15 Secrets to Thriving in the 21st Century Workplace –Part 1

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21st Century Office?

The world of work has changed beyond all recognition in the 21st Century – learn how to survive and thrive in the new world of workclick here to subscribe and get  every instalment delivered to your inbox.

1. You get out of work what you put in to work

I have a friend, let’s call him Stan.  Stan had been at the same employer for 12 years, in the marketing team.  Whenever I met Stan, this is what I’d hear:

Those b@st@rds don’t appreciate me, they work me so hard and I sweat blood for them.  Every year, they give me a terrible performance review, no bonus and a rubbish payrise.  They pass me over for promotion.  It makes me sick, I just don’t care any more.

Stan was notorious in his office for his legendary procrastination skills.  He spent all day complaining to anyone who didn’t manage to avoid him.

His nickname was Levi, because he was always out the door at 5.01.

Stan had told me many times that he didn’t care and wasn’t prepared to work his fingers to the bone for no gratitude in return.  He had given up.

When the financial crisis of 2008 hit, Stan’s employer let him go.

Stan was mystified, angry, indignant and talked about suing.  Of course he didn’t.

No-one else at his office was surprised.  They saw it coming a mile off.

Stan walked straight into Secret Number 1 – you get out of work what you put in to work.

He was barely in the office and when he was he did nothing productive.  He distracted other team members with his negative attitude. In return, Stan got poor performance reviews.  In fact he’d been on three performance plans over his career.

He was passed over for promotion because he gave out the signals that he couldn’t care less.

However you make a living, your career will have ups and downs. There will be times when you are flat out and giving everything and calmer fallow periods.  Learning to make this choice consciously and being aware that you will get back what you put is key to managing this flow.

Please, don’t be a Stan.

2. You have to take ownership of your career

career coaching, career counselling, new career, work you love

Suited and booted

Picture me as a tender 21 year-old dressed in my three-piece pinstripe suit with natty pink shirt back in the mid-1990s.

I’m striding into my shiny corporate office for the first day of world domination.

I’d arrived – from now on my benevolent employers would shower me with money, support, training and appreciation.

All I had to do was show up and collect the daily kudos.

I deluded myself that it was in my firm’s interest to take care of me, promote me and sky-rocket my career for me.  I barely put in any effort for the first year.

When it came to review time, I showed up expecting a pat on the head, a bone for being a good boy and a dazzling review.

My bubble popped.  It seemed that I was somewhere below half-way down my peer group and my managers were questioning my attitude.

It slowly dawned on me that I and only I really cared at all about what happened in my career.  It was my responsibility to set the direction, ask for the good projects, demand the training I needed, find the right mentor, look for ways to use my strengths and skills.

If I didn’t do it, these things simply wouldn’t happen.

You have to take ownership of your career – no-one is going to hand success and career satisfaction to you on a plate.

3. Everyone should learn how to make money independently

This lesson hit home to me the day I got my first cheque from a client after starting Less Ordinary Living.

Ten years of sucking at the corporate teat had brainwashed me into believing that the only way I could possibly make money was through steady employment.

Without a job I felt as vulnerable as a baby seal wandering through an Eskimo village.  When I quit my job, I really did see myself “living in a van by the river” as Pam Slim of Escape from Cubicle Nation eloquently puts it.

It took a week or two to start finding clients and in that period, I was close to running back to the corporate edifice and begging forgiveness.  The prodigal son, on a rapid return visit.

Yet when the work started to come and I took that first cheque to the bank, something amazing happened.  I felt liberated.

I actually managed to make some cash, under my own steam, without anyone else’s benevolence.

This feeling is not to be underestimated.   It symbolises that you have the ability to fend for yourself.  I almost felt primal – like a prehistoric man bringing back the first woolly mammoth to the cave.

I’d recommend that everyone tries making some money independently.  Figure out something you are good and passionate about and find a way to make a little bit of money from it.

Sell a service (doing someone’s garden, being a handy man, helping someone write their CV, wallpapering, painting, anything really) or something you’ve made (at a local fair, on ebay, through a website you made).

Once you’ve done this, you’ll realise that having a job is not the only way – even if you never choose to freelance or be an entrepreneur, you’ll know more about how to make ends meet in the worse case scenario.

You’ll take away some of the doomsday fear of redundancy and see that you have more choices than you might appreciate for making a living in the 21st Century.

A great way to do this would be the start a small business for $100 in 28 days program from Chris Guillebeau

Please leave a comment and share your thoughts on these secrets and what you’ve learned about the 21st Century workplace.

Photo credit: jhderojas , Laverrue

Related posts:

  1. Permission to Wallow Part 2- Purposeful Wallowing
  2. The Five Secrets to Finding Work that Matters
  3. How to Think Big for your Life and Career – 5 lessons from Rudyard Kipling
  4. Less Ordinary Careers – The CEO of Me Ltd.
  5. Less Ordinary Career Transition – Permission to Wallow


  1. Phil
    May 5, 2010 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    What are your secrets of working successfully in the 21st Century? What stories do you have about these rules?

  2. May 5, 2010 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Hey Phil,

    The part about taking ownership reminds me of someone who wrote me an email recently. This women read an article by me about 20 signs that it’s time to change something in your career. And she wrote me to tell me that all those signs apply to her for about 5 years now. It got me wondering: how much ownership did she take for her career? Anyway, I hope she finds the courage to act and change something.
    .-= Eduard @ People Skills Decoded´s last blog ..VIP Lifestyle – get your free ebook =-.

  3. Helen
    May 5, 2010 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil. I read this just after coming in from my first Private Tuition lesson here in Sweden. I feel fantastic! I can’t quite believe that I actually get paid for sitting and chatting to a pleasant person in English and reading/discussing a favourite novel of mine …. paid for the preparation, yes, but for the teaching – it all feels rather self indulgent!
    So yours was a very timely article. I love this, I do this well because I enjoy tailoring work to the exact client, it fits in around family life – my ‘full time job’ – is amazingly satisfying and people are actually prepared to pay me for it. Laughing all the way to the bank!

  4. May 5, 2010 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

    I would agree. When we are present in our work, we tend to have better rewards in the future we reap what we sow. Also, I have a confession I had Jack In The Box The other day. lol. First time in several months, but it isn’t a good excuse. I had to let you know, as I made a comment to your earlier posts about what I intend to give up.
    It is a lot of discipline. Have a nice rest of the week.

  5. May 6, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Ah, Phil, how lovely of you to take me back to that day when I received my first check (I like your spelling better!) from a client. I stared at that little piece of paper for many minutes. I even thought about framing it, but reason prevailed. Thank you for helping me call up that long-forgotten memory.

  6. May 6, 2010 at 6:02 am | Permalink

    Hi Phil, I love this post because it’s where I’m at right now. I’m yet to take my first cheque to the bank, but that experience is squarely on the horizon. Scary as it all is, I feel so liberated by being in a place where I can put all of your tips into practice, for me!!!! I’ll let you know when that first cheque is in my hot little hands :)
    .-= Topi´s last blog ..The power of a "power break" – guest post at Positively Present =-.

  7. Nageh
    May 6, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

    I liked #3 it is the key to success

  8. May 6, 2010 at 8:56 am | Permalink

    Pondering your question about the 21st-century workplace, I’m wondering if there is actually a specific place of work these days. Technology allows one to work from anywhere, anytime. Not always a good thing, I know. Yet, to be able to work and earn one’s own money is a joy and a privilege that most people take for granted.
    .-= Tracy Todd´s last blog ..Joyride Gone Wrong =-.

  9. May 6, 2010 at 10:30 am | Permalink

    Phil, I have read so much career advice in my 10 years at my corporate job (the current one!) and I have to tell you, this is a compelling story. It is written so brutally honestly (I have worked with SO MANY STANS, don’t get me started!) and such brilliant yet simple examples. I am going to stumble it to help spread the right career mindset. Bravo for tackling a tough topic and doing it so well!

  10. May 6, 2010 at 12:28 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil,
    This is truly great advice. “You get out of work what you put in” is especially poignant. So many people don’t realize they simply have to go the extra mile if they intend to be winners… and “go the extra mile” for who? For themselves, not your boss (for you will reap all the rewards). Fortunately, this has come naturally to me throughout my business life and it is the number one tip I give people who are “barely making it.” Well done and very wise, Phil.
    .-= rob white´s last blog ..Your ‘Recovery Act Program’ =-.

  11. Phil
    May 6, 2010 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

    @Eduard – our work is such a big part of who we are. If we take ownership of it, it can produce huge amounts of enjoyment, fulfillment and energy. If we don’t it can cast a shadow over the rest of life and drain us. Taking ownership is fundamental to a successful career in the 21st Century.

    @Helen – it is wonderful to discover that we have skills and talents that others appreciate. Well done you! I’m really impressed and delighted that you’re making the world a better place and earning a living. Congratulations – a true 21st Century work story.

    @Baker – yup – work tends to be more successful when we engage with it and give it our attention and passion. Sometimes people assume that if we give work our energy it can drain us for the rest of life, but when we’re enjoying work it actually fires up our energy levels more. Hey and don’t worry about the Jack attack – these things happen and we always expect relapse. Just put the wrapper down and get back on the wagon!

    @Patty – isn’t it a happy day? The great thing is all of us have a wealth of skills and knowledge that other people will value – even if we haven’t realized it yet. In the 21st Century, work does not mean a life long career with the same company – it is how we make the best use of our assets to make a living and that is often complex and manifest.

    @Topi – congratulations! I’m so pleased for you. What a great lesson to learn that we don’t have to rely on others to make an income. Keep it up Topi!

    @Nageh – thank you. How do you make your income? There are so many ways in the 21st Century – freelance, consulting, selling ideas online, blogging, setting up a cupcake stall. I think in the 21st Century we’ll all learn more to rely on ourselves for making a living.

    @Tracy – agreed. Work is different now and when I think of the workplace it looks like anywhere that people are earning a living. I’m fascinated by the massive changes in the world of work that are often not really highlighted – a huge range of ways to earn money, a global information economy, revolutionized communication channels, shifting technology paradigms. What will work look like in 20 or 50 years time – for sure it will have changed hugely. This guide is to start thinking ahead for that.

    @Farnoosh – thanks for stumbling! I spent my time in the corporate world in the US and UK and learned these lessons the tough way. I don’t think there are any judgments about how you earn a living, and these rules apply to everyone. It may be brutally honest, however taking these secrets on board can transform how and why we work. Thanks for the comment!

    @Rob – thanks for the sage feedback. It is easy to look out into the wider world and find reasons why a career is stalling – the economy, a poor team, bad management, a lack of opportunity – however ultimately it is up to you to make it different. I can tell you are a very proactive person and manage your career effectively – good for you! The 21st Century workplace should suit you ideally!

  12. May 6, 2010 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi Phil,

    Like your title! Pulls me in … #3 really resonates with me. We should all learn to be entrepreneurs in school. Instead, they’re gearing kids up to be corporate slugs – for the most part jobs that are disappearing to other places. We need lots of critical thinkers who can think along a jagged line or a circle or a triangle or a dash and then take action.

    The world of traditional work in the 21st C is a complex one. The hours seem to have gotten longer. I believe they should get shorter.

    Going up the ladder often has little relationship with your actual job. It depends on what that corp. culture values. It never seemed to mesh with my own. If you’re an entrepreneur you can create a biz around your own values!

    Great questions as usual …

    Giulietta, Inspirational Rebel
    .-= Giulietta the Muse´s last blog ..What Are You Waiting For? =-.

  13. May 7, 2010 at 12:24 am | Permalink

    Hi Phil, I think one secret that’s proving to be valuable is cross-training. We have to be equally adept at dealing with tech as well as have sterling interpersonal skills. We have to know numbers as well as words. We have to know the details as well as not lose sight of the big picture. These are all great things to cultivate but none of it matters if there’s no genuine love for what it is that we do.

  14. May 7, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Totally agree with the part about taking control of your career. An old boss of mine used to say that the formula for success is:

    1.) Clear Goals,
    2.) Hard Work,
    3.) Unwavering Focus

    I’m working on applying this to both my work and personal life to achieve what I want out of both.
    .-= Ricardo Bueno´s last blog ..It Only Takes One =-.

  15. Phil
    May 10, 2010 at 11:02 am | Permalink

    @Giulietta – yes, learning to be entrepreneurial is a really powerful lesson. I believe that there are some amazingly rewarding career paths within the corporate world, yet we’ve got to learn to navigate our own path to opportunity. This could be in a variety of venues. Belinda is right that transferable skills are getting more and more important in our approach to the world of work and I’ll write more about this later in the series.

    @Belinda – a flexible approach is really powerful. I’m going to write about the idea of being a generalist vs. a specialist later on too. You are very perceptive that over a career we’ll need to learn a lot of different skills to survive – i’m learning quickly about how to run a business, market and sell myself effectively.

    @Ricardo – Welcome to Less Ordinary. Thanks for the comment – your boss is very wise – hard work, clear goals and focus can get us a very long way. Stay focused and good luck.

  16. March 11, 2011 at 4:20 am | Permalink

    Great advice here. I see so many ppl that are not active in their life, let alone their career. They go with the flow, which is good in a sense, but at the same time they don’t have any direction in life and career.
    Henway recently posted..Godaddy QA

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