Planting seeds for a career breakthrough

These days, corporate ladders are few and far between.  The chances that you will retire at age 65 from the place that hires you at age 25 are nil. People move around between companies, companies disappear and new ones form, and people move in and out of solo work and professions.

That means that achieving career breakthroughs is slightly less straightforward than getting promoted by sheer endurance. When I was interviewing people for 168 Hours, one of the metaphors people used was planting seeds. In order to grow a tree, nature will scatter thousands of seeds. Eventually it becomes a numbers game. Plant enough and most likely you’ll get at least one tree.

So it goes with careers. These seeds can take different forms. Here are a few that have happened in my life, which I had absolutely no idea would sprout when I planted them:

* Writing a column on kids who skip high school for USA Today in August, 2002. That column was read by educational philanthropists Jan and Bob Davidson, who hired me to help them write a book on gifted education called Genius Denied. That project was more or less the bridge that enabled me to become a professional writer.

* Reading Mediabistro’s Revolving Door newsletter. About 2 years ago, I saw a small notice that Ivan Oransky (who’d also written columns for USA Today) had just taken a job as editor of ScientificAmerican.com. I sent him an email congratulating him on his new job. He wrote back, we met to discuss ideas, and shortly thereafter, I began writing a weekly column called Where Are They Now? about former Westinghouse Science Talent Search finalists. The column ran for a year (basically, until Ivan left Scientific American. I’m not claiming seeds can’t then go back in the ground!)

* Writing a review of Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated for The American. That review was read by Will Weisser, an executive at Penguin, who then contacted me to ask if I had any book ideas. 168 Hours is the result of that little meeting.

That last seed is particularly interesting to me because in the year and a half before I met Will I had planted dozens of other seeds trying to get the 168 Hours material into print. I’d written a 9-part series for the Huffington Post. I’d written columns about the topic for USA Today and elsewhere. I’d put my book proposal through three different iterations. Who knew it would be an unrelated book review that would finally sprout?

No one knows that. That’s why we have to plant so many seeds. So right now, I’m trying to notice when I am planting seeds. I’m trying to keep track of them. I’m asking some other people to do so as well. I’m trying to see if there’s some magic range where you start getting momentum of one form or another. While the biggie may happen randomly, I’m guessing that if you plant 50 serious seeds, something has to come of it. But wouldn’t it be fun to find an exact number?

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