetings was with Andrew Ngai, during which he gave me a piece of advice that has resonated with me ever since. While I don’t remember the exact phrasing he used, it was along the lines of this:
If you see something you want to do, do it. Feel free to dive in anywhere.
Perhaps it was just serendipity that I was at a point in my life with a lot of energy, drive, and excitement to grow, but this advice struck a chord in me. As someone who is naturally reserved, this advice gave me permission to be assertive. My previous job had not been challenging enough, and I found myself yearning for more chances to flex my engineering muscles and dive in to complex problems. Needless to say, I was thrilled to have permission to explore.
This advice has since congealed into a philosophy that is central to my work life:
Take decisive action whenever possible.
- Eric’s workplace axioms #1
I committed myself with vigor to my work at Acorns. I found a lot of half-started test suites and abandoned attempts at automation (I was hired as a QA Engineer), and found myself asking into the void: “Does anyone know why this test was written this way? Does anyone mind if I update this pattern? Will I break anything if I change this configuration?”
What I quickly realized about the work culture at Acorns has since become a central tenet of my professional outlook:
Everyone is always too busy.
- Eric’s workplace axioms #2
As soon as I realized that everyone was too busy to care or spend time on my questions or problems, my universe completely opened up. I remembered Andrew’s advice and realized that the sky was the limit for the impact I could have on the organization. I dedicated myself to writing tests, configuring automation infrastructure, writing documentation, and testing the crap out of my team’s product. What I realized was that this type of behavior was highly valued by my manager and even other company leadership. My voice became respected at work, I slowly gained more responsibility, and I was rewarded with a raise and promotion. This wasn’t because of anything remarkable I did, but simply because I took action.
As I’ve moved through my professional life, I’ve become even more convinced that taking action is the number one key to professional success. I think the power of this rule lies in its simplicity. It doesn’t seem possible that taking any action could be a differentiator, but it is. This is because most people are content to just wait for someone to tell them what to do. The mere fact that you’re willing to take action will set you apart from your peers.
There is another important takeaway hidden in the axiom “Everyone is always too busy”: if you are consistently waiting around for other people (boss or peers) to tell you what they want you to do, you will never grow your skills or broaden your responsibilities. Why? Because everyone is always too busy, and they are not spending their time thinking about you. Taking initiative will be doubly appreciated in this case: once for whatever you actually did, and a second time for alleviating the need to tell you what to do.
Getting Over the Fear of Failure
In my experience, very few people are willing to take risks; this is a totally understandable perspective, because taking risks inherently exposes you to the possibility of failure. However, there is a secret that most people don’t realize: given that people are always too busy (see above), most people will never notice your failures. Most people experience some degree of professional and personal insecurity; this is beneficial because it means that there is a much higher chance that your colleague is worried about themself rather than worrying about you or your failures!
In contrast to the occasional (inevitable) failure, every success you have will be magnified substantially because it is likely above-and-beyond what anyone expected of you in the first place. The more you’re willing to dive into uncomfortable territory, the faster you will achieve results and the faster you will learn how to deliver value to the business. This will inevitably have a net positive result for your team, and by extension you will be seen as highly competent and effective.
Taking action means taking risk, but the risk of failure is significantly mitigated by the fact that your colleagues are probably too busy to notice or care about your mistakes. I have found that we all can exploit this quirk of human behavior by leaning into action. If you relentlessly take action at work, you might experience a distribution of effects along the lines of this:
- ⅓ successful results
- ⅓ neutral results
- ⅓ failure results
Even if you don’t buy my logic that most people will ignore your failures, this still leads to a distribution of ⅔ neutral-or-positive outcomes and only ⅓ negative outcomes. While a neutral outcome is typically not a goal that most people pursue, I am confident that even neutral results end up accumulating into overall positive professional results.
How can neutral results end up having a positive impact? Because people generally have a bias towards action as a positive trait. When people take action, we all have a natural inclination to believe that it correlates with productivity. If, on average, you take more action than your peers, you will appear more productive, even if your average action only has a neutral outcome for your business function.
Don’t get me wrong: taking action is primarily useful because it helps you grow faster and achieve more. But, if the risk of failure is holding you back from taking more action, take solace in knowing it will be professionally useful even if you fail regularly.
If the simplicity of “Take Action” is too simplistic, it might help to explore alternative ways to slowly shift your perspective in the workplace. A popular phrase that I’ve found useful for myself is this:
Ask for forgiveness, not permission
- Eric’s workplace axioms #3
A necessary caveat: use common sense when applying this principle. For example, this approach obviously does not extend to workplace violence in any form. However, in terms of doing things that naturally fall within your professional role, adopting this perspective is very useful.
I work as a software engineer, which can naturally incur risk. For example, changing production configurations can be extremely stressful if it takes down your app! The natural risks that exist in any workplace can often cause people to be timid, but I believe that this is a mistake. Any healthy organization should live by the principle that production errors are due to issues with the process, not the people. What this means is that if you mess something up, it is because the systems in place allowed you to mess up.
To take some specific examples from engineering, here are some things that I encourage new engineers to tinker with as soon as possible when they join an organization:
- CI pipelines
- Production deployments
- Connecting to databases
These can be really scary, and of course you want to proceed with a healthy sense of safety when dealing with production resources. That said, allowing yourself to feel comfortable with these systems as quickly as possible will build confidence when it comes to having a real impact. Side benefit: if you discover a gaping security concern, you will get huge kudos for patching it or escalating to the proper team!
Aside from the scary things in a new workplace, the perspective of “asking for forgiveness rather than permission” is useful in all sorts of small ways too.
- Rather than asking for permission to update some old documentation, just edit it and tell your team after you’re done. Trust me, they will thank you.
- Rather than asking for permission to fix a slow process, just take an afternoon and fix it. Nobody will notice that you weren’t doing your “normal” job, but they will be thrilled that you saved them all time and effort.
- Rather than asking for permission to reach out to executives in your company to escalate concerns or ask for advice, just send them a concise and professional email and wait for a reply. Executives hardly ever receive this kind of outreach that they will be impressed by your initiative, and pass the praise along to your supervisor. (This applies to colleagues in other departments too.)
This can be a difficult perspective to adopt, particularly for new workers, but I’m convinced that adopting this perspective sooner than later will yield massive professional benefits.
Taking action is a deceptively simple way to boost your professional output and level up your career. I find career success to be hugely rewarding because it boosts my self esteem and makes me feel valuable. If you are looking for a simple way to be better in your current role, I strongly encourage you to start finding small ways you can take more action in your job. Develop a habit of starting with small tasks and gradually taking on larger responsibilities over time.
Regardless of the tangible effects (e.g. money, title), I am confident that it will make your work more interesting and give you a greater sense of autonomy. We all want to feel good about ourselves when we spend a huge chunk of our lives working, and I hope that this advice can be as useful for you as it has been for me.