From Hero To Zero

You may be smart and deliver stellar results, but an outsize ego will bring you enemies

Up until the age of 16, I won at everything: sports, academics, and I even got the girl. But since then—I am 32 now—people in a position of power or authority have consistently worked against me. Save the occasional mentor who says I remind him of his "younger self," I seem stuck in corporate limbo. Is the college hero destined for zero?— Anonymous, London

We're actually optimistic for you—because it is a rare jerk (for lack of a more decorous term) who knows he is a jerk. Usually people in your position blame others for their stalled careers; you seem to understand your own complicity in events. Most hopeful of all, you seem to be looking for a solution.

If we had to guess, your primary sin is a dynamic among some young people who, through a combination of luck and talent, develop an uninterrupted winning streak—they don't grow, they swell. The result is insufferable arrogance. Such people lord their success over co-workers by hoarding credit and belittling others' efforts. They don't share ideas except to show them off, and don't listen very well, if at all. Bosses can spot these team-killing behaviors a mile away, so it is no wonder that those with "power and authority" around you, as you put it, haven't exactly been cheering you on. You may be very smart and deliver stellar results, but almost nothing generates enemies in a company faster than an outsize ego.

Which is why—even with your admirable self-awareness—you may not be able to turn your career around at your current company. Too many burnt bridges. Too much of an embedded reputation.

So here is what we suggest: Explaining that you are hoping to change your dysfunctional ways, ask your bosses, peers, and subordinates to give you brutally honest feedback, anonymously (and in writing) if that makes it easier for them. Be prepared for a terrible awakening as people pour out your shortcomings with lots of stored-up resentment.

After you've processed what you've learned, sure, you can attempt a recovery in your current job. Who knows—people may be so delighted with your new humility and desire to improve that they will give you a second chance. More likely, however, you will need to move on, as some organizational wounds never heal. And it might be better for you to get a fresh start at a place where an entrenched reputation doesn't precede you at every turn.

Your new job search, of course, will probably be hobbled by mixed references. There is only one way to handle that: Tell prospective employers you swelled instead of grew because of your early successes, but you're eager to make amends in a new position. Assure them that you are committed to being a team player and that you will frequently seek feedback in order to stay on the straight and narrow.

Your past failings will hurt you. There's no sugarcoating that. But eventually, a good employer will be impressed with your early record of success and your obvious talent, plus your newfound maturity. Good luck starting over. We're betting you won't make the same mistake twice.

I am thinking of studying Portuguese, but in your opinion, what language should I learn to succeed in the world of business? And what fields of study hold the most potential? — Marketa Strakova, Tabor, Czech Republic

You're on to something with Portuguese, since it will give you a leg up in several markets with good potential, such as Brazil and some emerging African nations. Spanish is also a good choice, as it will allow you to operate with more ease throughout Latin America, and increasingly, the U.S. But for our money—and if you can manage the much higher order of commitment—Chinese is the language to learn. China is already an economic powerhouse. It will only gain strength. Anyone who can do business there with the speed and intimacy that fluency affords will earn a real competitive edge.

As for what to study—if you want to be where the action is now and for the next couple of decades, consider the industries focused on alternative sources of energy. Or learn everything you can about the confluence of three fields: biotechnology, information technology, and nanotechnology. For the foreseeable future, the therapies, machines, devices, and other products and services that these fields bring to market will revolutionize society—and business.

That said, when it comes to picking an educational field and ultimately a career, absolutely nothing beats pursuing the path that truly fascinates your brain, engages your energy, and touches your soul. Whatever you do, do what turns your crank. Otherwise your job will always be just work, and how dreary is that?

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