How to Be More Competitive: 3 Tips for Career Progression

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Startup of You" by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Why do you need to develop your competitive edge in the work world? How can you be more competitive and stand out?

To stand out in any career field, Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha suggest you develop a unique competitive edge. This is something that makes you different and better than other people.

Let’s look at how to be more competitive, with advice from The Startup of You.

Embrace Your Competitive Side

In a global work economy, you’re competing with many people with similar capabilities. Success relies on making yourself seem more valuable and desirable than others. According to the authors, knowing how to be more competitive means building a foundation of valuable assets, a guiding set of personal values and ambitions, and an understanding of your market’s needs.

(Shortform: Hoffman and Casnocha’s strategy for developing your competitive edge involves asking yourself what you have, but it’s equally important to assess what you lack when trying to stay on top of the competition. Consider doing a personal SWOT analysis, a technique often used by businesses when planning out their strategies. Using this framework, you identify not only your strengths but also your weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. When thinking about opportunities, for example, you might notice that your current company offers free training for a new technology that you can take advantage of to build your competitive edge.)

1. Identify and Strengthen Your Assets

Like founders of successful startups, you must identify and strengthen your unique assets to gain an edge over competitors. Your assets are the resources you have, whether they be your skills, knowledge, and connections (what the authors refer to as “soft assets”) or your money and possessions (“hard assets”). 

Hoffman and Casnocha note that it’s easier to identify your hard assets since they’re physical or quantifiable, while soft assets might be more difficult to recognize. To identify your soft assets, reflect on things that you consider easy but other people find challenging. For example, your research skills might be a soft asset—when investigating an obscure problem as part of a project, you might find that your colleagues struggle to search for solutions and that you’re able to locate helpful leads easily.

(Shortform note: Seeking out activities that other people find challenging but you find easy can also help you understand what Tom Rath describes in StrengthsFinder 2.0 as your innate abilities. While many self-improvement thinkers suggest you work to negate your weaknesses, Rath advises you to build upon your existing strengths because it will take longer and be more difficult to overcome weaknesses than to advance your innate talents.)

Hoffman and Casnocha recommend you focus on building skills and knowledge over earning money. They note that, while you need money to support your lifestyle and take career risks, skills and knowledge are far more valuable because they allow you to capitalize on new and more lucrative opportunities. When developing your soft assets, prioritize building specialized skills first—those that fit a specific niche and preferably have less competition. When you know one aspect of your field well, you can stand out and build a professional network more easily.

(Shortform note: Another reason not to prioritize money over learning new skills is that having too much of it can make you complacent and feel less motivated to work hard. In The Unfair Advantage, Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba argue that money doesn’t equate to success, adding that many failed startups have been started by wealthy founders. Like Hoffman and Casnocha, they recommend you develop soft assets such as your social skills and connections, which don’t have the drawbacks of hard assets.)

2. Define Your Values and Ambitions

Another important part of creating your competitive edge is defining your unique personal values and ambitions. These help guide you throughout your career and differentiate your work from your competitors’. Hoffman and Casnocha explain that when you figure out what matters to you, whether it’s becoming influential, making others happy, or a more specific cause like promoting sustainable living, you’ll be internally motivated to pursue your career goals. When you’re internally motivated, you work harder and create higher quality work.

(Shortform note: The authors of The Unfair Advantage echo Hoffman and Casnocha’s suggestion of identifying your personal values and ambitions, stating that entrepreneurs need a clear “why” to stay focused and motivated. They suggest you set both externally motivated goals that serve you, such as becoming wealthy, and internally motivated goals that serve others, such as promoting opportunities for young creatives. This provides you a sense of fulfillment regardless of whether or not you achieve your external goal.)

To define your values, the authors recommend you periodically reflect on your values and ambitions to see if they’ve changed or consider talking about them with people who know you well. They argue that your aspirations will change and evolve as you progress through life, so you should accept occasional uncertainty and be comfortable with experimentation.

(Shortform note: Tony Robbins advises a more proactive approach to setting values than what the authors describe. In Awaken the Giant Within, Robbins writes that values are formed subconsciously based on your life experiences and interactions with other people. However, he adds that you can actively change your values by ranking your current values in order of importance to you and then shifting them around to reflect the ranking you want to have. You’ll then need to internalize these values, which is easier to do if you put the list somewhere you’ll see it often.) 

3. Cater to Your Market’s Needs

While it’s important to be passionate about your work, the authors argue that the best entrepreneurs are both realistic and visionary. To turn your assets and passions into a successful career, you must create work that appeals to your marketthe people who will buy what you’re offering. Whether you’re a leadership coach or a game designer, you have an audience you’re catering to. Hoffman and Casnocha stress that success in the real world is determined by how other people value our work—whether they find your coaching relevant or your games entertaining.

Identify Your Market’s Needs Through Validated Learning

How do you know what appeals to your market? In The Lean Startup, Eric Ries provides a method for startups to effectively learn their market’s needs: “validated learning,” which involves experimenting and gathering data. Ries argues that in uncertain conditions, you can’t just rely on your assumptions about what people want—you must gather real data by forming and testing a hypothesis.

For your own work (whether you’re a leadership coach or a food truck owner), form a hypothesis about what customers want and create a minimum viable product—something with only the basic features needed to be used and tested by customers—to gauge how successful it might be. For example, as a coach, you might create a quick webinar about a topic you want to discuss and gauge how people react to it.

In other words, you can enhance your competitive edge by keeping the market’s needs in mind. The authors advise you to research what people value to identify fast-growing industries or a popular market that relates to your skills and values. Then, try to locate a niche with little competition so that your skills can stand out. For example, as a game designer, you might notice a growing interest in health and wellness and consider creating games about self-care. 

(Shortform note: In Designing Your Life, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans argue that experimentation can help you locate hidden and potentially hot job markets. They suggest you interview people in your field of interest and test out the jobs by volunteering or interning. The authors explain that most jobs aren’t advertised and argue that these methods give you direct access to and knowledge about job markets under most people’s radar.)

How to Be More Competitive: 3 Tips for Career Progression

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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