I frequently get asked by college students what they should be doing in order to set themselves up for a career in social innovation, entrepreneurship, or simply doing something that they love. So this is the second post of a five-part series on how to make the most out of college if you want a meaningful career.

Cynics will say that career success is about being in the right place at the right time, or being good at office politics, or something like that. In some cases dynamics like these may be at play—but in the long run, none of those things are sustainable sources of career development and advancement.

Professional success ultimately has to do with how much you help other people. Tweet This Quote

Professional success ultimately has to do with how much you help other people. That either means your boss and team if you are employed, or your customers if you are running your own business. At every organization someone is ultimately providing the capital to pay the bills—including your salary. For for-profits, it’s their customer base (though it could be investors for awhile). For nonprofits, in many cases it’s their donors or funders. So there is always someone who has a credible opinion about how you can bring more value. The better you get at delivering value, the higher your pay will be, your title, your reputation, etc.

Therefore, it pays to learn not just how to be valuable in a given context, but how to get more and more valuable over time. You should develop a habit of looking for ways to develop yourself—to push yourself, learn new skills, and inquire about ways you can improve. If you create an enjoyable habit of evolving yourself on a monthly basis, then your career momentum is virtually guaranteed. A good process for developing yourself probably looks like a combination of these things:

  • Develop the desire to better yourself—not just to a certain point, but indefinitely—and the willpower to follow through with it.
  • Create time each week (maybe 2 hours), each month (maybe 1-2 days), and each year (ideally at least one long weekend) to set aside to think about how you’re improving. For example, I sit in a park near my house every Sunday morning and drink a coffee and reflect on how I’m doing overall, and where I need to improve next.
  • Develop a pattern of asking your boss and coworkers how you can improve yourself and be more valuable to the team. Your options include learning new things, improving key skills, adding new skills, leaning how to use new software/tools, expanding your network, or polishing up your habits—usually a mix of the above.
  • If you’re an entrepreneur or small business owner, make sure to incorporate lots of feedback loops for your customers to tell you how to improve your offering. (You need to do this anyway eventually in order to survive as a business, but doing it a lot, and right from the get go, is much better.)

You’ll also need to make decisions about where you want to be spending your time and energy giving value. This means deciding on things like:

  • What industries do you care about?
  • What sorts of companies do you want to work for? What they make? What do they do? What about in terms of their values and how they operate and treat the people who work for them?
  • Or if you’re interested in starting a company: what customers do you want to serve? Why? Why will you be willing to pull all-nighters, encounter endless obstacles, and have all sorts of frustrations and pain points in order to serve them well?

It is never too early to start asking yourself these questions—it is wise to revisit them frequently as you get further into your career. Your time and energy are very precious things so you should only use them to bring value to people and companies you really want to help.

Nathaniel Koloc

Author Nathaniel Koloc

Nathaniel Koloc is co-founder and CEO of ReWork, a recruiting firm dedicated to helping people find meaningful work. ReWork recruits exceptional professionals for companies making social, environmental, and cultural progress. Nathaniel's is a Singularity University Alum, an Unreasonable Fellow, and a contributor for Harvard Business Review, Entrepreneur, and Inc. among others.

More by Nathaniel Koloc