Until recently, success in business was widely viewed as belonging to the exclusive realm of Type-A Masters of the Universe—the kinds of people who pride themselves on the volume of their voices, the strength of their handshakes, and the number of words they can cram into every conversation. But beginning three-quarters-of-a-decade ago, many people have been seriously re-examining the assumption that more outspoken and more aggressive equals more effective.
The biggest factor in this shift in thinking was the 2012 publication of first-time author Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking. The book led to a massively popular TED Talk, and before long, it seemed that every executive, entrepreneur, and recruiter was obsessed with the untapped power of reflection and deep focus that they had overlooked for…well, ever.
Susan Cain has wanted to be a writer since she was a kid. So, when I heard she had co-founded a consulting company based on the principles in Quiet, I was intrigued. The consultancy, Quiet Revolution, is not another name for Cain advising people on an ad hoc basis. It has a corporate structure, operations-focused CEO, and dedicated facilities.
I was intrigued by the move. I investigated and soon learned that this sort of thing is a recurring pattern in Cain’s career. The next step was to track her down and ask her for an interview, which I did. Fortunately, she agreed.
What emerged from our conversation are 5 principles that everyone should follow when deciding whether to move on to a new career opportunity or stay put and hunker down.
1. Have a Plan B
Before Susan Cain was a professional writer, she was a corporate lawyer. Despite always having seen herself as an arty type, she came to find the work interesting, was good at it, and ended up on the partner track. Her life seemed secure.
One day, however, she got some news she wasn’t expecting. “I was told I wasn’t making partner,” she said, “Somehow, I was simultaneously devastated and liberated. I immediately told my firm I was taking a leave of absence. I had no specific plans. At first, I thought I’d travel. But then I took a Creative Nonfiction class, and I felt I’d come home. I decided I would organize my life around writing.”
The thumbnail version of this story is the sort of follow-your-dreams scenario those of us with entrepreneurial or artistic ambitions hear all the time. But what it leaves out is the extent to which Cain’s quick decision was enabled by a set of conditions that shielded her from significant risk. For example, she worked out a leave-of-absence arrangement with her firm that allowed her to come back to her job at any time. Likewise, she had amassed savings that allowed her to explore different options once she was on her own.
“Having Plan B’s and safety nets are crucial to making bold fearless moves,” Cain explained to me, “There’s this idea that if you’re not willing to take this giant risk, you’re not dedicated enough, but that’s just B.S. We all have to eat.”
Follow Susan Cain’s example. Ignore all the glorified tales of bold entrepreneurs throwing it all away to pursue their dreams. Don’t get sucked in by these media-ready myths. Instead, before you chuck away your current gig, make contingencies so that if your new plan doesn’t go perfectly, you have other options. That’s not being timid; it’s being smart.
2. Make Plenty of Bets
When Susan Cain decided she was going to seriously pursue writing, she didn’t immediately come up with the idea for Quiet, jam it out in six months, and start raking in the accolades. Her path was far less straightforward. “I worked on a lot of different things,” she explained, “I wrote a play, worked on a memoir, and so on. Actually, I had no prediction that Quiet would become the kind of hit it became. It struck me as too offbeat.”
Often, when deciding which opportunity to pursue, we try to reverse engineer success. We draw up lists of pros and cons, imagine scenarios that would cause things to turn out this way or that, and worry ourselves sick with what ifs. But in fact, there’s no way to know whether a move is a good one until you make it.
The antidote is to try a lot of stuff. Do small projects and pursue ideas that are limited in scope. At least at first. Observe which ones get the most traction. Then follow those leads.
3. Turn Roadblocks Into Stepping Stones
When Susan Cain first went into corporate law, she told me she didn’t see herself as a natural negotiator. But as time went on, she began to realize that her low-key demeanor and conciliatory manner, which were atypical in that environment, actually gave her an advantage.
Years later, Cain’s experience of being an introvert in an extrovert’s world, and finding a way to benefit from it, played a major role in sparking the idea for her blockbuster book.
All of us have things we don’t like about ourselves and have to endure experiences we wish we could avoid. Ironically, it is as an outgrowth of these traits and experiences that much of the best data about which direction to go in our careers reside. If you can manage to figure out how to turn a weakness into a strength or an obstacle into an opportunity, you have, by definition, done something creative. You have solved a problem. You have forged a new way. And it is in these sorts of endeavors that new opportunities lie.
4. Embrace Serendipity
Susan Cain did not expect for Quiet to be anywhere near as successful as it was, financially or otherwise. As time went on, it was the “otherwise” that had the biggest impact on her. She regularly had encounters with people who told her their lives were profoundly affected by her work. They said that before reading her book or seeing her speak, they felt bad about who they were. Now they were invigorated and had a new path forward in their careers and lives.
Cain could have ignored these repeated encounters and settled down to write her next book. Instead, she chose to see these conversations as information, and they gave her a clue as to what to do next. To this end, she teamed up with JP Morgan alumnus Paul Scibetta to start her consulting firm in order to spread the ideas she pioneered far and wide.
There will be times that you have a fixed plan of success in your head, but then events will conspire to show you that at this very moment there’s a path that only you can go down and an opportunity available to only you. To ignore these signs is a potential tragedy. Become sensitive to them and use them to guide you.
5. Always Come Back to Your Core
Then again, it is vital not to lose sight of your core reason for being. If you have an overriding dream or mission, it is all right to take a detour or to pursue activities that might get you closer to it. At the same time, you should take care not to forget to return to the endeavor that brings you the greatest fulfillment, no matter the specific form it might take at any given time. When I asked Cain whether she was happy having dedicated so much energy to consulting, she said to me, “Actually, I’m really focused on writing my book right now. Ultimately, I’m a writer. Writing is what I like to do.”
It’s important to be deliberate when making career moves. But it’s essential to keep in mind why you got into it all in the first place.