I’ve spent years studying how people can navigate a successful career in the turbulent twenty-first century economy, and put what I found in my new book, “How to Win in a Winner-Take-All World.” For the book, I visited some of the biggest and most successful companies in the world (Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, Walmart, many more) and examined what it takes to thrive at the large organizations that are the superstar firms of our age. And in my day job, I am a senior economic correspondent for the New York Times, so if you’d like to talk about anything else economic-y, I’m game for that too!

Update: Thanks everyone for the great questions! Hope you find my answers helpful!

Proof: https://i.redd.it/ux335pox6l631.jpg

Comments: 339 • Responses: 22  • Date: 

place_artist355 karma

How do we incentivize current college students towards being value-creators (research physicists, entrepreneurs) and away from being value-swappers (hedge fund traders, investment bankers) in the overblown financial sector?

NeilIrwin183 karma

I think about this a lot, and I'm not even that hostile to the financial sector in theory (in reality, of course, financialization of the economy has fueled a lot of problems). I do think that the era of higher capital standards and more intense regulation has taken some of the sheen off of jobs at the traditional Wall Street banks (the hours are still difficult, but there are fewer seven or eight figure paydays than there used to be), but at the same time the scale and appeal of private equity has taken off, and while some parts of the PE industry likely do create value by running companies better, other parts are more pure leverage plays that just stack on risks and extract resources for their investors and managers.

Apart from paying research physicists and engineers in the "real economy" (as opposed to financial economy) better, it seems to me that financial regulators viewing extreme compensation schemes warily is the only tool that might shift this equation. That and a significantly higher top marginal tax rate, I suppose.

Calembreloque188 karma

So, as many people my generation, I'm obviously incredibly worried about the state of our planet and the ramping up of economic inequality in our society. I think it's fair to say that most, if not all, of these "superstar" companies have played (and still play) an important role in the degradation of our social foundations and the general shittiness of our situation - whether it's Goldman Sachs ushering the recession or Walmart dodging health insurance for their workers.

What advice do you have for someone who wants to be able to put food on the table and save for retirement, but would rather work towards improving the state of our society, and not contributing to these companies? In other words, do you think it's possible to "win" if you don't agree with the "game" in question?

NeilIrwin56 karma

I think it's a mistake to view the rise of superstar firms as inherently antithetical to building a society that has less inequality and a more humane form of capitalism for middle- and working-class people.

It is true that the rise of this class of firms has coincided with wider inequality and other deep economic dysfunctions. But I believe that the emergence of these companies is tied to deep-seated technological trends that aren't likely to change anytime soon. Meanwhile, public policy has drifted in a direction that contributes to these destructive trends.

Compare it to industrialization a century ago. The problems it created—poor labor standards, powerful companies that controlled the political system—were reduced through public policy, but that didn't change the economic reality that large industrial companies were central to the 20th century economy.

I elaborate more in this piece: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2019/06/its-a-winner-take-all-world-heres-how-to-get-ahead/591700/

thebeaststirs169 karma

Let’s be honest all these help books are bullshit sold to the hopeless idiots , what do you think sir snakeoil seller ?

NeilIrwin222 karma

Look, there is indeed a lot of snake oil out there in the business advice book genre, and others will have to judge whether I'm guilty of adding to that. But I tried hard to do a deep dive into the evidence, from academics and other researchers, and through case studies from major companies, of what it takes to succeed given the shifts that dominate the modern economy.

I'm not promising some One Easy Trick that will make you a success in your career. I make clear this stuff is hard, and to have a durable career it really will take hard work and expertise in addition to the traits I urge people to cultivate in the book.

WooPig4578 karma

Should journalists learn to code?

NeilIrwin139 karma

So I know that this is meant as a trolly question, but here's the thing: Yes.

Not literally every journalist, and for some roles it's not really needed. But especially for someone starting out, having enough programming skills to be able to scrape some data from a website or analyze microdata of a large data set can be extremely valuable.

And even if you're not doing that kind of work, as I argue in the book a key to succeeding in modern organizations is being a "glue person," someone who can work effectively on teams with very different types of skills. So if you are a journalist who has only modest coding skills yourself, but those enable you to communicate and collaborate better with hardcore software developers, you're more likely to be able to succeed in building great products for your organization and have a more viable career.

GreatAndPowerfulNixy66 karma

What do we do if we don't want to work in the horrific conditions that the corporate lifestyle forces on you?

NeilIrwin71 karma

It's a totally reasonable choice. The corporate lifestyle isn't for everybody—coming into an office every day, sitting through boring meetings, collaborating with colleagues and bosses. And there certainly exist pathways outside of the corporate world that can make for perfectly good careers.

But my argument is that the nature of modern technology is that much of the opportunity to build products that are competitive in the 21st century economy will come in large, technologically sophisticated firms. So this book is aimed at those who are able to make peace with that and wish to work within them.

Porkins94131 karma

You say you "examined what it takes to thrive at the large organizations that are the superstar firms of our age." So is our only hope to try to get a job at Google or something of that ilk? Because, clearly, that's not in the cards for most people.

NeilIrwin39 karma

Yeah, while high-performing superstar companies like Google or Goldman Sachs or whichever you would like to name, while they're becoming more dominant, are still going to account for only a minuscule portion of total employment. But I really do believe that the ways of working within them are becoming more and more commonplace across the business landscape, and a savvy person needs to understand that way of working even if they end up at a smaller firm nobody has ever heard of.

I think the shift underway is equivalent of the shift toward industrialization in the early 20th century. Not everybody ended up working at Ford or General Electric. But the ways a modern industrial organization like those worked ended up percolating through even to smaller industrial companies, and some of the same advice that applied to working at Ford or GE would have been useful for any young person embarking on a career in, say, the 1920s.

BombAssDay28 karma

How would your advice differ for a 20, 30, 40, and 50 year old?

NeilIrwin66 karma

The biggest thing about the earlier brackets goes back to this idea of a career lattice. When you're in the earliest stages of your career, moving laterally is less risky, and you should be more inclined to do it. To use the metaphor, if you fall you're not as far off the ground.

To use me as an example, I'm 40, and a senior economics correspondent at the Times. It would be way riskier for me to try something completely new—sportswriter, politics writer, social media editor, whatever—than when I was 25. Take advantage of that freedom.

place_artist21 karma

What happens when, mid-career, our jobs get automated? On a similar note, how can we implement a UBI that will work?

NeilIrwin40 karma

It's a tough situation that will affect more and more service-industry professionals as AI gets better—equivalent to the wave of robotic innovation that contributed to falling manufacturing employment in the last 20 years.

There are two basic approaches to dealing with this reality I examine in the book. First is to focus your career on the elements of your industry that are not very susceptible to automation, because they involve a major human touch, quick decision-making amid uncertainty, and constantly changing circumstances. In medicine, for example, radiologists are very vulnerable to automation but emergency room doctors aren't.

The second option is to put yourself in position to drive the automation process, rather than being a victim of it. For example, instead of being the lawyer who reviews contracts all day, you want to position yourself as the lawyer who knows some computer programming and can work effectively with software developers to create contract-reviewing AI software.

CortexiphanSubject8120 karma

It seems like more than ever, it's who you know, not what you can do. Any advice for those of us that are lousy at networking?

NeilIrwin80 karma

I think networking turns so many people off because there is one particular type of it that really is offputting and hard for most of us. Walking into the cocktail hour of a conference, for example, and trying to approach random people and make smalltalk and develop relationships is hellish for a lot of people, and not just extreme introverts (I'm fairly extraverted and find that experience quite unpleasant, for one).

The good news is that I know of no evidence that that type of networking really is particularly useful for career advancement. But meanwhile, there are other forms of networking that are essential.

A quiet coffee with a person in your field who is at your level of seniority or maybe a tier or two up is likely to be far more valuable than approaching some big-time CEO or other very senior person after a panel discussion, for example.

Sebastian98765418 karma

How do you feel about job-hoppers?

What do you recommend people do to be most successful in their careers?

NeilIrwin45 karma

When I first started working on this project, I hoped that I would find conclusive evidence that one approach to a career (job-hopping vs. loyalty to one company, for example) was clearly better. I didn't really find it. It turns whether someone jumped around a lot or stayed at one place for a long time isn't really a predictor of future success.

That being the case, instead of some one-size-fits all advice, I think of it this way: One of the big advantages of staying within one organization is that if they respect your abilities, they're more likely to allow you to stretch your wings and try something new even if you don't have a conventional resume for that role. That, in turn, can enable you broaden your experience and position yourself to be much better off in the longer run.

So to job hop or not job hop? Depends on whether your organization gives you those kinds of opportunities to stretch. If not, sure, hop away.

Kessarean7 karma

What do you find on office politics? I hate “the game” and sacrificing my beliefs/personality to prove a point to the higher ups. Is there any hope of just being me, doing good work, and succeeding?

NeilIrwin25 karma

So I classify office politics in two buckets. One is good, one is bad.

The good kind of office politics is mostly about information gathering: Understanding who your colleagues are and what motivates them; what managers are good to work for and not-so-good; how the organization is changing.

This kind of office politics is ESSENTIAL, and can only be gained, in some cases, by making a point to engage in casual chitchat with your colleagues, go to the occasional team happy hour, or whatever it may be, even if that's not your natural inclination.

There's nothing wrong with being a little bit self-promotional and knowing what levers to pull to ensure your bosses notice your good work! If it doesn't come naturally, it's something worth working on, just as we all have to work on things that don't come naturally.

The bad kind of office politics is the form where people undermine each other, try to manipulate situations for their own advantage, and otherwise game the system to get ahead, rather than just doing good work. This is toxic and a workplace with a lot of it is an unpleasant place to work. If it's at the extremes, start looking for a new job (or a new team within your company with less of that behavior).

BarPilar6 karma

What are the top three things a new college graduate should know to be a winner?

NeilIrwin39 karma

1) Take advantage of your early-career flexibility to expose yourself to as many different functional specialties in your organization as possible. You want to be thirsty for new opportunities and assignments—the fact that you're junior makes it easier to get them. 2) Relatedly, focus less on the immediate possibility of raises or promotions, and more on getting a broad base that will allow you to have a stratospheric rise later. The career is a lattice, not a ladder, and sideways or even slight downward moves can be great. 3) Become a voracious consumer of data and analytics about you and your team's performance—what drives success in your organization, and how your work can consider to those metrics of success.

Snow_Falls4 karma

Hey Neil, thanks for the AMA!

My question is, what is your definition of a “successful career”?

Perhaps fiscal abundance, mental well-being, one that will produce results you may not be alive for (thinking medical discoveries), and what about ones you’ll never get credit for?

I don’t think a “successful career” definition can exist without excluding at least one or two categories of the above.

Some careers will be considered successful through fiscal statements without ever making worthwhile discoveries or receiving recognition. Some will make incredible medical advancements while poor, and only be given credit after their death. Some will live their lives promoting mental wellness and will neither make money nor receive recognition, but will still be happy.

NeilIrwin19 karma

This is a question I've reflected on a lot, both for the book and in contemplating my own ambitions. And the last chapter of the book wrestles with this.

I picked the title of this book very mindfully. The title isn't "How to Get Rich" or "How to Become a CEO." It's "How to Win," and while for some people winning is synonymous with getting rich or becoming a CEO, it isn't for all of us, myself included.

The way I see it, the definition of winning is finishing the working stage of your career with the things that matter to you—the level of material wealth that makes you comfortable, of course, but also a feeling of pride in the work you've done, the things you've accomplished, and your ability to simultaneously balance other priorities, like raising a family or maintaining artistic pursuits or whatever it may be.

Some people are willing to sacrifice a lot to get rich or ascend to a perch of great power. Others have a more nuanced set of goals. I argue that the essential thing is to choose among those priorities thoughtfully and make sure you are using your time in a way that matches those goals. I ran a little math, and from the time a person turns 22 to they turn 65, if 8 hours a day is walled off for sleep, they have about 250,000 waking hours to work with. That's the biggest constraint of them all, and I argue for using them deliberately.

AaronJayThomas4 karma

are you related to steve?

NeilIrwin3 karma

Not to my knowledge!

JSPark132583 karma

How do you see the rise of the "gig economy" affecting millennials and future generations?

NeilIrwin8 karma

I think there are a few different versions of the gig economy, and it's risky to conflate them.

Often people are talking about things like Uber and TaskRabbit, in which working as an independent contractor means being disconnected from a lot of the things that having a job has traditionally entailed, like health benefits, unemployment insurance, and retirement funds. It seems to me that finding some kind of way to make sure people who do this (very hard, not super well-paid) work have access to that safety net is super important.

There is a higher-end version of the gig economy that can work better for people. For example, I profile a guy in the book who was formerly a software engineer for Google who now does freelance development work from his home in Salt Lake City, and does quite well. I think that can work great for some people, but you need to have the right priorities and attitude, which I spell out in the book.

BarPilar3 karma

As an expert on winning, would you rather have a 35 year old quarterback with a broken leg or a 22 year old who has started 14 college games ever as you march to the Super Bowl?

NeilIrwin11 karma

I'll take a 31 year-old journeyman with two working legs.

artemiszdeeta3 karma

What will be your number one go-to answer if people ask for economic advice?

NeilIrwin21 karma

I think the single most important piece of advice (in part because it underlies everything else) is that you really, really, really need to understand the economic landscape against which your career is taking place. Even people at low and mid levels of a company need to understand dynamics that in an earlier era only the top executives really needed to sweat:

What are the competitive factors driving change in your industry? How does your job fit into your company's ability to make money? How is digitization likely to change the economics of your industry?

If you don't know answers to those questions right now, work really hard to learn them.

TastyMushroom5 karma

How would you research that?

NeilIrwin10 karma

Read press coverage of your industry, including in mainstream places like the NYT, WSJ, Bloomberg, and relevant trade publications. Follow thought leaders in your industry on Twitter and LinkedIn. If you have access to work by research analysts or consultants (not always easy to obtain, I realize), become a voracious consumer of it.

Hillsy852 karma

Why is your handwriting so bad?

NeilIrwin1 karma

Born that way, and pleased to live in an era in which virtually all written communication is typed.

Nocturnalshadow2 karma

How do I have a successful career in the modern economy?

NeilIrwin2 karma

Buy the book, obviously!

BarPilar2 karma

What is the winners recipe for a good martini?

NeilIrwin4 karma

If at home: 2 oz gin (I like The Botanist), 1oz neutral vodka, 3/4 oz dry vermouth, dash of orange bitters, stir with ice, pour into a chilled cocktail glass with lemon peel.

If at a bar, simplify it some so the bartender doesn't punch you in the face: Gin martini, splash of vermouth, stirrred, up.

Rabbitsamurai1 karma

im broke and jobless, should i start a business?

NeilIrwin3 karma

Probably not! You should start a business if you have a good idea for a viable business and the capital with which to launch it.