Building a Rock Solid Career Reputation

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I’m currently working my way through The 48 Laws of Power by Robert Greene. The book is fascinating as it draws on dozens of historical examples to pull out key takeaways and suggestions for building power and influence. Each chapter is dedicated to a particular lesson or takeaway and how you can apply it to your own life.

A few chapters in particular have stood out to me, but one in particular (Law 5 – “So Much Depends on Your Reputation—Guard It With Your Life”) is applicable to some of the topics I’ve been writing about recently.

In the beginning, you must work to establish a reputation for one outstanding quality, whether generosity or honesty or cunning. This quality sets you apart and gets other people to talk about you. You then make your reputation known to as many people as possible (subtly, though; take care to build slowly, and with a firm foundation), and watch as it spreads like wildfire.

The two parts are then:

  1. Building a reputation.
  2. Spreading your reputation.

The trick is always “How?”. How exactly do you build a reputation? Perhaps more importantly, once you have that reputation, how do you spread that reputation without feeling like a selfish jerk?

This post will touch on the first piece – building the reputation. I recently wrote a piece on The Muse all about soft skills that will help you excel in your career. I have another one coming up on Todoist about demonstrating your value within an organization.

I wanted to pull together some common threads from the research I did for both that apply to building a reputation and some distinct points in the process that I’ve found helpful. In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss some thoughts on spreading that reputation and talking about yourself without feeling sleezy.

Building a Career Reputation

Since we must live in society and must depend on the opinions of others, there is nothing to be gained by neglecting your reputation. By not caring how you are perceived, you let others decide this for you. Be the master of your fate, and also of your reputation. – The 48 Laws of Power, p. 43

Adopting a Craftsman Mindset

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, author Cal Newport defines two distinct career approaches, which he terms the craftsman and passion mindsets.

In the passion mindset, you’re focused only on what the world offers you. He argues that it represents the way most people think about their working lives. They’re solely focused on the development opportunities, autonomy, and challenging projects the job offers. He points out two flaws to this approach.

  1. “When you focus only on what your work offers you, it makes you hyperaware of what you don’t like about it, leading to chronic unhappiness.”
  2. “…the deep questions driving the passion mindset—”Who am I?” and “What do I truly love?”—are essentially impossible to confirm.”

In contrast, Newport classifies the craftsman mindset as an output-centric approach to work. Instead of focusing on what the world offers you, the craftsman mindset focuses on what you can offer the world.

It [the craftsman mindset] asks you to leave behind self-centered concerns about whether your job is “just right,” and instead put your head down and plug away at getting really damn good. No one owes you a great career, it argues; you need to earn it—and the process won’t be easy.

In my view, this distinction between a passion and craftsman approach to work is key. The former is far more common. The latter is far harder and therefore that much more rewarding.

Deciding What to Focus On

The craftsman mindset drills in the importance of focusing on what you can offer the world and and of getting really good at your craft. Once you have adopted that mindset though, how do you decide what to drill down on? What skill(s) should you build your reputation around?

In an upcoming Todoist post, I teased apart the difference between intensive and extensive skills within the workplace. Pulling again from The 48 Laws of Power and using the distinction between Michelangelo and Henry Kissinger to illustrate the difference:

Michelangelo’s power was intensive, depending on one skill, his ability as an artist; Kissinger’s was extensive. He got himself involved in so many aspects and departments of the administration that his involvement became a card in his hand.” 48 Laws of Power p. 87

Intensive value is derived from a specific skill you’ve developed over time. You’re the best developer/marketer/teacher in the world.

In contrast, extensive value is derived from your relationships with others. You’re viewed as a connector within an organization. You’re involved in moving multiple related but separate projects along.

Both are valuable within an organization. While I don’t think you have to select one at the complete exclusion of the other, I do believe it’s easier to identify one that you’re going to focus on specifically. For example, if your career goal is to build intensive value and become the best developer on the planet, it’s going to require a completely different approach than building extensive value and moving into the C suite.

Becoming Really Damn Good

With the craftsman mindset, we’re approaching our career as a progression, something we can build on an improve. With the distinction between intensive and extensive, we have identified the unique value we can bring to an organization. The final step then is building that value or to reference Newport again, “plug away at getting really damn good.”

In So Good They Can’t Ignore You, this bit requires three aspects:

  1. Deliberate practice – Staying intensely focused on the value you want to build and practicing week in and week out.
  2. Feedback – Align yourself with experts and ask them to give you candid feedback. Learn how to receive that feedback well.
  3. Patience – It takes time to get good. Sticking with something for a year is not enough.

One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from Steve Martin. When discussing his approach to learning the banjo during an interview with Charlie Rose, Martin explained:

[I thought], if I stay with it, then one day I will have been playing for forty years, and anyone who sticks with something for forty years will be pretty good at it.” – So Good They Can’t Ignore You, p. 98


I’ll be the first to admit that this approach mentioned above – starting with the right mindset, drilling down on what you’re going to be good at, then focusing on how you’re going to improve – is unique and contrary to how many go about their careers. I really do believe it’s a path to a rewarding career though. I would also highly recommend picking up all of Cal Newport’s books as they’re fantastic if you’re into this sort of topic.

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