The Single Most Important Professional Question You'll Ever Answer

by JD Supra Perspectives

What makes your story great? Great stories are made with great dots, and great dots come from breakout opportunities....

Invest in lines, not dots,” goes the venture capitalist’s mantra. Put another way, invest in stories, not snapshots. Who you are right now - as a person or as a company - is the result of the experiences that brought you to that place. The lines connect each milestone or important event in the story, and the upward trajectory you see in great lines make the best investment opportunities. That is, they’re all dots.

This holds true for individuals, too. As Gary Vaynerchuk says, the most important question you have to answer is, “What’s your story?” Your story, not your goals, not your greatest strength or weakness or why a tennis ball is fuzzy. It’s your story. And it’s up to you to make it great.

What makes your story great? Great stories are made with great dots, and great dots come from breakout opportunities. As LinkedIn founder (and venture capitalist, it should be noted) Reid Hoffman writes, “our professional lives are not a sequence of equally important jobs. There are always breakout projects, connections, specific experiences, and yes, strokes of luck—that lead to unusually rapid career growth.”

Think about it from the listener’s perspective. What’s compelling about you, and what will form the story in his or her mind? I hope it isn’t the merger agreement you slogged through on Tuesday morning, or the sales presentation you made in Denver two weeks ago. They could have been incredible (as far as these things can be incredible), but they shouldn’t be your narrative.

Breakout opportunities tell the story of why are you different from everyone else who does your job.

For example, when I worked in Big Law, many of my best experiences - and the ones that shape my story of professional growth from that time - all directly relate to doing something different from the typical law firm associate career path. I sought out opportunities to move to different offices (from San Diego, to New York, to London and back), through which I worked on deals all over the world and met great lawyers and clients, many of whom are still important to my career. Later, I was awarded a fellowship to help build a 1000-lawyer firm’s transactional pro bono program, where among other things I worked with an office-wide team to set up a legal clinic at Start Small Think Big, a fantastic non-profit in the Bronx.; Everyone knows what the “regular work” of a law firm associate looks like, more or less, and they probably don’t care about the parts they don’t know. I tell every law firm associate I meet to make the most of every opportunity that deviates from the standard associate track. It’s these opportunities that shape the story I tell about that part of my career. What shapes yours?

How do you find breakout opportunities?

First, you have to be very good at what you do, whatever that is and wherever you are in your career. No shortcut here. What you do every day absolutely matters, even if it is not the story itself; as Cal Newport notes, deliberate and thoughtful effort to create great work provides currency for breakout opportunities. I’m reminded of an interview I heard recently with Tim Ferriss and Ryan Holiday, where Holiday, a master marketer with an interesting reputation says, “the best way to sell a book is to write a really good book.” For our purposes, you’re the book -- the best way to get great opportunities is to work hard continually at making yourself great.

Second, you have to be known by people with whom you can create these opportunities. In short, you must “do things, tell people.”  Meet people in your company but outside your group. Meet people outside your company who are interested in something you like, whether or not it’s related to your work. I strongly advocate writing about what you know and publish it anywhere you can.  Writing for JD Supra has allowed me to reach a professional audience that fits my message; if you don’t know where to start, Medium is a great place to experiment and get feedback. Volunteer using your professional skills, or not.

Finally, say yes when you see a path to doing something interesting, even if it’s not clear how you’ll accomplish it or whether it fits snugly into your vision of your story. If you think it’s interesting enough to consider and you are looking for a way to make a mark, experiment with the opportunity to see where it goes. In the same podcast interview, Ferriss recounts a story of his early days in Silicon Valley, where he worked tirelessly as a volunteer with SVASE and TiE, non-profits serving the entrepreneurship community. By working hard and saying yes to doing everything no one else wanted to do, he met legends in the consumer products industry, one of whom encouraged him to write his first bestselling book.  That was his breakout opportunity, and it helped him build his career as a best-selling author. 

...say yes when you see a path to doing something interesting, even if it’s not clear how you’ll accomplish it or whether it fits snugly into your vision of your story.

According to Hoffman, “if you’re looking for opportunities, you’re really looking for people.” That is, work hard to be great at what you do; build relationships that make opportunities available; and when something interesting could happen, make it happen.

If you found value in this article, I’d appreciate it if you share it on LinkedIn and Twitter. Questions or comments? Please email me.  I’ll respond to every one.


[Josh Beser is Assistant General Counsel at Lonza, a global leader in life sciences and specialty ingredients with over 10,000 employees worldwide. Previously, Josh was a corporate associate at Bingham McCutchen LLP and Heller Ehrman LLP, representing emerging companies in the technology and life sciences industries. Connect with Josh on Twitter and LinkedIn.

JD Supra's In-House Perspective series provides in-house counsel a platform upon which to share their views and thought leadership on issues of the day, including industry news and legal developments, relationships with outside counsel, and law practice matters. To participate in the series, email]

[Image credit: on the walls at Shopify, via iDoneThis]

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