5 Rules to Break to Have the Career You Want

There are a lot of rules out there about how to get ahead in business (without really trying). Many of them have been told and retold so often over the years that we think they’re unquestionably true.

Chase your passion. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Fake it ’til you make it. Think outside the box. Follow your heart. Don’t leave money on the table. Nice guys finish last.

I could go on.

But instead of adding to the mystique, let’s break some rules and look at what actually gets you where you want to go.

1st rule to break: Follow your passion.

 No, you probably can’t be a professional sushi taster, Pinterest expert, oil painter or travel writer. And spending your whole life thinking you should be following your passion leads to an unsatisfying career. Our passions are like dessert—they give us a tasty reason to eat our vegetables … and go to work every day.

What our passions can do is motivate us to work smarter and think more creatively. Instead of following your passion, bring it along for the ride.

If you love photography, bring it into your job in training, graphic design or account service. Study Vivian Maier’s shots, try shooting on 120 film and learn to see the world differently. Then let that unique perspective inform how you think and how you do your job. It’ll make your work more enjoyable and your execution more creative.

2nd rule to break: Have a five-year plan.

Done right, a five-year plan can get the most motivated of us to the top. But, there’s a lot of room for laziness, distractions, emergencies and changes of heart in five-year plans.

Instead, set some life goals. Make a list—like actually write it down—of the things that are most important to you. It might be “travel more,” “become a partner in the firm” or “own my own company.”

Once you’ve established these goals, make every decision with them in mind. If the higher paying job leaves zero time for travel, don’t take it. If working late nights means you’ll be made partner, go for it. If taking a risk means you can open your own coffeehouse, do it.

The secret is in the ‘why.’ You’ll gladly take a pay cut, work longer hours or risk it all when you believe in why you’re doing it. And a career that works for you is a successful career.

3rd rule to break: Nice guys finish last.

Please, break this rule and be a nice guy who wins. There is nothing worse than a cutthroat, icy-eyed, out-for-himself team member.

It’s simple: be kind.

Don’t lie, gossip or throw people under the bus. Having the integrity to say “You know that headline you liked so much? Well, Jeff actually wrote it” will do wonders for your trust equity with your boss. And Jeff will respect you, too. People who trust and respect you now will make excellent references later in your career.

4th rule to break: Think outside the box.

 Anyone can think outside the box. It’s the Wild West out there. Pitching the idea that helicopters could drop iPads with PowerPoint presentations about your company’s product over the stadium at half time is outside-the-box thinking—and ridiculous.

We all know that “think outside the box” means “be creative.” But, it’s sometimes easier to come up with a creative solution when you know exactly what your immovable boundaries are.

If your client has a budget of $40,000, don’t pitch million dollar ideas. You’ll find the most ingenious ways to stay under budget by thinking inside the box. And you’ll wind up being known as a person who makes great decisions.

5th rule to break: Know your limits.

There’s a lot to be said for not overexerting yourself, for work-life balance, for the ability to say “no” to the things that drag you down. But “knowing your limits” can easily turn into an excuse for not growing.

What was a limit two years ago, when you only had one direct report, is no longer a limit now that you have six. You’ve matured, gained new skills and increased your capacity. And as you move the needle on your capacity, move your limit lines, too. When you demonstrate a growing capacity for responsibility, you’ll be the one to whom more is given (hello, promotion!)

In broad terms, we all want to have the same career—we want to be good at what we do, proud of what we contribute and hopeful in our futures. And sometimes, breaking the “rules” is the best way to win the game.