Everybody has heard the saying, “Work smarter, not harder,” but isn’t it hard work just thinking about ways to be smarter? The following eight pieces of professional advice will serve to inspire or revolutionize your strategies for success, as they have done for mine.

1. Find a person who has the life or job you want.

Purely as a result of their own ego, this person will tell you all about how they got where they are, and how you can too. Even if this is a person you don’t know that well, drop them an email to ask if you can buy them a coffee and talk about their job. I did this three times while working in banking; bankers aren’t known for their generosity, but they are known for their ego, and what does any successful ego love more than talking about itself? I’ve also done this several times since leaving finance to go into my dream career, medicine. (Another benefit of this is they always insist on buying the coffee anyway.)

2. Develop an interesting and relevant skill that isn’t a prerequisite.

Everybody who is worthy of being called your competition has the necessary skills and experience for the job you want. Just like driving through a city at rush hour, if you try to beat everyone else on what is normally the proper, most efficient route to work, you will arrive later than if you took the slightly inconvenient back roads with less traffic. The same goes for the skills market: you need to be good at the prerequisite skills, but if you only put your energy into those, you might find the traffic on that route overwhelming when you try to stand out. Develop a niche skill that is desirable but not something the competition has to have. It will make you more interesting and more useful.

3. Get a mentor.

Ideally this would be somebody senior within your company, but really it can be anybody more experienced than you in your industry: someone who is respected and who has influence. Again, if you appeal to this person’s ego and/or generous side, you will have somebody you can send hundreds of career-related questions to. They will also become incredibly useful when you need somebody to vouch for you.

4. Realign your day-to-day efforts with the expectations you have for your future.

If you picture yourself achieving something impressive one day, then ask yourself: “Am I doing anything that is impressive right now?” If the answer is no, then you need to pick up your game. You can’t plod along in the middle of the pack if one day you hope to lead it. What are you already doing today to set yourself apart from your peers?

5. Make a five-year plan.

This isn’t just to help you figure out where you want to be in five years’ time; most importantly it is a detailed plan of how you’re going to get there. Start with where you want to be in five years and then work back, step-by-step, including each task/project/accomplishment you will need to achieve to move between steps. The results will probably scare you because if you’re ambitious you will realize there are steps you need to take now to be on schedule.

6. Don’t say, “If it’s meant to be, then it will happen.”

This thought is incredibly comforting and it can occasionally be useful when you’re bravely bouncing back from a setback. But really this thought is just an excuse for inaction. It will be toxic to achievement if you’re not careful because this mind-set may remove the burden of progress from you and allows you to become passive instead of leading the charge on your goals.

7. Surround yourself with people you admire and ditch the ones who breed negativity.

People tend to recalibrate their definitions of what is normal, what is possible, and what counts as success based on their surroundings. You can achieve things that nobody thought possible of you once you’ve reset your standards to a higher point. At the same time, the more successful or happy you become, the more you will either encourage negativity or inspiration in your friends or colleagues. They may have to adapt to a new perspective of what is possible. Surround yourself with people you admire to raise the bar for yourself so you accomplish more, and get rid of those people who want to bring you back down to the level that they’re comfortable with. Just be careful that the people you admire are a diverse group or you risk becoming a polarized, one-dimensional person.

8. Practical intelligence is a much higher predictor of success than IQ—work on it!

A decent IQ is a prerequisite for any good job, but it’s repeatedly been shown to not be a great indicator of success. In fact, research suggests once you have a moderately high IQ (>125), this is sufficient for pretty much most jobs in the world. A much more reliable indicator of someone’s success than IQ is their creative and practical intelligence. Malcolm Gladwell, author of Outliers, describes this as, “not knowledge for its own sake. It’s knowledge that helps you read situations correctly and get what you want.” A high IQ enables you to apply yourself very well to a given task, which is good but isn’t going to set you apart. To be successful in the world you have to create tasks, and figure out which tasks you should apply yourself to in the first place.

Have you got any hot tips for young players? Have you ever been given professional advice that worked really well for you? Let us know in the comments below.

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