Harvard Discreet Knowledge: Nine Steps To Making Remarkable Career Choices - Blog

"Growing up my parents were very liberal and supportive; they gave me tons of choices. For college I could go to either Princeton or Harvard and for my career, I could be a lawyer or  a doctor. So of course I chose to be a banker." – old New York City joke.


Burdened by choice? A self-imposed solitude only adds to the cognitive dissonance. But choice does matter.


According to research by Princeton professors, the typical adult makes more than 10,000 choices daily. Your career choices take on special importance. Within your career, early decisions have an over-bearing influence limiting or expanding the range of possible long-term outcomes. “Critical path dependency”, a term borrowed from the medical field, is an apt framework for understanding the choice structure you’ll face in your business career. Navigating the labyrinth of choices can be numbing. This note will help you make better choices. Explore the psychological and behavioral process of career decisions on three dimensions: 1) your mind – conception; 2) your understanding / being understood – perception; and 3) the subtle interplay within your organization – action.


Mediocrity is comfortable. For the concept of your greatness to survive, it first has to overcome your mental obstacle course of inertia. Similar to one of those lazy Sundays on a comfy couch, deciding to get up can stir untapped stubborn creativity to convince you to stay put. Not surprisingly, being able to visualize yourself as "great" is key.

But… How? When? Which factors do you include in selecting your vision?

As you visualize, you likely will quickly weigh factors such as probability, effort, talent, potential payoff amongst a host of other influences. The choice architecture of: how you decided, which factors you weighed and when you evaluated the concept of self-realization all matter. In the New York Times Bestseller Nudge, the authors emphasize that by altering the design of the choice architecture – that is, the design of the choices we are presented with - we can end with a more optimal decision. A few tactics for better conception results the Crimson Oak team has unearthed through our research include:

1. Benchmark – Benchmarking, that is finding comparables to your successful outcome, is a very effective approach and will aid your visualization.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: review the biographies of your heroes. Steve Jobs advocated a similar technique for creative visualization.

2. Test Drive – Selecting which factors to include ultimately is based on your career self-assessment.  A bit of caution: Dr. David Dunning, professor of psychology at Cornell University, noted that most incompetent people do not know they are incompetent.

  • Simple tactic /default choice: test your strength in the real-world and volunteer for a project that can utilize your purported skills. Self-monitoring is a critical tool. You will quickly find out just how good these skills are.

3. Serendipity – Creating space for serendipity is critical. For example, Crimson Oak Academy was conceptualized - by chance- on vacation during a hike in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: schedule a day (Sunday?) to find these moments of clarity often quiet moments in a park or in an awe-inspiring building.



Obvious signals can be the most confusing. Often there is a time lag from your self-conception to the signals that you transmit to society. Society’s lingering perception of you just hasn’t quite caught up to your cerebral-charted career ascendency. Flickers of these perceptions of yourself are reflected in the eyes of others. At the extreme, a walk down the street can be flinch-inducing: bombarded by stares and suggestions of who you should be. The more frequent and subtle scenario, however, comes in the form of a compliment from a colleague: “ you are really good at X”; followed by an abundance of “type X” projects assigned to you. To these suggestions, initially you may insist on asserting your self-conceived image. Separately, this resistance can be explored to effect true change. In the long-term, alignment of these perceptions (yours and your selected audience) are key to success.

After all, perception is reality. But whose perception? And whose reality?

How you are perceived will lead to the opportunities presented to you. The Crimson Oak team has a few suggestions for you to accelerate this alignment:

4. Sell to the Non-Believers – Central to Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen’s The Innovator’s Dilemma book is that disruptive new ventures should sell to the industry’s “non-consumers”. Apply this concept to the new set of “consumers of your new self-image”.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: Focus on new people to build relationships with, highlighting your new concept of greatness. Consider the luxury beauty and fashion companies’ strategy which led to the rapid growth of the accessories, bags and bracelets categories. They expanded their audience and the subsequent surge in sales was fueled by sales to a new/ under-served demographic - men.

5. Personify Successful Behavior – The basics of a good suit, clean shoes etc. are low-hanging fruit. Slightly further up the tree, are understated behavioral patterns that you can emulate. In a nutshell, become one of them.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: Join and actively participate in a professional club that one of your heroes (see point #1) is a member of.

6. Master the Mundane - The mundane functions in your job or even within a graduate school study group are areas where you can quickly excel in perception relative to your peers. In commanding these routine tasks – that is “automatizing” them – you will increase your brain's capacity for learning more complex projects.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: Proactively ask for the tedious assignments in addition to the more substantive work already assigned to you. [Ignore the feeling that you may be masochist.] This will make you more irreplaceable to your team.


Of the slew of metaphors for the modern day organization, none seem more vivid than that of the organization as a human being. As the organization grows, it develops units / departments for specialized tasks. Along the way it also grows a set of beliefs, similar to humans, about what success looks like. As a new grad student or an executive, what you will never be given, despite proclamations to the contrary in the welcome packet, is the organization’s real culture. Discrete knowledge of “how things are done around here”, the bright red lines never to be crossed and nuances that convey status are often unspoken. Author Stephen Balzac’s recent book entitled Organizational Development notes that culture is preeminently important in any organization’s growth and its artifacts are hidden in the open.

In the workplace setting, for instance that of Fortune 500 companies, cultural artifacts may include terminology, expense reports, time at or away from the desk etc. Education is a fundamental tool for transmitting culture. For example, while the Marriott was being consulted by Bain Consulting, its founder Bill Marriott insisted on getting the $0.35 toll receipt to submit the company’s expense department. When the now famous former Bain consultant inquired why, Bill Marriott responded that he wanted to ensure that the workers at Marriott know that the founder cares about 35 cents. The transmission of culture is life-long and ever-present across organizations. From “brick ‘n mortar” classes on campuses to strategic workshops in conference rooms – it is still education.

Facing a myriad of opportunities, cultural artifacts and cultures / sub-cultures within any organization, which actions do you pursue to have an impact?

7. Reinforce a Strength of the Culture – Curb your enthusiasm to introduce something new. Rather calibrate the cultural values and then act decisively to strengthen one of them.

8. Map the Influencers - Overlay the social network against the organizational map to surface your relative value in the firm and highlight prominent colleagues. This will help in identifying the influencers who will amplify your actions.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: Use individual seniority plus department revenue share to generate a rough map of influencers. Enlist the advice or support of one of the key influencers identified by your rough map.

9. Create a Feedback Loop – Alignment of your actions, the environment and the culture are critical to success. Receiving periodic outside objective views of these factors will assist in providing you consistent feedback.

  • Simple tactic / default choice: Enlist the help of a more seasoned professional within your alumni network. Conversely ensure that you are viewed as a worthwhile investment for his/her time.  Most importantly this person must be trusted by you.

Increasingly greater responsibility is being placed on the individual to make his / her career and education choices. In a tight job market, fierce global competition for seats on campuses and in corporations, your career choices catapult to a paramount concern. Hopefully this note will help you make better choices about your career and enter your own Renaissance period. Grow & Lead.

Guest Authors:
Harvard Business School Alumni Club of New York - Education & Career Chair, Kevin Omar Williams;
Crimson Oak Academy - Leadership Development Manager, Olga Artman, MBA, MA (Columbia University)

Note: These expressions are not representative of Harvard University or its affiliates.